This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
In the world of weaponry, they are the sexiest things around. Others countries are desperate to have them. Almost anyone who writes about them becomes a groupie. Reporters exploring their onrushing future swoon at their potentially wondrous techno-talents. They are, of course, the pilotless drones, our grimly named Predators and Reapers.
As CIA Director, Leon Panetta called them "the only game in town." As Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates pushed hard to up their numbers and increase their funding drastically. The US Air Force is already training more personnel to become drone "pilots" than to pilot actual planes. You don't need it in skywriting to know that, as icons of American-style war, they are clearly in our future—and they're even heading for the homeland as police departments clamor for them.
They are relatively cheap. When they "hunt," no one dies (at least on our side). They are capable of roaming the world. Someday, they will land on the decks of aircraft carriers or, tiny as hummingbirds, drop onto a windowsill, maybe even yours, or in their hundreds, the size of bees, swarm to targets and, if all goes well, coordinate their actions using the artificial intelligence version of "hive minds."
"The drone," writes Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service, "has increasingly become the [Obama] administration's 'weapon of choice' in its efforts to subdue al-Qaeda and its affiliates." In hundreds of attacks over the last years in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, they have killed thousands, including al-Qaeda figures, Taliban militants, and civilians. They have played a significant and growing role in the skies over Afghanistan. They are now loosing their missiles ever more often over Yemen, sometimes over Libya, and less often over Somalia. Their bases are spreading. No one in Congress will be able to resist them. They are defining the new world of war for the twenty-first century—and many of the humans who theoretically command and control them can hardly keep up.
Reach for Your Dictionaries
On September 15th, the New York Times front-paged a piece by the estimable Charlie Savage, based on leaks from inside the administration. It was headlined "At White House, Weighing Limits of Terror Fight," and started this way:
"The Obama administration's legal team is split over how much latitude the United States has to kill Islamist militants in Yemen and Somalia, a question that could define the limits of the war against al-Qaeda and its allies, according to administration and Congressional officials."
Lawyers for the Pentagon and the State Department, Savage reported, were debating whether, outside of hot-war zones, the Obama administration could call in the drones (as well as special operations forces) not just to go after top al-Qaeda figures planning attacks on the United States, but al-Qaeda's foot soldiers (and vaguely allied groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and al-Shabab in Somalia).
That those lawyers are arguing fiercely over such a matter is certainly a curiosity. As presented, the issue behind their disagreement is how to square modern realities with outmoded rules of war written for another age (which also, by the way, had its terrorists). And yet such debates, front-paged or not, fierce or not, will one day undoubtedly be seen as analogous to supposed ancient clerical arguments over just how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. In fact, their import lies mainly in the fascinating pattern they reveal about the way forces that could care less about questions of legality are driving developments in American-style war.
After all, this fierce "argument" about what constraints should be applied to modern robotic war was first played out in the air over Pakistan's tribal borderlands. There, the CIA's drone air campaign began with small numbers of missions targeting a few highly placed al-Qaeda leaders (not terribly successfully). Rather than declare its latest wonder weapons a failure, however, the CIA, already deeply invested in drone operations, simply pushed ever harder to expand the targeting to play to the technological strengths of the planes.
In 2007, CIA director Michael Hayden began lobbying the White House for "permission to carry out strikes against houses or cars merely on the basis of behavior that matched a ‘pattern of life' associated with al-Qaeda or other groups." And next thing you knew, they were moving from a few attempted targeted assassinations toward a larger air war of annihilation against types and "behaviors."
Here's another curiosity. The day after Charlie Savage's piece appeared in the Times, the president's top advisor on counterterror operations, John O. Brennan, gave a speech at a conference at Harvard Law School on "Strengthening our Security by Adhering to our Values and Laws," and seemed to settle the "debate," part of which he defined this way:
"Others in the international community—including some of our closest allies and partners—take a different view of the geographic scope of the conflict, limiting it only to the ‘hot' battlefields. As such, they argue that, outside of these two active theatres, the United States can only act in self-defense against al-Qaeda when they are planning, engaging in, or threatening an armed attack against US interests if it amounts to an ‘imminent' threat."
He then added this little twist: "Practically speaking, then, the question turns principally on how you define ‘imminence.'"
If there's one thing we should have learned from the Bush years, it was this: when government officials reach for their dictionaries, duck!
Then, the crucial word at stake was "torture," and faced with it—and what top administration officials actually wanted done in the world—Justice Department lawyers quite literally reached for their dictionaries. In their infamous torture memos, they so pretzled, abused, and redefined the word "torture" that, by the time they were through, whether acts of torture even occurred was left to the torturer, to what had he had in mind when he was "interrogating" someone. ("[I]f a defendant [interrogator] has a good faith belief that his actions will not result in prolonged mental harm, he lacks the mental state necessary for his actions to constitute torture.")
As a result, "torture" was essentially drummed out of the dictionary (except when committed by heinous evil doers in places like Iran) and "enhanced interrogation techniques" welcomed into our world. The Bush administration and the CIA then proceeded to fill the "black sites" they set up from Poland to Thailand and the torture chambers of chummy regimes like Mubarak's Egypt and Gaddafi's Libya with "terror suspects," and then tortured away with impunity.
Now, it seems, the Obama crowd is reaching for its dictionaries, which means that it's undoubtedly time to duck again. As befits a more intellectual crowd, we're no longer talking about relatively simple words like "torture" whose meaning everyone knows (or at least once knew). If "imminence" is now the standard for when robotic war is really war, don't you yearn for the good old days when the White House focused on "what the meaning of the word 'is' is," and all that was at stake was presidential sex, not presidential killing?
When legalisms take center stage in a situation like this, think of magicians. Their skill is to focus your attention on the space where nothing that matters is happening—the wrong hand, the wrong face, the wrong part of the stage—while they perform their "magic" elsewhere. Similarly, pay attention to the law right now and you're likely to miss the plot line of our world.
It's true that, at the moment, articles are pouring out focused on how to define the limits of future drone warfare. My advice: skip the law, skip the definitions, skip the arguments, and focus your attention on the drones and the people developing them instead.