Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Drone war: recipe for blowback?

By Edward Wasserman

A ghost is stalking the presidential debates, uninvited and unacknowledged. It’s the silent envoy from a murderous side of U.S. overseas operations, one that’s reviled abroad and can’t help but scar the hearts and minds of the very people our leaders consider pivotal to global success. Here I’m talking about the U.S. drone war.

Recent news that the loathsome ISIS executioner with the London accent, Mohammed Emwazi — known as Jihadi John — was killed in Syria by a U.S. drone was one of the rare instances when drones draw public attention here.

The candidates’ silence during the debates is understandable, since they have nothing to gain from talking about the drone war, this being one of only three out of the 44 countries Pew surveyed last year where most people support the program. Elsewhere, Pew found, disgust reigns and is growing.

We don’t hear much about that from our media, since earlier disclosures indicating our government knows that drones are killing a lot of civilians provoked scant public response — and this Congress is hardly likely to hold hearings on an effort lawmakers generally support, whose victims are both faceless and distant.

Still, I was surprised a few weeks back to see an article in The Guardian of London in which whistleblowers Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden were applauding some new leaks of secret U.S. documents about the drones.

The leaks, which concern CIA and Air Force drones in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, were reported by The Intercept, the maverick U.S. website bankrolled by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

drone training session
Drone-control training (U.S. Air Force via Wikimedia Commons)

The leaks indicate that drone-borne targeted assassinations: first, are guided by frequently inaccurate “signals intelligence,” meaning inferences based on electronic communication captures instead of ground-level spies; second, are authorized by death sentences pronounced by presidential decree, which are subject to neither review nor appeal; and third, have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians, many of them reflexively classified as “enemies” posthumously, no matter how thin the evidence that they had done, or intended to do, any harm to us.

As one example, The Intercept reported, during 13-month-long Operation Haymaker in Northeastern Afghanistan in 2012-13, some 200 people died, of whom only 35 were specifically targeted. “During one five-month period … nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets,” The Intercept said.

The reason I was surprised to read that Ellsberg and Snowden welcomed those disclosures was that I hadn’t seen the new leaks reported anywhere else in this country’s media.

Now, one reason may be that U.S. media previously reported many of the essentials of the Intercept findings: that drone strikes kill civilians, target individuals who may not pose threats to this country, and are conducted on shaky legal ground. For example, an extensive 2013 report from McClatchy’s D.C. bureau found that despite assurances that the people being killed were senior Al Qaeda leaders, 265 of the up to 468 people who died in one 12-month period didn’t qualify.

Similarly, a 2012 New York Times article described the “nominations” process under which White House aides draw up the drone kill lists, and the convenient way that the dead were declared to have been terrorists, largely by virtue of being dead.

But the drone wars have never gotten coverage in the U.S. media commensurate with their profile abroad. As the ex-director of national intelligence, Adm. Dennis Blair, explained: “It [drone warfare] is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

Recently, though, the drone war has again poked its nose under the media tent, thanks to an advertising campaign mounted by a group describing itself as an association of former drone operators, or “pilots,” as the military calls them.

In June, the Air Force Times newspaper ran a full-page advertisement from a group called KnowDrones.com, which sent media outlets a letter signed by 45 veterans urging drone operators to stop what they’re doing.

The Times identified the highest-ranking signatory as a retired Army colonel and diplomat named Ann Wright. “I have travelled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Gaza to do talk to victims of U.S. and Israeli drones,” Wright told the paper. “Because of the number of civilian casualties, I firmly believe that this weapon system is jeopardizing U.S. national security and creating large numbers of people who despise the United States …”

KnowDrones.com redoubled its efforts in October by running TV spots featuring harrowing visuals of mangled civilians on CNN, MSNBC and ESPN in Las Vegas, Nev., near a drone control base. The ads coincided with the opening of trials against anti-drone protestors arrested in March. “Drone pilots, please don’t fly,” the ads said.

Still, The Wall Street Journal reported, the U.S. plans to “sharply expand the number of U.S. drone flights over the next four years, giving military commanders access to more intelligence and greater firepower to keep up with a sprouting number of global hot spots.” Drone flights would increase 50 percent by 2019.

The reliance on drones, which allow operators to remain safe half a world away and which expose them to little more than embarrassment even when innocents are slaughtered, poses a moral challenge to this country, and may, in the fullness of time, expose all of us to reprisal of comparable scope and madness. That’s how the would-be Times Square bomber justified his attempt to kill civilian New Yorkers: “When the drones hit, they don’t see children.”

That danger is a message that’s too important to be left to paid advertising.

Crossposted from Ed Wasserman’s blog.