Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
December 29, 2011

Obama's Drone Strikes Set An Example

Yesterday the Washington Post published a must-read story about the much increased drone strikes used by the Obama administration for target killing of alleged terrorists.

The military Special Forces as well as the CIA are involved in these strikes and their various kill lists seem to be quite long. The case of the non-operative propagandist Awlaki and his son, both U.S. citizens, are only two of them:

On Sept. 30, Awlaki was killed in a missile strike carried out by the CIA under Title 50 authorities — which govern covert intelligence operations — even though officials said it was initially unclear whether an agency or JSOC drone had delivered the fatal blow. A second U.S. citizen, an al-Qaeda propagandist who had lived in North Carolina, was among those killed.

The execution was nearly flawless, officials said. Nevertheless, when a similar strike was conducted just two weeks later, the entire protocol had changed. The second attack, which killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, was carried out by JSOC under Title 10 authorities that apply to the use of military force. When pressed on why the CIA had not pulled the trigger, U.S. officials said it was because the main target of the Oct. 14 attack, an Egyptian named Ibrahim al-Banna, was not on the agency’s kill list. The Awlaki teenager, a U.S. citizen with no history of involvement with al-Qaeda, was an unintended casualty.

The fact that Ibrahim al-Banna wasn't killed in that drone strike lets me doubt that the killing of the Awlaki's kid was indeed unintentional.

As there is a lot of secrecy and no legal process around Obama's drone assassination there is no way to find out why the son of Awlaki was really killed and how many of thousands of people hit were really involved in something that would somehow justify their killing. But we do know that a lot of these assassinations are based on false intelligence:

Top U.S. military leaders who oversaw missile strikes last year against al Qaeda targets in Yemen suspect they were fed misleading intelligence by the country's government and were duped into killing a local political leader whose relationship with the president's family had soured.
These people say they believe the information from the Yemenis may have been intended to result in Mr. Shabwani's death. "We think we got played," said one participant in high-level administration discussions.

Something similar happened in Pakistan:

While attacks by US unmanned planes in Pakistan have become a contentious issue, tribesmen hired by US drone operators to tip off the CIA on terror targets have been using the opportunity to settle scores with rivals.

They provide false information identifying their rivals as terror targets prompting US drone operators to hit them. Mehsud and Wazir tribes are said to be locked in the tussle and they settle their scores using US drone attacks against each other.

Using unreliable locals who want to settle local scores for U.S. drone targeting is not the only problem.

"Signature strikes" are even worse:

Essentially, bombs are dropped on the heads of people who aren’t known to be terrorists, or militants, but who act like them.

How does one "act like a terrorist" or asked differently, how does one not act like a terrorist? Does one eat, walk, talk and sleep? What is a terrorist, except in the moment of his dead, doing that differentiates him from other humans?

Signature strikes violate both traditions of just wars, and are indefensible except by recourse to arguments of pure power.

But, as that piece reminds us, the "pure power" argument can be used by various sides and it is quite likely that all the assassinations by drones Obama has ordered will create a heavy blowback.

Remember that Israeli “targeted killing” was decried by the US before 9/11 as illegitimate. One wonders what the Middle East would look like if all the different states (and non state actors) therein got their mitts on rapidly proliferating drone technologies and considered it entirely normal and okay to start killing people across pesky international sovereign borders.

It is not only the Middle East that will experience drone strikes by others than the U.S. or Israel. There are many enthusiasts for radio controlled model planes and model rockets. It is not really that difficult to combine those toys for grown ups into something lethal.

Obama's drone campaign outside of any open legal framework makes drone killings a plausible and presumably legitimate tool to settle grievances. It sets an example. Its not a question of "if" but "when" this example will be used by others against U.S. citizens and interests.

Posted by b on December 29, 2011 at 16:10 UTC | Permalink


Coming Soon: The Drone Arms Race
By SCOTT SHANE, Published: October 8, 2011
AT the Zhuhai air show in southeastern China last November, Chinese companies startled some Americans by unveiling 25 different models of remotely controlled aircraft and showing video animation of a missile-armed drone taking out an armored vehicle and attacking a United States aircraft carrier.

Meanwhile I'm going to get me my own Predator.

Posted by: Don Bacon | Dec 29 2011 16:33 utc | 1

Makes you wonder what students learned in Obama's constitutional law classes. Obviously not respect for the rule of law, since that concept has totally escaped Obama.

Instead, maybe his students watched movies where the hero saved civilization by taking out the bad guy. In any case, that trite Hollywood script seems to animate Obama's worldview. Of course, the hero never got the wrong guy, and there was never any blowback. And that never happens in ObamaWorld, either.

Posted by: JohnH | Dec 29 2011 17:01 utc | 2

excellent Jack McDonald article you linked to.

also, re iran taking over that drone. one doesn't even need a drone of his own to be a 'enthusiasts for radio controlled model planes'. one could specialize in controlling somebody else's drones.

Posted by: annie | Dec 29 2011 18:08 utc | 3

Rule of law?
That's covered in the last National Security Strategy.

Legal Aspects of Countering Terrorism: The increased risk of terrorism necessitates a capacity to detain and interrogate suspected violent extremists, but that framework must align with our laws to be effective and sustainable. When we are able, we will prosecute terrorists in Federal courts or in reformed military commissions that are fair, legitimate, and effective. For detainees who cannot be prosecuted—but pose a danger to the American people—we must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards. We must have fair procedures and a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified. And keeping with our Constitutional system, it will be subject to checks and balances. The goal is an approach that can be sustained by future Administrations, with support from both political parties and all three branches of government.

Any questions, class?

Posted by: Don Bacon | Dec 29 2011 18:23 utc | 4

B., thanks so much for picking up on this piece. We were in NYC with my daughters and their significant others, so I missed this. (We had a sick grandbaby there, too.)

My son was not with us. But he sent fun gifts for all the family. To each of his brothers-in-law he sent little remote-controlled helicopters, and much fun was had with them. (Gender bias! Why not one for his mother, huh?)... Quite clearly this technology is out there, developing very rapidly, and becoming continuously more affordable. Maybe the global proliferation of killer-drone technology is the only thing that will get the US political elite to rein in its enthusiasm for it? I would like to think that concerted citizens' action from inside the U.S. would force legislators to ask the right questions and presidents to do the right thing (that is, to STOP all forms of extrajudicial killing.) And I'll keep hammering away on this issue. But realistically, I think it's the fear of global proliferation that will most likely have the biggest effect on US government actions and practices...

Posted by: Helena | Dec 30 2011 2:13 utc | 5


HC: I would like to think that concerted citizens' action from inside the U.S. would force legislators to ask the right questions and presidents to do the right thing (that is, to STOP all forms of extrajudicial killing.) And I'll keep hammering away on this issue. But realistically, I think it's the fear of global proliferation that will most likely have the biggest effect on US government actions and practices...

Poor Helena. Perhaps, maybe, sometimes there's been hammering on the issue but there's been no hammering on Obama, who IS the issue. Even after three years this Quaker just can't bring herself to recognize the pure evil in this man. No, it's "US government actions and practices."
b gets it-- it's not "presidents" it's Obama's drone campaign

Posted by: Don Bacon | Dec 30 2011 3:07 utc | 6

Don Bacon @comment 6

it's not "presidents" it's Obama's drone campaign

Now, now, that is simplifying things quite a bit… Do you really think any other person or monkey being president would act differently ?

Meanwhile, the newest toy to play with: US Army unveils 1.8 gigapixel camera helicopter drone (BBC news)

Posted by: Philippe | Dec 30 2011 4:06 utc | 7

chief American prosecutor, Robert Jackson , nurenberg
*a war of aggression "is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.*

fukus has been getting away scot free with
its 5 n counting now.....

whats the fuss with a couple of eje ?

Posted by: denk | Dec 30 2011 4:46 utc | 8

Yes, Obama is an order of magnitude worse than any president we've ever had particularly after his bogus campaign of hope and change. I was afraid that he would be worse than Bush, and he is. Large-scale killing of innocent people in other countries is his biggest sin and he should rot in hell for it. There are other problems with Obama including I/P, Iran, healthcare, unemployment, laxity of prosecuting corporate/banking malfeasance, more war, etc. but international assassination brands him as totally evil and beyond redemption, especially as he professes rectitude (e.g. in the NSS) as he does it.

We might quarrel with a leader on his priorities and his policies but lack of character in a leader is not justifiable by anyone, and Obama's claiming to be something he's not compounds the problem. I don't mind somebody disagreeing with me, so long as it is their honest belief, but fakers don't deserve any quarter. Or even a dime.

Obama's drone campaign outside of any open legal framework is not an American problem -- it's an Obama problem that wantonly KILLS innocent people. Bastard. Soldiers do it in the heat of battle, and they often suffer for it later. We have many. Obama does it in cold blood. He won't suffer. But the least we can do is to recognize him for what he does, and not assign his dirty deeds to the system, or to all presidents. That's not fair to the system or to other presidents.

The responsibility belongs to Obama, and that's not simplifying things one little bit, in my view.

Posted by: Don Bacon | Dec 30 2011 5:28 utc | 9

what i mean is
so what if the cabal in washington heeds ur call[sic] to
*STOP all forms of extrajudicial killing*

is it ok then to continue with their empire expansion
with industrial scale bombing or nukes ?

btw, someone tell me why is it always the beijing , syrian, iranian *regime* but the u.s. *administration*
time to call a spade a spade, thats an international crime syndicate residing in the wh n no 10 downing road

Posted by: denk | Dec 30 2011 5:35 utc | 10

there's an international crime syndicate
controlling the patsies in the wh n no 10 downing rd

why do we see so many *blacks* n *browns* in the us *administration* [sic] these days ?
the naive say wow, that show how democratic the us is
the minorities are proud of their sons n daughters *making it* in the main stream anglo establishment

well i've news for u
the obamas, rice, yoos , lockes, chu etc are just patsies used to take the rap, while the puppet masters sip champagn in the shadow n enjoy the show

Posted by: denk | Dec 30 2011 5:50 utc | 11

@9, Don Bacon

Obama is the president who lives at a moment in time where drone technology had matured enough to go into “production” mode (of killing), but what he (and I insist, he’s not alone, his administration and army) does is simply the culmination of a process set in motion since the end of the 19th century. Technology allowed the US to improve on the technique of the English and the Germans of mass bombing cities (e.g. the high altitude firebombing of Tokyo, and then that ‘other’ one), etc. In each case the soldiers are removed from the (direct) battle field). IOW, Obama doesn't come out of thin air and neither did his immediate predecessor and his killing machinery is nothing really new. It gets perfected every day. The US armies have never been warriors (that doesn’t say anything about –some– soldiers).

It is an ‘American’ (read US) problem, not only an ‘Obama’ one.

Posted by: Philippe | Dec 30 2011 12:19 utc | 12

Well,you can doubt that Obombas murder spree,enacted a day after his ascent to POTUS,as being accidental in its targeting,but I won't give him that benefit,as drones are inherently prone to mistaken deaths,and a guy(Obomba) with a modicum of reasoning would recognize that.

Posted by: dahoit | Dec 30 2011 14:50 utc | 13

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Posted by: Morocco Bama | Dec 30 2011 14:59 utc | 14

The drone war gets exposed for what it is--an attack on rivals to US anointed regimes.

So much for the terrorism BS. The US allows no one to challenge their cronies, no matter how illegitimate, brutal or corrupt they may be.

Posted by: JohnH | Dec 30 2011 15:44 utc | 15

The world has changed a great deal since the episodes you mention, nevertheless Obama has uniquely initiated a worldwide illegal assassination campaign which is particularly hypocritical given the endless U.S. preaching about human rights and rule of law. I question b's contention that other heads of state will be as stupidly criminal as Obama.

Posted by: Don Bacon | Dec 30 2011 16:51 utc | 16

Joshua Foust in The Atlantic
Unaccountable Killing Machines: The True Cost of U.S. Drones

It is an absolute scandal. We owe ourselves better questions and more accountability of the drones we use to wantonly kill people around the planet.

Posted by: Don Bacon | Dec 30 2011 17:05 utc | 17

@Don Bacon

I question b's contention that other heads of state will be as stupidly criminal as Obama

Less stupidly criminal I’d say… They outsource the job to the US army.
(witness your comment 17, and a truckload of circumstantial evidence in Somalia)

Posted by: Philippe | Dec 31 2011 0:03 utc | 18

Great article front paged on the L.A.Times today about the civilian troops manning the drone program. To keep the larger drone in the air for 24 hrs requires a 300 man effort. Yep, 300!!! Defense contractors must be cummin' in their jeans over the escalating use of these killer bots.

Posted by: PissedOffAmerican | Dec 31 2011 3:48 utc | 19

Contractors' role grows in drone missions, worrying some in the military

After a U.S. airstrike mistakenly killed at least 15 Afghans in 2010, the Army officer investigating the accident was surprised to discover that an American civilian had played a central role: analyzing video feeds from a Predator drone keeping watch from above. The contractor had overseen other analysts at Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field in Florida as the drone tracked suspected insurgents near a small unit of U.S. soldiers in rugged hills in central Afghanistan. Based partly on her analysis, an Army captain ordered an airstrike on a convoy that turned out to be carrying innocent men, women and children.
"Our No. 1 manning problem in the Air Force is manning our unmanned platforms," said Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, Air Force vice chief of staff. Without civilian contractors, U.S. drone operations would grind to a halt. About 168 people are needed to keep a single Predator aloft for 24 hours, according to the Air Force. The larger Global Hawk surveillance drone requires 300 people. In contrast, an F-16 fighter aircraft needs fewer than 100 people per mission. With a fleet of about 230 Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks, the Air Force flies more than 50 drones around the clock over Afghanistan and other target areas. The Pentagon plans to add 730 medium and large drones in the next decade, requiring thousands more personnel.
Writing in a military law journal in 2008, Lt. Col. Duane Thompson, chief lawyer for the Air Force Operations Law Division, warned that allowing nonmilitary personnel to communicate targeting information directly to pilots would violate international laws of war.

Posted by: b | Dec 31 2011 8:33 utc | 20

Thanks b. I'm rural, on dial-up, with an old desktop, and often its too slow and cumbersome to find a link and get it posted. Alot of people don't realize how slow, how hard some of us gotta work at it, to post on blogs like this. Thats why its so maddening to devote a bunch of time and effort into composing a post, only to have it dissappear into the online netherworld, for whatever reason. Its only happened to me once here, but used to happen quite often at Monbdoweiss. Ten years posting on blogs, and never been so censored as I was at Mondo. Couple other posters over there seem to be having the same issue with the moderator.

At times, it can take me five or ten minutes just to bring up a site. And if the site has a zillion bells and whistles, forget it, can't bring it up. Videos are not an option. Audio, non-existent.

So, appreciate you throwing up the link to the Times' piece. An eye opener, the manpower required to fly an "unmanned" aircraft, eh?

Interesting enough, on page three of the same edition, there was a substantial article on the Jewish settler religious wackjob terrorists. Although the article was still somewhat disingenuous in insinuating the attacks on Palestinians by Jewish Israeli radicals are a fairly new phenomena, it did air some points and issues that were refreshingly honest, unheard of not too long ago from a mainstream source. There was also a piece in the opinion section criticizing those that are painting Paul as anti-semitic and racist.

Now, if they'd give that asshole Max Boot his walkin' papers, they just might be on the right track.

Posted by: PissedOffAmerican | Dec 31 2011 15:04 utc | 21

Bush at some point (iirc 2oo3?) announced that anyone anywhere in the world could be arrested by the US. In the grand scope of the WOT (war on terror), sorry no link. Anyway it was just the ordinary threats.

Not killed, murdered, but detained and interrogated, imprisoned.

Nobody protested or took any kind of strong stance - no Gvmts, or world leaders - no ambassadors were called in to justify, or kicked out - Intellectual Pundits didn’t write lengthy alarmed paragraphs, if did do so, were easily ignored - Human Rights orgs - US citizens or anybody else - Silence.

The EU apparently took no notice. S America deemed it was not pertinent (no Islamists.)

The non-reaction was more frightening than Bush’s ra-ra speech.

Now the same, but notched up one level.

(Obviously the WOT furnished excuses for leaders to crack down on local ‘terrorists’ e.g. Putin but beyond that?)

Posted by: Noirette | Dec 31 2011 18:03 utc | 22

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