Burning hashish seized in Operation Albatross, a combined operation of Afghan officials, NATO and the DEA. (DEA)

Remember when coups and assassinations were secretive and presidents were obliged to go to Congress, tell lies and ask permission to wage wars? Remember when torture, spying and indefinite imprisonment were illicit, when issuing signing statements to rewrite laws was rare, and when yelling “state secrets” to shut down legal cases was considered abusive? For over two centuries, it would have been an outrage for the president to hold a meeting every Tuesday for the sole purpose of going through a list of names and picking out which men, women and children should be killed. Those times are gone. By mutual consent of those in power in Washington, D.C., all such resistance and outrage is now firmly in the past. It would now be unfair and violate established bipartisan precedent to deny the powers of unlimited spying, imprisonment and killing to the next president of the United States. The fact that this new reality is so little-known is largely a symptom of partisanship, as most Democrats still haven’t allowed themselves to hear about the kill list. But the widespread ignorance is also a function of media, of what’s reported, what’s editorialized, what’s asked about in campaign debates and what isn’t. “Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program,” a new book from Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept, is terrific to see—both for what it actually teaches us and even more because of what it represents. These same reports from The Intercept have already brought us the same details online—details that fit a pattern of similar revelations that have trickled out through numerous sources over the years. The truly encouraging part is that a media outlet is reporting on the dangerous expansion of presidential and governmental power and framing its concerns in a serious way. The United States is now working on putting into action drone ships and ships of drone planes, but the country has never worked out how it is legal, moral or helpful to use missiles to blow people up in numerous places all around the earth. Drone wars, once declared successful and preferable alternatives to ground wars, are predictably evolving into small-scale ground wars, with great potential for escalation, and nobody in any place of power has considered using aid, disarmament, diplomacy or the rule of law to do what Obama—as a presidential candidate back in 2008—might once have called ending the mindset that starts wars. I recommend starting “The Assassination Complex” by first reading Glenn Greenwald’s afterword. In it, Greenwald reminds us of some of Senator and Candidate Obama’s statements in favor of restoring the rule of law and rejecting President George W. Bush’s abuses. Yet what Candidate Obama called unacceptable at Guantanamo, President Obama has not only continued at Guantanamo and elsewhere but expanded into a program that focuses on murder without “due process” rather than on imprisonment without “due process.” “Somehow,” writes Greenwald, “it was hideously wrong for George W. Bush to eavesdrop on and imprison suspected terrorists without judicial approval, yet it was perfectly permissible for Obama to assassinate them without due process of any kind.” That is, in fact, a very generous depiction of the drone murder program: “The Assassination Complex” documents that, at least during one time period examined, “nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.” Instead of thinking of drones as weapons killing particular people who are denied the right to a trial by jury but are suspected of something by somebody, we should think of drones as random killing machines. “It is hard,” Greenwald writes, “to overstate the conflict between Obama’s statements before he became president and his presidential actions.” Yes, I suppose so, but it’s also hard to overstate the conflict between some of his campaign statements and others of his campaign statements. If he was going to give people a fair hearing before abusing their rights, what are we to make of his campaign promises to start a drone war in Pakistan and escalate the war in Afghanistan? Greenwald is assuming that the right not to be murdered ranks somewhere fairly high alongside the right not to be spied on or imprisoned or tortured. But, in fact, a war-supporting society must understand that all rights have particular protection except the right to stay alive. The advantage that comes from viewing small-scale drone murders as an escalation of small-scale imprisonment—that is, as a violation of rights—really comes when you carry logic one step further and also view large-scale killing in war as a violation of rights. Among the top areas in which I would add to Greenwald’s summary of Obama’s expansions of Bush powers are: torture, signing statements and the creation of new wars of various types.
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