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.
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.
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.
About the Author.
Stephen Holmes is a Professor of Law at New York University School of Law.
- “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.”
- “In Case of Emergency: Misunderstanding Tradeoffs in the War on Terror”, California Law Review, Vol. 97, April 2009.
- Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism (1984).
- The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (1993).
- Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy (1995).
- The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes, with Cass R. Sunstein (1998).
- The Matador’s Cape: America’s Reckless Response to Terror (2007).
For More Information.
- “Filling the skies with Assassins” by Tom Engelhardt, 12 April 2009.
- The march of technology brings “The Forty-Year Drone War”, 26 January 2010.
- James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy, on the FM website, 18 May 2010.
- America plays the Apollo Option: killing from the sky, Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired), 26 August 2010.
- Killing Machines: Promises and Limits, 17 February 2011.
- The Psychology of Killer Drones – action against our foes; reaction affecting us, 28 September 2011.
- Cyberwar: a Whole New Quagmire – When the Drones Come To Roost, 8 October 2011.