Obama + assassination + drones = a dark future for America

Summary: Today we have a review of Mark Mazzetti’s new book about the CIA’s drone war, discussing America’s adoption of assassination as one its major modes of warfare. It’s a momentous step which, like the other large mad policies begun by America during the past decade, we have made thoughtlessly — and will later regret.


From the Wikipedia:

Assassins (Arabic: حشاشين Ḥashshāshīn or باطنیان Bāteniān) is a misnomer for the Nizari Ismailis applied abusively to them by the Mustali Ismailis during the fall of the decaying Ismaili Fatimid Empire when the two streams separated from each other.


Today’s reading:

What’s in it for Obama?

Excerpt from a review by Stephen Holmes of The CIA, a Secret Army and a War at the Ends of the Earth
by Mark Mazzetti, London Review of Books, 18 July 2013
Reposted with their generous permission.


‘It is not a function of not trying to take people to Guantánamo,’ the US attorney general, Eric Holder, told a Senate subcommittee on 6 June as he struggled to defend President Obama’s targeted killing programme. His ungainly syntax betrayed his acute embarrassment. He is not the only government spokesman who finds it difficult to answer questions about America’s loosing of drones onto the world.

A central thesis of Mark Mazzetti’s book is that the CIA and the Pentagon have opted to hunt and kill suspected enemies in order to avoid the extra-legal tactics of capture and interrogation adopted under Obama’s predecessor. Mazzetti returns to this charge numerous times, in a characteristically understated way:

‘With few options for detaining terror suspects, and little appetite for extensive ground operations in Somalia, killing sometimes was a far more appealing option than capturing.’


‘Killing was the preferred course of action in Somalia, and as one person involved in the mission planning put it, “We didn’t capture him because it would have been hard to find a place to put him.”’

In other words, the administration doubled-down on what look suspiciously like extrajudicial executions, faute de mieux, after shuttering Bush’s black sites and deciding not to send anyone else to Guantánamo, where approximately a third of the hundred detainees on hunger strike are receiving a macabre form of Obamacare through tubes in their noses.

Mazzetti adds, as a second unspoken and perhaps unspeakable explanation for Obama’s escalation of drone warfare, that the members of the intelligence establishment were afraid they could be held legally responsible for engaging in torture, a felony under American law. If we follow this account, Obama’s controversial ramping up of drone killings was driven in part by rumblings of rebellion at the CIA, where fear of being hung out to dry by bait-and-switch politicians is legendary.

New CIA Logo
New CIA Logo?


By the time Obama stepped smartly into office, the agency was apparently preoccupied by the possibility that ‘covert officers working at the CIA prisons could be prosecuted for their work.’ This dampened the interrogators’ enthusiasm for extracting information by physically and psychologically abusing their prisoners:

‘each hit the CIA took for its detention-and-interrogation programme pushed CIA leaders further to one side of a morbid calculation that the agency would be far better off killing, rather than jailing, terror suspects.’

According to John Rizzo, a career CIA lawyer, Obama officials

‘never came out and said they would start killing people because they couldn’t interrogate them, but the implication was unmistakable … Once the interrogation was gone, all that was left was the killing.’

Summarising his interviews with Rizzo and other insiders, Mazzetti concludes:

‘Armed drones, and targeted killing in general, offered a new direction for a spy agency that had begun to feel burned by its years in the detention-and-interrogation business.’

The inflammatory implication of this charge is that ‘liberal criticism’ of an unnecessarily harsh and negligently supervised but only sporadically lethal national security policy bears some responsibility for Obama’s swing towards sudden death by drones. Mazzetti himself does not mention it, but the thesis that liberal national security principles produce more cruelty than they prevent has long been a favourite conceit of conservatives.

… On the basis of undisclosed evidence, evaluated in unspecified procedures by rotating personnel with heterogeneous backgrounds, the US is continuing to kill those it classifies as suspected terrorists in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. It has certainly been eliminating militants who had nothing to do with 9/11, including local insurgents fighting local battles who, while posing no realistic threat to America, had allied themselves opportunistically with international anti-American jihadists. By following the latter wherever they go, the US is allowing ragtag militants to impose ever new fronts in its secret aerial war.

Mistakes are made and can’t be hidden, at least not from local populations. Nor can the resentment of surrounding communities be easily assuaged. This is because, even when it finds its target, the US is killing not those who are demonstrably guilty of widely acknowledged crimes but rather those who, it is predicted, will commit crimes in the future. Of course, the civilian populations in the countries where these strikes take place will never accept the hunches of CIA or Pentagon futurologists. And so they will never accept American claims about the justice of Obama’s slimmed-down war on terror, but instead claim the right of self-defence, and this would be true even if drone operators could become as error-free as Brennan once claimed they already are.

But of course collateral damage and mistaken-identity strikes will continue. They are inevitable accompaniments of all warfare. And they, too, along with intentional killings that are never publicly justified, will communicate resoundingly to the world that the arbitrary and unpredictable killing of innocent Muslims falls within America’s commodious concept of a just war.

The rage such strikes incite will be all the greater if onlookers believe, as seems likely, that the killing they observe makes relatively little contribution to the safety of Americans. Indeed, this is already happening, which is the reason that the drone, whatever its moral superiority to land armies and heavy weaponry, has replaced Guantánamo as the incendiary symbol of America’s indecent callousness towards the world’s Muslims. As Bush was the Guantánamo president, so Obama is the drone president. This switch, whatever Obama hoped, represents a worsening not an improvement of America’s image in the world.

But it follows a compelling logic. Under Bush, the US justified holding enemy combatants by classifying their captivity as law-of-war detention. But law-of-war detention presupposes that the war in question will end and that the detainees will then be released. Once Obama concluded that this war will never end, he presumably drew the sensible inference that traditional law-of-war detention is wholly inapplicable to the unconventional conflict in which the US is now engaged. That is when he made his fateful choice: the moment when he turned to the only form of incapacitation appropriate to a war without end. In so doing, he has bequeathed to us not a war that will be easier to contain, but one that is borderless and self-sustaining and that shows not a single discernible sign of burning itself out.


Stephen Holmes
Stephen Holmes

About the Author.

Stephen Holmes is a Professor of Law at New York University School of Law.


  1. What Russia Teaches us Now“, The American Prospect, July-August 1997 — “Metastasizing organized crime, massive tax evasion, unregulated sales of missiles–the people of Russia and the world now have more to fear from the breakdown of the Russian state than from its power. Why liberty itself depends on competent government.”
  2. In Case of Emergency: Misunderstanding Tradeoffs in the War on Terror”, California Law Review, Vol. 97, April 2009.


  1. Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism (1984).
  2. The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (1993).
  3. Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy (1995).
  4. The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes, with Cass R. Sunstein (1998).
  5. The Matador’s Cape: America’s Reckless Response to Terror (2007).
The next step
The next step

For More Information.

About drones:

  1. “Filling the skies with Assassins” by Tom Engelhardt, 12 April 2009.
  2. The march of technology brings “The Forty-Year Drone War”, 26 January 2010.
  3. James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy, on the FM website, 18 May 2010.
  4. America plays the Apollo Option: killing from the sky, Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired), 26 August 2010.
  5. Killing Machines: Promises and Limits, 17 February 2011.
  6. The Psychology of Killer Drones – action against our foes; reaction affecting us, 28 September 2011.
  7. Cyberwar: a Whole New Quagmire – When the Drones Come To Roost, 8 October 2011.


Endless War: Madison


Endless War:  Milton


Endless War:  Buchanan



7 thoughts on “Obama + assassination + drones = a dark future for America”

  1. What happens when the Pakistanis learn to jam or hijack drones and turn them on Americans. What happens when some terrorist group buys a civilian drone (and there are plenty avialable), loads them with explosives and aims them from American cities to American targets?

    1. More to the point, what happens when the tech to build armed drones becomes so cheap and so dead simple, with do-it-yourself downloadable CAD/CAM files for 3D printers on the net and schematics for circuit boards and downloadable firmware complete with step-by-step “how to” youtube videos, that the Bloods or the Crips or the Mexican cartels can build and operate armed drones? Here’s a youtube video of a homemade quadcopter with a machine gun. And here’s a video of a remote-controlled quadcopter with a what looks like a Smith & Wesson .357 magnum firing at and destroying a bottle of orange soda.

      Here’s a youtube video of a remote controlled plane shooting at an hitting another rc plane, using an airsoft machine gun, which is apparently a toy weapon firing soft projectiles. It should be obvious that the remote-controlled gun could easily be replaced by a simple remote-controlled single-shot device like a zip gun firing double ought 12-guage shotgun shells.

      What happens when the next Lee Harvey Oswald uses a camera-equipped homebuilt radar-stealthed mini-drone packed with home-made RDX and a shaped charge with fencepost nails in it instead of a Carcano model 91/38 rifle?

      How long before some senior administration official’s head explodes while he’s giving a speech on the need to increase the War on Drugs and a bunch of secret service agents begin screaming “Cartel drone! Cartel drone! Get down!”…?

      How do you protect against the next Sirhan Sirhan when he’s controlling an rc helicopter from 1500 yards out using a mounted micro-camera and rc gun?

      1. Many years ago I wrote about UAVs becoming cheap and widely available, and the potential for this to reduce or even eliminate the US and NATO’s command of the air.

        “Experts” laughed and mocked. Imagine widespread military use of drones, except as recon. Not going to happen!

        The successful predictions list on the Past Predictions page are the posts that produced the most hostile or critical comments.

    2. Dr. Anthony Offu, a holder of PhD espouses, ascribes posited,
      Its all catch 22, the harsh consequences & rational reality of continued application of (AI) conceptual frame work methodology & inability to articulating natural reasoning, procures deregulation & dehumanization of human intellectual factors, prescription of advanced tech analysis of artificial intelligence in our highly advanced civil practices in our global modern democracy, freedom & liberty respectively, advised utilization threshold concomitant propounded, posited series of intellectual thesis, articles & essays by this great global British theorethical physicist of our contemporary times, named Prof. Stephen Hawking in the quest for advancement & reckless escalation of ‘AI’ will undoubtedly by his predictions will lead & exacerbate to future derogatory, destruction of our current planetary systemic residues, the universe, race & it’s existence. 2016.
      As Dr. Offu’s excerpts & in congruence, with expert studies of Stephen Hawking scientific analysis promoted in the residual ‘pros & cons’ of the existing modern ‘AI’ had immensely contributed to the advancement of our human knowledge, modern scientifiction & civilization in today’s global society. This responsive comments are opinionated idealism & does not represent a wholesale analysis of the subjected quests.
      Thank you.
      From: Anthony Kenechukwu Offu.Sr. PhD.

  2. Good article. I guess Obama + assassination = dark future already. The “+ drone” part of it doesn’t change the moral balance at all, for me, but I see how it does change the public perception.

    At first glance it is easier to ignore a drone war, since there are fewer yellow ribbons and crying families, but if anyone thinks about it for even a second…

    The last halfway decent, phony-but-tempting moral excuse for killing innocent civilians was that it is war, and the soldiers felt threatened. That excuse has been eliminated. Now it’s very often just a methodical extrajudicial hit job, or just plain murder depending on how you look at it. I think it will be really difficult for anyone to forget this.

    The kind of people who will want to be president of the US from now on are going to be a pretty cold bunch.

    1. abcd,

      To expand on your comment…

      (1) Strategic bombing was described as evil, violating laws of war, when done by Germans in WW1 and early WW2. US military and civilian officials strongly condemned it during the Battle of Britain.

      That was ages ago. Today’s use of assassination by special ops and drones is strongly approved by the American people, allowing us to kill the bad guys at little risk to ourselves (eg, the bin Laden raid). It’s perhaps the natural result of a long road from the first British bombing of German cities (which I recall they did before the Germans in the Battle of Britain) to firebombing cities to nuking cities to free-fire zones to methodical programs of hits.

      It degeneration. Probably not going to end well for us. Probably should not end well for us.

      (2) Martin van Creveld and those writing about 4GW talk about the ill effects of assassination. We abandon the moral high ground to our foes — no small thing, as the moral high ground has been decisive in many wars (eg, the American revolution and Civil War).

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