The real significance of our drone war, and why you’ll hear little about it in Campaign 2016

Summary: Nothing shows the decay of the Republic like our drone wars, almost mindless killing — now including execution of Americans by Presidential decree. To see how accustomed we’ve become to these steps to a new regime, this post looks at a typical story in the New York Times plus an analysis of it by an eminent law professor. Then I draw some obvious but alarming conclusions.  {This was originally posted in April 2016. I have no idea why WordPress reposted it today. Sadly, this story has disappeared from the US news but remains true.}

The King rules that you must die.

Lettre de cachet

The New York Times gently reports that a new “Terrorism Case Renews Debate Over Drone Hits“. Excerpt:

Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, who was arrested last year in Pakistan based on intelligence provided by the United States, came after a years long debate inside the government about whether to kill an American citizen overseas without trial — an extraordinary step taken only once before, when the Central Intelligence Agency killed the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011.

Mr. Farekh’s court appearance also came as the Obama administration was struggling to fashion new guidelines for targeted killings. The decision to use an allied intelligence service to arrest Mr. Farekh has bolstered a case made by some that capturing — rather than killing — militant suspects, even in some of the world’s most remote places, is more feasible than the orders for hundreds of drone strikes might indicate.

… The Obama administration’s discussions about the fate of Mr. Farekh, who used the nom de guerre Abdullah al-Shami, began in earnest in 2012, and in the months that followed the C.I.A. and the Pentagon ramped up surveillance of his movements around Pakistani tribal areas.

… But the Justice Department, particularly Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., was skeptical of the intelligence dossier on Mr. Farekh, questioning whether he posed an imminent threat to the United States and whether he was as significant a player in Al Qaeda as the Pentagon and the C.I.A. described. Mr. Holder and his aides also thought it might be possible to capture Mr. Farekh and bring him to trial.

We have to love this nod to the nature of “news” (aka pravda) in New America, where everything we need to know is classified secret — and anyone other than government officials giving us this information is a spy (giving info to the government’s enemies — which includes us). We not only should believe what we’re told but also be content with what little we’re told. They tell us all we need to know.


This account is based in part on interviews with more than a half-dozen current and former senior American law enforcement, intelligence, military and counterterrorism officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the pending criminal case.  Spokesmen for the Justice Department and the C.I.A. declined to comment, as did Pakistani officials.

David Cole (Prof Law, Georgetown) at the NYRB looks at the question raised by this story with a colder eye than the NYT’s government fanboys.  He asks 5 hard questions about this story.

(1)  Why are members of Congress involved in the process of deciding when to assassinate US citizens? Is this “constituent services”?

(2)  What are the standards for assassination of citizens vs. their capture and arrest?

Why did both the CIA and the Pentagon believe that Al Farekh could not be captured, when events proved that in fact he could? … When one can use a pinpoint strike with a drone, executed with plausible deniability and covert consent from Pakistan, does that cause the intelligence and defense agencies to redefine “feasible,” allowing for a lighter trigger for the decision to kill? As a legal matter, it shouldn’t. As a pragmatic matter, it very likely does.

(3)  What does an “imminent” threat mean? It evokes the “ticking time bomb” theory beloved by authoritarians, yet seems to mean nothing in practice.

How urgent could the threat posed by Al Farekh to the United States have really been if two years later, we were able to capture him and arraign him in an ordinary federal court in Brooklyn? The concept of “continuing and imminent threat” has always seemed an oxymoron. For a threat to be imminent, it should be immediate; the purpose of this requirement is to ensure that lethal force is truly a last resort.

… There is no evidence that Al Farekh engaged in any attacks against the US in the 2 years between the time officials requested kill authorization and his capture in Pakistan. The administration argues that when terrorists hide among the civilian population and threaten to attack without warning, the requirement of “imminence” needs to be relaxed. But if the threat “continues” for years, can it really be said to be “imminent?”

(4)  What does this tell us about our killing of non-US citizens,  How carefully is the decision to kill made?

Would the Justice Department have raised doubts about a kill authorization if Al Farekh had been a foreign national? … remote-control killing without trial away from battlefields should be disturbing regardless of the passport the victim holds. Was the same scrutiny applied to the hundreds of noncitizens the Obama administration has killed with drone strikes, many of them also far from any battlefield?

President Obama’s announced criteria for killing do not on their face distinguish between citizens and noncitizens. Yet according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, more than 2,400 people, virtually all foreign nationals, were killed by drone strikes in Pakistan alone during the first five years of the Obama administration. Captures have, by contrast, been very few.

(5)  This story reminds us about the long debate about the “collateral damage” (especially killing women and children) from our drones, which has created so many new enemies. All we know about our killing in the 14th year after 9/11 is that much of what the government tells us about it has been proven wrong (e.g., no civilian deaths in Pakistan from US strikes).

Finally, how reliable is the government’s claim that it authorizes drone strikes only when there is “near certainty” that civilians will not be killed or injured? A new study by the Open Society Justice Initiative casts serious doubt on it. The study examined nine strikes in Yemen, including four since that standard was announced, and found civilian casualties in every one of them. In total, it concluded, 26 civilians were killed, including five children, and 13 others were injured. In the 4 strikes that post-date Obama’s announcement, 8 civilians were killed.

The administration, however, has made no effort to account for the number of civilians it has killed. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price’s unhelpful response to the OSJI response was that the US is “not in a position to comment on specific cases.”

We the sheeple!


Perhaps future historians will see the years after 9/11 quite differently than we do today. Rather than a fight against Islamic fundamentalists who hate our freedom, they’ll see the US government running a massive behavior modification program to convert us from citizens to subjects. Teaching us to fear the bogeyman on command from the governments, to meekly surrender our rights, to be docile and obedient. An obvious example is the TSA’s bizarre “security theater” at our airports, training us to be sheep, pointlessly herded by uniformed officers. Fred Reed draws the logical conclusion:

… is to train the public to obedience. The formula is simple: Keep’em scared and you can do anything. It works. Americans are rapidly becoming accustomed to Soviet-style surveillance, to the state’s power to search and spy without restraint, to being barked at and ordered about by low-level federal employees. People deserve what they tolerate.

Assassination of citizens by Presidential decree shows that this process has reached an advanced stage. This is far worse than the infamous English star chamber courts. (abolished 1640) or the bills of attainder (prohibited by the Constitution). Those at least were a form of justice. Obama has recreated the Lettre de cachet of the French Kings, a tyrannical exercise of arbitrary power abolished by the Revolution.

It’s an extreme manifestation of our policy of foreign policy through assassination, one with few precedents in history and almost devoid of logic or supporting facts. Neither the drone war or Presidential orders of execution will feature in the coming 18 month election cycle — since both candidates approve — showing how elections have become a festival for our political class — but almost devoid of meaning.

Every day we tolerate these things proves our inability to govern ourselves and brings a new political regime closer to reality. Reform is possible if we work together. See these posts for suggestions how to do this.

A Strong Uncle Sam

For More Information

For more about these matters see Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about drones, and about our government’s program of assassinations.



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top