Page 1 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Sex and the single drone
By Tom Engelhardt
In the world of weaponry, they are the sexiest things around. Others countries
are desperate to have them. Almost anyone who writes about them becomes a
groupie. Reporters exploring their onrushing future swoon at their potentially
wondrous techno-talents. They are the pilotless drones, our grimly named
Predators and Reapers.
As Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director, Leon Panetta called them "the
only game in town". As secretary of defense Robert Gates pushed hard to up
their numbers and increase their funding drastically. The US Air Force is
already training more personnel to become drone "pilots" than to pilot actual
planes. You don’t need
it in skywriting to know that, as icons of American-style war, they are clearly
in our future - and they’re even heading for the homeland as police departments
clamor for them.
They are relatively cheap. When they "hunt", no one dies (at least on our
side). They are capable of roaming the world. Someday, they will land on the
decks of aircraft carriers or, tiny as hummingbirds, drop onto a windowsill,
maybe even yours, or in their hundreds, the size of bees, swarm to targets and,
if all goes well, coordinate their actions using the artificial intelligence
version of "hive minds."
"The drone," writes Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service, "has increasingly become
the [Obama] administration's 'weapon of choice' in its efforts to subdue
al-Qaeda and its affiliates." In hundreds of attacks over the last years in the
Pakistani tribal borderlands, they have killed thousands, including al-Qaeda
figures, Taliban militants, and civilians. They have played a significant and
growing role in the skies over Afghanistan.
They are now loosing their missiles ever more often over Yemen, sometimes over
Libya, and less often over Somalia. Their bases are spreading. No one in
Congress will be able to resist them. They are defining the new world of war
for the twenty-first century - and many of the humans who theoretically command
and control them can hardly keep up.
Reach for your dictionaries
On September 15, the New York Times front-paged a piece by the estimable
Charlie Savage, based on leaks from inside the administration. It was headlined
"At White House, Weighing Limits of Terror Fight," and started this way:
Obama administration’s legal team is split over how much latitude the United
States has to kill Islamist militants in Yemen and Somalia, a question that
could define the limits of the war against al-Qaeda and its allies, according
to administration and Congressional officials.
Lawyers for the
Pentagon and the State Department, Savage reported, were debating whether,
outside of hot-war zones, the Obama administration could call in the drones (as
well as special operations forces) not just to go after top al-Qaeda figures
planning attacks on the United States, but al-Qaeda's foot soldiers (and
vaguely allied groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and
al-Shabab in Somalia).
That those lawyers are arguing fiercely over such a matter is certainly a
curiosity. As presented, the issue behind their disagreement is how to square
modern realities with outmoded rules of war written for another age (which
also, by the way, had its terrorists). And yet such debates, front-paged or
not, fierce or not, will one day undoubtedly be seen as analogous to supposed
ancient clerical arguments over just how many angels could dance on the head of
a pin. In fact, their import lies mainly in the fascinating pattern they reveal
about the way forces that could care less about questions of legality are
driving developments in American-style war.
After all, this fierce "argument" about what constraints should be applied to
modern robotic war was first played out in the air over Pakistan's tribal
borderlands. There, the CIA's drone air campaign began with small numbers of
missions targeting a few highly placed al-Qaeda leaders (not terribly
successfully). Rather than declare its latest wonder weapons a failure,
however, the CIA, already deeply invested in drone operations, simply pushed
ever harder to expand the targeting to play to the technological strengths of
In 2007, CIA director Michael Hayden began lobbying the White House for
"permission to carry out strikes against houses or cars merely on the basis of
behavior that matched a ‘pattern of life' associated with al-Qaeda or other
groups." And next thing you knew, they were moving from a few attempted
targeted assassinations toward a larger air war of annihilation against types
Here's another curiosity. The day after Charlie Savage's piece appeared in the
Times, the president's top advisor on counterterror operations, John O.
Brennan, gave a speech at a conference at Harvard Law School on "Strengthening
our Security by Adhering to our Values and Laws," and seemed to settle the
"debate," part of which he defined this way:
Others in the
international community - including some of our closest allies and partners -
take a different view of the geographic scope of the conflict, limiting it only
to the ‘hot' battlefields. As such, they argue that, outside of these two
active theatres, the United States can only act in self-defense against
al-Qaeda when they are planning, engaging in, or threatening an armed attack
against US interests if it amounts to an ‘imminent' threat.
then added this little twist: "Practically speaking, then, the question turns
principally on how you define 'imminence'."
If there's one thing we should have learned from the Bush years, it was this:
when government officials reach for their dictionaries, duck!
Then, the crucial word at stake was "torture", and faced with it - and what top
administration officials actually wanted done in the world - Justice Department
lawyers quite literally reached for their dictionaries. In their infamous
torture memos, they so pretzled, abused, and redefined the word "torture" that,
by the time they were through, whether acts of torture even occurred was left
to the torturer, to what had he had in mind when he was "interrogating"
someone. ("[I]f a defendant [interrogator] has a good faith belief that his
actions will not result in prolonged mental harm, he lacks the mental state
necessary for his actions to constitute torture.")
As a result, "torture" was essentially drummed out of the dictionary (except
when committed by heinous evil doers in places like Iran) and "enhanced
interrogation techniques" welcomed into our world. The George W Bush
administration and the CIA then proceeded to fill the "black sites" they set up
from Poland to Thailand and the torture chambers of chummy regimes like
Mubarak's Egypt and Gaddafi's Libya with "terror suspects," and then tortured
away with impunity.
Now, it seems, the Obama crowd is reaching for its dictionaries, which means
that it's undoubtedly time to duck again. As befits a more intellectual crowd,
we're no longer talking about relatively simple words like "torture" whose
meaning everyone knows (or at least once knew). If "imminence" is now the
standard for when robotic war is really war, don't you yearn for the good old
days when the White House focused on "what the meaning of the word 'is' is,"
and all that was at stake was presidential sex, not presidential killing?
When legalisms take center stage in a situation like this, think of magicians.
Their skill is to focus your attention on the space where nothing that matters
is happening - the wrong hand, the wrong face, the wrong part of the stage -
while they perform their "magic" elsewhere. Similarly, pay attention to the law
right now and you're likely to miss the plot line of our world.
It's true that, at the moment, articles are pouring out focused on how to
define the limits of future drone warfare. My advice: skip the law, skip the
definitions, skip the arguments, and focus your attention on the drones and the
people developing them instead.
Put another way, in the last decade, there was only one definition that truly
mattered. From it everything else followed: the almost instantaneous post-9/11
insistence that we were "at war," and not even in a specific war or set of
wars, but in an all-encompassing one that, within two weeks of the collapse of
the World Trade Center, Bush was already calling "the war on terror". That
single demonic definition of our state of existence rose to mind so quickly
that no lawyers were needed and no one had to reach for a dictionary.
Addressing a joint session of congress, the president typically said: "Our war
on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there." And that
open-endedness was soon codified in an official name that told all: "the global
war on terror" or GWOT. (For all we know, the phrase itself was the invention
of a speechwriter mainlining into the zeitgeist.) Suddenly, "sovereignty" had
next to no meaning (if you weren't a superpower); the U.S. was ready to take
out after terrorists in up to 80 countries; and the planet, by definition, had
become a global free-fire zone.
By the end of September 2001, as the invasion of Afghanistan was being
prepared, it was already a carte-blanche world and, as it happened, pilotless
surveillance drones were there, lurking in the shadows, waiting for a moment
like this, yearning (you might say) to be weaponized.
If GWOT preceded much thought of drones, it paved the way for their crash
weaponization, development, and deployment. It was no mistake that, a bare two
weeks after 9/11, a prescient Noah Shachtman (who would go on to found the
Danger Room website at Wired) led off a piece for that magazine this way:
"Unmanned, almost disposable spy planes are being groomed for a major role in
the coming conflict against terrorism, defense analysts say."