After carefully reading the new human rights reports issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on America’s drone war, I can best describe my mood as equal parts nauseous and horrified. The reports are, in a word, gruesome. And while I have problems with various aspects of both – among them the overreach of each in conflating unintended collateral civilian casualties as war crimes – I nonetheless have to consider the fact that a great-many innocent people (up to 900 in Pakistan alone) have been killed, and their deaths seem to have come at the hands of my country’s government.
Like many others Americans my age, my formative years were consumed by a seemingly never-ending conflict between “good and evil” or “us vs. them”, aimed at justifying America’s engagement in I-don’t-know-how-many conflicts and moral crusades in order to “safeguard our freedom and way of life”. I was a kid (13) when the towers fell and we began this continuing trend of extremist-eradication at-all-costs. But then, in 2008, Barack Obama ran for President, and I’d never seen anything like it. I was too young and uninterested to remember the Clinton years, really. Everything I knew about Presidential power, and the exercise of it, I knew from George W. Bush and Dick “Chancellor Palpatine” Cheney. So when, in 2008, Obama ran on principles of transparency, honesty, accountability and justice, I was naturally inspired; hopeful that the world Bush and Cheney created would finally be jettisoned for something good.
As much I would like to follow the lefty herd and blindly claim that somehow, someway, we’ve gotten ourselves out of the same rut that consumed us during the breadth of Bush’s term(s), the truth is that we haven’t. The truth is we’ve replaced open evil with closeted evil.
For years now the president and his senior advisers have made public claims about America’s drone program that have been found to be categorically false. We know, for instance, from top-secret intelligence documents, that “contrary to assurances it has deployed US drones only against known senior leaders of al-Qaida and allied groups, the Obama administration has targeted and killed hundreds of suspected lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified ‘other’ militants in scores of strikes in Pakistan’s rugged tribal area.” (Jonathan Landy) These revelations don’t just illustrate that the drone program is out of hand or that the Obama administration has become incapable in accounting for it, but that the Obama administration knowingly misleads the public about the scope of who can be legitimately targeted by unmanned aerial vehicles.
Here’s a crucial point: the Obama administration/US military/intelligence agencies often have no idea who they are killing. Even the CIA – whose intelligence reports are basically the means by which targets are chosen – often has zero idea of the identities of many of the people they target for death. President Obama, much like his predecessor, approves of the use of something called “signature strikes”, where the least important factor in the decision making process to target someone for a drone strike is who they are. More important to the decision making calculus the government employs – and the reason many are targeted for death despite their identity being unknown – is intelligence gathering suggesting that the individual is a ‘militant’ if he engages in a pattern of life more commonly engaged in by ‘militants’. The NY Times reported that “the joke [at the State Department] was that when the CIA sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks’, the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp”.
I should note that the Obama administration has – prior to the reports – signaled its intention to embrace a policy shift away from drones towards various other counterterrorism measures. But because Americans are largely agnostic towards the use of drones in far-away places like Pakistan, and since that ambivalence means neither Republicans nor Democrats will pressure the President to make good on his campaign promises of accountability and transparency, there’s little chance he will.