The President Drones On

The long arm of Uncle Sam, his fingers tipped with death, has reached around the world to Pakistan again, this time killing two innocent hostages, the American Warren Weinstein and the Italian Giovanni Lo Porto.  President Obama took the novel step of declassifying and revealing the fatal mistake, and of course he took full responsibility for the deaths, which has always struck me as a relatively meaningless gesture.  In the announcement he continually referred to the victims as “Warren” and “Giovanni,” suggesting, I suppose, that he was close to these men or that the deaths were a personal loss.  Who knows?

President Obomber

President Obomber

The subsequent press conference with the aptly named Presidential Press Secretary, John Earnest, was the usual exercise in evasiveness, repetition and empty statements.  The secrecy is once again mind boggling.  He stated that he could not reveal any details about where and how the raid was carried out, which has me puzzled.  The terrorists can hardly fail to know where the strike took place, and one would think the how is pretty clear: they observed the target for days, determined there was a terrorist “signature” and hit the building with a missile.  Why the actual day cannot be revealed also strikes me as mysterious.  But then, I am not a “national security professional,” as Earnest continually called the spooks, who were dedicated patriots just doing their job, which for me conjures images of black uniforms and caps with skull and crossbones on them.  Somehow “targeted strike” does not sound as sinister as “assassination” or “murder.”

"I don't deal with hypotheticals...or truth."

“I don’t deal with hypotheticals…or truth.”

No one asked why if this strike and the resulting casualties can be revealed – at least revealed three months after the fact – why such details of other strikes cannot be made public.  A reporter did ask why, if it is our policy not to negotiate for hostages, did the government trade captives for captured soldier Robert Bergdahl, who was in fact a deserter.  The question was dodged, and the ever helpful Press Secretary explained once again why we do not deal with terrorists.  I am not impressed by the major reason – this would only encourage them to take more hostages – inasmuch as they are going to seize any westerner they can get their hands on anyway.  Israel negotiates with terrorists; who would gainsay them in this business?

Earnest also reminded us that the he (along with most politicians) does not deal in “hypotheticals,” which has become the standard reply to questions regarding policy.  But a comprehensive policy is based on the consideration of “what if’s,” and we are essentially being told that we are not to know the full implications of a government policy, especially when it concerns national security and blowing up people half way around the world.  It might be argued that we do not want our enemies to know what our reaction will be if x happens, but this leaves the citizenry in the dark regarding exactly what our policies are in very critical areas of war and peace.

Also killed in January were two al-Qaeda operatives, Ahmed Farouq in this strike and Adam Gadahny in another, both of them US citizens, raising again the uncomfortable issue of what business the government has assassinating Americans.  Well, Obama has informed us that Attorney General Eric Holder, his man of course, has assured him that it is Constitutionally permissible to zap these jerks, the contrary position of many legal scholars notwithstanding.  Yes, they are entitled to a trial, but if they cannot be captured wadda ya gonna do?  And trying them in absentia will not work because time is always of the essence.  Do you want efficiency or justice with these “imminent threats” to Americans?  National security, always defined by the government, often requires sacrifice, frequently, as in this case, of Constitutional rights.  Besides, the President has assured us Congress has oversight of these operations, which recent history regarding the NSA suggests is a not even close to true, and in any case, does the involvement of Congress make anyone feel comfortable?

"Of course it is all perfectly legal."

“Of course it is all perfectly legal.”

Imminent threat?  Most people would agree that imminent meant someone was pointing a gun at you or walking towards a shopping mall with an assault rifle and suicide vest or massing troops on your borders.  But as with the Red Queen, for the government words mean exactly what it wants them to mean.  Thus, a guy in Waziristan who might be plotting an attack against the US is an imminent threat, regardless of how difficult it will be for him and his comrades to pull it off.  An American citizen in Somalia recruiting new fighters for al-Qaeda is an imminent threat requiring action, just as the possibility that Iran might acquire a nuclear weapon, regardless of whether they would ever be stupid enough to try to use it, is an imminent threat, justifying a first strike.  Traditional understandings of international law among civilized nations is disappearing, at least for the US and Israel.

The deaths of the hostages was the result of a “signature” strike, that is, there was no intelligence that a valuable target was at that locale but rather the patterns of movement in and out of and around the locale suggested a group of terrorists.  Now, this is a good one.  So, if a group of men in one of these wild areas regularly gathered to play cards and some brought coolers with whatever it is Muslims drink, they would sooner or later be blown up.  What it boils down to is that any male of military age is considered a terrorist.

Incidentally, so far as named targets are concerned, what precious little evidence that can be gleaned about the drone program indicates that it takes many strikes to get the designated terrorist.  That means far more chance and perhaps the certainty that innocents will also be killed, and while it is extremely difficult to come up with any sort of precise estimates given the veil of secrecy, it is very clear Bomber Obama is vastly underestimating the number of civilian casualties.  Ayman Zawahiri is still alive after two attempts; 76 children and 29 adults are not.  Killing Qari Hussain, whom I suspect very few people have ever heard of, cost the lives of 128 people.  The human rights group Reprieve estimates that as of last November attempts to assassinate 41 men resulted in the deaths of 1147 individuals, while strikes on some two dozen named terrorists in Pakistan ended up killing 874 people.  The Council on Foreign Relations has concluded that 500 strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan have killed 3674 unfortunates.

Touched by the hand of Sam

Touched by the hand of Sam

On a related note of governmental duplicity, America agreed that no operations involving armed drones would take place on Germany territory, inasmuch as that would violate German law and the Status of Forces agreement.  Now, German counterintelligence (together with the American patriot Edward Snowdon) has produced classified American documents demonstrating that the giant American air base at Ramstein (the largest foreign American military base) is in fact the hub for all attack drone activity in the world.  Once more the US government has blatantly lied to and abused the hospitality of a close ally.  The Merkel government has suspected this but despite the complete lack of American response to the NSA spying revelations has refused to take any action for fear of further injuring relations with the bully across the Atlantic.  One hopes that domestic political pressure will now force her hand and lead to charges of war crimes against American military and intelligence personnel.

Drone Central at Ramstein

Drone Central at Ramstein

But the President has assured us that the drone program is critical to the security of the country and safety of the American people, and Presidents never lie, right?  Meanwhile, we are further tarnishing our image around the globe, and every civilian casualty mean more recruits for the terrorist organizations.  And Obama ticks names off kill lists supplied by the CIA, reminiscent of Stalin going through lists of those to be shot by the NKVD.

OK, that’s stretching it beyond the breaking point, but the fact is we seem less and less to be the good guys.

The old symbol of  America

The old symbol of
America

The new symbol of America

The new symbol of America

 

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President Obama and His Stone Cold Killers

Barack Obama’s fall from grace has been startling.  The laurel of the Nobel Peace Prize rests uneasy on the brow of a man who possesses and uses the power to kill anyone virtually anywhere on the planet, seemingly free from any oversight whatsoever.  Apart from a better command of the English language it is becoming difficult to discern any difference between Obama and his predecessor, as he carries on the post-9/11 crusade of increased domestic surveillance, violation of international law and the endless war against terrorism that supposedly justifies this behavior.

Of all his promises to dismantle the immoral, legally questionable and frequently counterproductive practices of the Bush security apparatus he has kept only one: to ban the use of torture in interrogations (and one wonders how thoroughly this is observed in the back rooms and undisclosed locations of our countless intelligence agencies).  Otherwise, Guantanamo remains open, detainees will receive military trials, more troops were sent to Afghanistan, none of the provisions of the Patriot Act have been rescinded, Israel continues to determine our policy in the Middle East, the “too-big-to-fail” banks are now even bigger and the military budget continues to grow.

In contrast to that of Bush his was to be the most transparent administration in history, when in fact it may be even more opaque.  At this very moment he is using the ever popular “executive privilege” to withhold information potentially damaging to his Attorney General, Eric Holder.  But much more telling are his efforts to plug leaks to the media.  In 1917 Congress passed the Espionage Act, which, as the name suggests, was designed to provide the government with the tools to prosecute those supplying American secrets to a foreign power, i.e., spies.  In the 95 years since then the Act has been used on nine occasions to prosecute Americans responsible for leaking classified information not to a potential enemy state but rather to the American media, and thus the American public.  The legality of this use of the law has been questioned and the issue is still not settled, but this is of course a quibble for any government interested in employing this very useful political weapon.  Of those nine instances of the Espionage Act being misused six fall under the Obama administration.

On the foreign front Obama is as oblivious to traditional international standards of behavior as was Bush.  Regard for national sovereignty (except our own) continues to erode, as we carry on drone strikes in Pakistan against their wishes and violate the air space of Iran and other countries.  Despite the objections of the Afghan government our military continues launching the night raids universally hated by the Afghanis.  We are threatening a sovereign nation, Iran, with military action because they might be enriching uranium which might be used for a bomb which might be used against Israel, if the Iranian government could possibly be that stupid and suicidal.  We have implemented economic and financial sanctions against them that would be considered tantamount to an act of war if done to us.  We have fully adopted the Israeli notion that if you think a state might be a threat at some time in the future, you are justified in attacking them, an understanding of international relations that Hitler would have delighted in.  And our chief legal authority, Attorney General Holder, has assured us that all this is completely in accordance with international law.

Then there is the drone, in the use of which Obama has made Bush seem a piker.  Of course, it is cheap, it is an effective killer and it puts no Americans in harm’s way.  More than 2300 individuals, including three American citizens, have been executed by drone launched missiles, requiring us to believe that over two thousand people were so threatening to our security that we had to kill them all.  Well, not all of them were that threatening, since the figure includes hundreds of men, women and children who just happened to be too near someone the US decided was a top terrorist.  How many dead innocents?  Who knows?  The government is reluctant to release that sort of information, and in any case we have only their word that the actual target was himself worth killing.

Now we know the President keeps a “to kill” list, but exactly how one manages to get on this list is of course classified.  Given the great job the military did in rounding up innocent Afghan farmers for a stay at Club Gitmo, one might justifiably wonder about some of these deaths by Hellfire.  Naturally, the Attorney General assures us that these “enemy combatants” must be “senior operational leaders,” who are planning an attack, cannot be captured easily and live in a country that has given us permission to assassinate its people.  This apparently does not apply to operations in Pakistan, which constantly objects to our strikes.  Or in Yemen, where lack of intelligence has lead the military/CIA to conclude from “patterns of behavior” – routines, places visited, associates, etc. – whether an individual is a terrorist who deserves to be exploded.  Could this be getting out of hand?

It is wonderful to think of murdering barbarian scum being vaporized by American technology, but the problem is that many, if not most of those having their body parts scattered across the countryside are not in fact murdering scum but rather the inevitable innocent bystanders, or “splats” as the military more honestly calls them in private.  This is hardly endearing us to the populations we ostensibly want to help and only contributes to the creation of martyrs.  Another problem, more disturbing, is that in three instances the murdering scum were American citizens, meaning that the President, in consultation with his generals and spooks, has acted as judge and executioner in the deaths of Americans.  The slopes do not get more slippery than this.

I fear for the Republic.  Domestic surveillance, both legal and questionable, has increased dramatically in the wake of the destruction of the Reichstag..I mean, Twin Towers.  American citizens can now be detained without charge for some indefinite period, and the constant cries of “secret” and “national security” make all terrorism trials problematic with regard to evidence.  Somehow the CIA, an intelligence agency once prohibited from assassinating people, has now acquired heavy weaponry and the authority to blow up individuals around the world.  The President, on very dubious grounds, seemingly now has the right to send American military forces virtually anywhere, never mind Congressional authorization.  Like the dictators we frequently work with he may now order the execution of anyone he, the military and the intelligence agencies decide upon.  And like the Japanese seventy years ago and the Israelis more recently we have adopted the concept of the “protective reaction strike,” which allows us to attack anyone we deem potentially threatening.  This used to be called a “war of aggression” and we prosecuted Germans for it not so long ago.

The Obama administration is demonstrating something more cynical historians have long believed: the prime directive of any government, be it a democracy, military dictatorship, absolute monarchy or whatever, is to defend and increase its power.  No government, even one momentarily controlled by a liberal speaking President, will ever willingly surrender power.  And unfortunately the American people are demonstrating no inclination to change this situation, if it is even possible, given the utter stranglehold the Democratic and Republican parties hold over our system.