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The Washington Straitjacket

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Posted on Dec 5, 2012
PhotoAtelier (Glen) (CC BY 2.0)

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

Aren’t you amazed that your Pentagon has recently issued a directive meant to ensure that armed robots will never kill human beings on their own? Not so long ago, that was the stuff of sci-fi; now, it’s the subject of a bureaucratic document. Tell that to Skynet someday, right? 

Who could make this stuff up? Maybe William Gibson—maybe he already did—but not me and my guess is not you either.

Putting Yourself in a Box

I know that we humans are terrible at predicting the future. Still, if I had told you back in, say, 2003 that, in the wake of a lawless administration, we would vote a constitutional lawyer into the White House as a “peace candidate” and he’d do exactly what you’ve done so far (see, again, above), you wouldn’t have believed it, would you? And if I had told you it would be you, I’ll put my money on your laughing me out of any room (not that I’ve ever been in a room with you).

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Just the other day, something leaked by two “administration officials” onto the front-page of the New York Times got me started on this letter. In a piece headlined “Election Spurred a Move to Codify U.S. Drone Policy,” reporter Scott Shane wrote that, fearing you might lose to Mitt Romney, you were rushing to develop “a formal rule book,” including “explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures.” You won the election, of course, but Shane claims you’re “still pushing”—though at a far more leisurely pace—“to make the rules formal and resolve… exactly when lethal action is justified.”

To use your term, you are putting “a legal architecture” in place for a process of White House-directed robotic assassination—you call them “targeted killings”—that will assumedly be long-lasting. These are acts that in the years before 9/11, as Shane points out, Washington used to condemn when Israel committed them and that most countries consider illegal to this day.

I understand why the idea of Mitt Romney as assassin-in-chief made you nervous and why you wanted to put him in a straitjacket of drone codification. But it’s hard not to ask—and I’m not the first to do so—what about you? It’s human nature to trust ourselves over the other guy, but has it occurred to you that some of us might have the same reaction to you at the helm of a globalizing robot war as you had to Mitt?

In any case, haven’t you already managed to do to yourself what you planned to do to him—without cutting down the killing appreciably, including the deaths of civilians, children, at least four American citizens, and a Yemeni deputy provincial governor who had nothing to do with al-Qaeda? If press reports are to be believed, you’ve already been fully involved in regularizing, bureaucratizing, legalizing, and codifying your drone wars. In other words, you’ve put yourself deep inside a developing system in which you no longer have a hope in hell of imagining the world any other way.

Here’s a little history of the process (not that you of all people don’t already know it): You inherited an ad hoc Bush administration program of CIA drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal borderlands that started in 2004 and was originally aimed at top al-Qaeda types. But as will happen, those “targeted killings” became ever less targeted, spreading to lower level al-Qaeda types, Taliban leaders, Taliban “foot soldiers,” and finally what came to be called “signature strikes” against “patterns of behavior.” (A group of military-age males with weapons, say, in an area believed to be controlled by Islamic extremists.)

We know that President Bush took you aside at the changeover moment and urged you to continue the drone wars in Pakistan (along with his cyberwar program against Iran). And though it must have been very new to you, you did so, expanding them in Pakistan and extending them in a major way to Yemen, while ever more drone bases were built in key areas of the world and ever more drones ordered up.

As this happened, those wars became ever less ad hoc, ever more organized and bureaucratic. A regular process for deciding on individual “targets” came into being. You had your “baseball cards” (PowerPoint slides on potential individuals to target) that you discussed in your regular “Terror Tuesday” meetings.  Where once George W. Bush kept in his desk drawer a “personal scorecard,” a list of bad guys to cross out whenever one of them was killed, you now have an official “kill list.” Where once these strikes were just launched, you got the Office of Legal Counsel to produce a 50-page legalistic justification for using drones to kill a U.S. citizen. It and other legal memos on drone use have never been released to the public or even to congressional leaders. Still, your top officials feel free to use them to their advantage in public defense of U.S. counterterror policies. (Note that the Bush administration did the same thing with its torture policies, producing Justice Department “torture memos” that “legalized” acts which, in almost any other context, or if committed by any enemy nation, would have been denounced as nightmarish acts of international illegality and that, in the past, the U.S. had prosecuted as crimes of war.)


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