In the bloated, illogical and cruel machinery of war there are no good guys
So, let’s indulge the binary. There are two Americas, but not the two you might think of. One is defined by sticky ideas like liberty, opportunity and equality. It’s the America you take your hat off for at ballgames and pledge allegiance to when you’re a kid. George Washington chopped down the cherry tree there. It is a place of propaganda and mythology where the founders were infallible and America is always right.
The other America contains the grim reality that all the artifice covers. It is a place inconvenient in its diversity and the conflicting expectations of its citizens. It is where people struggle for equality and take to the street to demand the freedoms the extremely fallible founders didn’t realize everyone would expect. It is the place where Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill” is growing murkier due to boundless political corruption and endless war. This America is the beat walked by Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald and the staff of The Intercept.
Scahill and Greenwald have forged their journalism careers as avowed truth tellers. No matter who is in power – Republican or Democrat – the facts are their only interest. Scahill is best-known for his Academy Award nominated documentary and book Dirty Wars, which chronicled our country’s undeclared and covert wars, while Greenwald, along with filmmaker Laura Poitras, received the leaked Snowden files. In interviews, both men can be exhausting to watch because of their relentlessness. They do not compromise their allegiance to facts nor to the truths they feel the American public needs to hear. You will find them more often on Democracy Now! than Morning Joe, though Greenwald has been making the rounds of more mainstream fare in the Trump administration.
One of the frustrations about being confronted by truth tellers is that part of us wants to believe in that first America. We want to have faith that our country is or at least has been in good hands and policy decisions have been soundly made. The Assassination Complex, by Scahill and the staff of The Intercept, will disavow you of even the last shred of that belief. It is so terrifying you might turn to a Stephen King novel to decompress.
The Assassination Complex compiles “The Drone Papers.” reporting published on The Intercept in October of 2015. Based on a cache of slides and documents provided by a whistleblower within the national security state, it details the bureaucracy and decision making processes necessary under the Obama administration to use drones to assassinate suspected terrorists in countries like Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Whether U.S. citizen or foreign national, due process is suspended for the immediacy of the kill. As Scahill writes, “Drones are a tool, not a policy. Assassination is the policy.” Any misgivings pertaining to assassination may come off as squishy liberal posturing except for one small fact; it has been the policy of the United States by executive order to ban assassination by U.S. personnel. The avoidance of the word “assassination” while assassinating people is one of the fun linguistic games played in the drone program.
The book is mired in the very bureaucracies it means to expose. Its early pages are a confusing tapestry of acronyms of agencies, programs, and databases: CIA, JSOC, ISR, TIDE, TSDB, DTI and CIN-EMA to name just a few. For Marvel fans, there is even a secret CIA program called Hydra. These apparatuses are sold to us as the means to fight a more precise war where the enemy dies while U.S. forces stand far from the theater of conflict.
The image of the drone pilot sitting in an air-conditioned cockpit somewhere in the Midwest while firing a Hellfire missile on an Al-Qaeda encampment in Achin has become a pop culture trope. We have been told that the attacks are so precise that not only are we safer but so are the citizens of the countries our military has attacked. In truth, what drone warfare has done is removed us from the cost of war. Our country has been at war for fifteen years yet U.S. civilian and military casualties have been minimal. These facts may be upheld as proof of the success of the drone program, but what we have done is rain dystopia upon the world. The Assassination Complex details the porous and loophole ridden guidelines the Obama administration drafted to steer the drone program. The main requirement for inclusion on a terrorist watch list is “reasonable suspicion,” a slippery standard that means “bureaucrats can exercise virtually standard-less authority in secret with specific negative consequences for entire categories of people.”
In a short chapter entitled “Why I Leaked the Documents,” the whistleblower explains that he or she could no longer keep silent when Obama’s famous kill list was only one of many such lists. Rightly or wrongly, thousands of U.S. citizens are named in the myriad terrorist databases and are likely to stay there as long as reasonable suspicion remains the benchmark. This person writes that it was his or her intention to give the public some insight into the type of thinking that might lead to their own “trial by drone strike.”
What we learn is that the criteria for that particular trial would not pass muster in a court of law. U.S. citizens have inconvenient rights, including due process, the suspension of which are problematic at best, totalitarian at worst. Setting that issue aside, independent studies have shown that drone strikes are far from precise. Returning to those linguistic games, only enemies die at drone strikes in official reports because anyone found dead on site is labeled an EKIA, enemy killed in action. Whether women, children or passersby it means nothing. There is only success when everyone is the enemy.
It has been reported by the New American and others that drone strikes are up 432% under the Trump administration. The new administration has approved 36 strikes in 46 days or one drone strike every 1.25 days. Obama maintained an average of one every 5.4 days, but like the economy Obama handed over a more robust drone program than he inherited. The basis of the report is that we should be frightened now. Our impulsive and historically unpopular president has the nuclear codes and the drone program. It’s madness.
The drone program has always been madness whether yielded by Bush, Obama or Trump. It is a tool to allow us to avoid any exercise of our collective moral sense. We rarely see its victims. Our many wars rarely make lead stories on our many media outlets. The dehumanization of Muslims can be considered complete when we can’t seem to muster a care for their extermination by remote control.
It was easy to delude ourselves that this escalation in unarmed combat was somehow justified when Obama was president. There were certainly misgivings, but in the end Obama was one of the good guys, certainly better than what came before and after him. The Assassination Complex shows us that in the bloated, illogical and cruel machinery of war there are no good guys. There is really only tragedy on human and moral levels. This sort of reporting takes great courage, and Scahill, Greenwald and the staff at The Intercept should be applauded for their work.