Then he casually undercuts them, turning their treasured issue into a dead letter. He did this with the birthers. The latest victim of this move was Senator Rand Paul, who filibustered the nomination of John Brennan to the post of CIA director, demanding information about the ability of the President to conduct drone strikes against Americans within the United States. Paul had gone out on a limb, like Napoleon into Russia, staking no small part of his reputation on the idea that he was about to wrench some horrific revelation from the White House.
But then winter set in, and when the Attorney General sent out a letter saying that the answer to Paul’s question is “no”, the administration did so in a manner calculated to make Paul look like a silly (and incidentally un-Presidential) blow-hard who’d got himself all worked up about something unnecessarily.
Paul was the most immediate casualty, but I hope, in the parlance of our national security apparatus, that the anti-war movement (such as it is) does not suffer collateral damage from this move.
Because while I think that Paul was right to raise the issue, the manner in which he did so (and I’ll leave others to speculate about why he chose this approach) is representative of the broader manner in which critics of the administration’s national security policy have repeatedly got themselves hung up on narrow and ultimately futile points, unable to see the forest (our war of terror) for the trees (narrow questions about the application of drones).
I saw some of this in a piece in the Christian Science Monitor written by Megan Braun, a friend and fellow UC Irvine alum who is currently a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Braun has done extensive work on U.S. drone policy, and is probably one of the people best versed in the ins and outs of that policy as it has evolved since it emerged during the Bush years. Her essential (and as far as I know, novel) argument is that part of the perniciousness associated with drones stems from their institutional headquarters in the Central Intelligence Agency. Although the military has also used drones, their application in South Asia and elsewhere has been “perfected” as it were by the CIA.
Braun argues that culturally and structurally, the military is more accountable and amenable to transparency than the CIA, and that data show that the military’s use of drones has been less sanguinary than when those same weapons are used by the CIA. It’s an incisive, well-researched piece, and I would have expected nothing less knowing Braun and having heard her in January discuss the research on which the article was based. The basic point is compelling.
But, in common with much writing on drones and on the war of terror, there are some serious unquestioned premises and unasked questions which I think are far more fundamental than the comparatively narrow point about killing people in an accountable manner.
For example, take the following: “As America enters the next decade of the fight against Al Qaeda, strategic and ethical considerations require that the government refocus its attention on high-level leaders, avoid civilian casualties, and remain accountable to the American public. To do so, it needs to capitalize on the military’s superior expertise, relative transparency, and overall effectiveness by giving the Pentagon command of all armed drone operations”.
Should we in fact be entering a second decade of the fight against Al Qaeda?
To what extent can we call locally-dissatisfied “insurgents”, many with grievances that have next to nothing to do with the United States and are directed primarily at their home governments, “Al Qaeda”?
To what extent has the U.S. been taken for a sucker by not asking these questions, and being used by authoritarian regimes as a security procurer when those regimes label their domestic opponents “Al Qaeda” affiliates, uncontested claims which are lapped up by our intelligence agencies and military?
How much serious oversight will it be possible to have irrespective of the institution overseeing the use of drones, given that the President has declared drone wars non-wars? That is, in Afghanistan, where we also have an army on the ground, Congress can request that information be made public. But in Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere, the administration has “disappeared” its wars and the violence they sow precisely because they are drone wars.
Is it time that we dispensed with the fiction that it is possible to wage an “ethical” war? I would hope that most of us would recognise that wars are by their very nature horrific, brutal things, offensive to the humanity which is sometimes all that binds our fraught world, and that their dreadful nature is why they must be undertaken only as a last resort. Something which can be described as “ethical” is, in contrast, something which may be undertaken much more casually.
Would “transparency” of the sort championed by Brennan make any of these supposedly-desirable outcomes an iota more likely? Is transparency not a red herring for all those concerned either with either morality or security as embodied in the U.S. war of terror?
What on earth does it mean when Brennan says, “I think the rule should be that if we’re going to take actions overseas that result in the deaths of people, the United States should take responsibility for that”. Does this mean prosecuting those who incite and wage wars of aggression which lead to crimes against humanity? Does this mean going after those who murder people by means of signature strikes gone awry? Does this mean signing up to international agreements which would make the U.S. subject to the same international norms which it is happy to use to assail its “enemies” while insisting on its own exemption?
Can we take Brennan seriously when he talks up his own desire for transparency when he admitted to sitting on his hands while working for a CIA which used torture as an intelligence gathering tool? His explanation was that he was outside of the chain of command, a chilling, infuriating remark which automatically disqualifies Brennan in my mind and gives the lie to his claim to the moral high ground.
What is the point of describing technology as having the capacity to “be” proportionate and discriminate when what matters is the administrative apparatus, personnel matrix, or culture in which that technology is embedded? This is one question that Braun begins to address, but the fact remains that the decisions which call for the use of any killing technology—drones or any other—are taken at a level which bureaucratic shuffling doesn’t affect.
Is it not time that we dispensed with euphemisms like “collateral damage” when what we are actually referring to are state murders—murders which go unpunished—in the name of national security?
Empirically, when we have a scenario in which “U.S. military drones operating in Afghanistan fired 294 weapons in 2011, but only one incident caused civilian deaths [where] in that same year, up to 11 out of 73 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan killed civilians”, can we be sure that the difference in numbers could not be accounted for the kind of strikes the CIA was undertaking, strikes which, if they are deemed necessary to security or for political purposes, would presumably continue to be taken by whomever controlled the drone force?
Much has been made of the central control over these drone killings in the White House (under Brennan). Is there any sign that the White House would relinquish this kind of control, or that the informal channels of governance which tend to suborn the cabinet structure would not allow Brennan or someone else in the White House to continue to oversee these killings?
I think that the pervasive secrecy in this case might well have more to do with the type of war we have chosen to fight—whichever agency is charged with leading that fight—than with shuffling bureaucratic responsibility about. Two presidents have now made the case to our country that a war on, of, and by terror is necessary for our security, and the public has by and large accepted this assertion without a peep.
Last semester, I taught discussion sections for a class on the “History and Practise of Human Rights”. One of the guest lecturers who spoke to students was Alexa Koenig of the Berkeley Law School, who researches, among other things, the U.S. prison and sometime torture facility at Guantanamo Bay. She made the point that if one examines assassinations and abductions by governments across time, each of those strategies tends to wax in use as the other wanes.
The point is that if we accept that it is acceptable to wage a war of this awful nature, our government, our intelligence agencies, and our military will find a way to do what a war of terror requires: kill, kidnap and torture in the shadows. While this is not to say that we shouldn’t, if the opportunity arises, seek to reduce the egregiousness of this behaviour, we would falter in our duty if we stopped at reforming the use of drones and failed to do our utmost to halt our unconscionable war of terror.