A Drone to a Kill

DroneStrikeThere’s been a lot of buzz lately about the Obama administration memo justifying the killing of pretty much anyone overseas who is plotting against us, including U.S. citizens.  And the new weapon of choice for carrying out such assassinations is the armed aerial drone.

This is creating conflicting feelings on the part of many. No one wants to let the bad guys carry out their nefarious plots, or put American lives at risk unnecessarily to keep them from doing so.  But it also conjures up images of a man in a darkened room adding names to his enemy kill list, and dispatching his robot minions to carryout his lethal whims.

I think it’s helpful to realize we are actually struggling with two different conundrums here. The ethics of covert government assassination, and the ethics of automated warfare. More importantly, neither of these are new. There’s lessons to be learned in the history, and maybe in that light, the seemingly intractable issues become a bit easier to chew.

Let’s start with automated warfare. Drones are not something new as much as they are the next step in a long line of military technical advances. When guns were first introduced, there was concern that you could now kill an enemy without looking him in the eye. Was their honor in that? Was it making it too easy to kill? The advent of tanks, artillery, aerial bombing runs, and missiles all heralded the same concerns about whether or not killing was becoming too easy and too impersonal. Drones are no different. The goal of warfare is simple. Inflict maximum damage on your enemy while incurring minimal damage to yourself. Weapons are developed with this in mind, and that trend is going to continue.

There’s really no point in worrying about drones per se, or even military applications of technology. As a society, we are not going to give up the benefits of technology, and as long as the need to wage war exists, technology will also be applied to that end. The key being the existence of the need to wage war.  But that issue is ageless, and the nature of man is such that it’s likely your great-grandchildren will still be struggling with it in the next century. There’s no reason it should be keeping you up tonight.

In a similar vein, covert assassinations have been going on since the dawn of governments. From the ancient halls of the Roman Senate to the castles of medieval royals, to the lairs of banana republic dictators, come shadowy tales of the handiwork of spies, assassins, and “special operations” units. Fictional tales of the exploits of Seal teams, Delta Force, MI6, the CIA, and other covert groups working for the good guys are wildly popular.  Think about it. Did your family ever follow-up a Saturday night viewing of Jim Phelps and his Impossible Missions team with a discussion of whether or not the mission was ethical?  Did the bad guy get due process?

All except the most ardent pacifist are pretty comfortable with the notion that the bad guys get what’s coming to them, and few lose any sleep over whether or not they were tried by a jury of their peers. Did you really have any angst that Osama bin Laden was shot rather than tried? The difference is that in bin Laden’s case, and in the case of most James Bond stories, you know to a certainty the bad guys had it coming.

In the real world, the lines are much greyer. When is a guy bad enough? When is a threat imminent enough?  And we are haunted by real world examples from the USSR, Cambodia, Germany, and other countries where state enemy lists were abused to as a way to control and oppress the populace.

The upshot on covert assassinations is that by and large we have no ethical issue with bad guys not getting due process. We have a trust issue with the people making decisions about who the bad guys are. And while there’s a new memo out indicating Obama’s lawyers may be doing some unprecedented legal butt covering, it’s naive to think Obama is the first President with the power to sanction a covert assassination. They all have had such power. Those self-destructing Mission Impossible tapes didn’t record themselves. So it all comes down to deciding if there’s something particularly untrustworthy about Obama or his administration that would make him more likely to abuse that power than his predecessors. That seems a more answerable question, or at least a less anxiety inducing one.

What if it were terrorists at the school?

Newtown's AngelsAs a nation, we mourn for the losses in the senseless Newtown, Connecticut school rampage last week. In the wake of that horrible tragedy we’ve seen many calls for action—calls for improved mental health services and screenings; calls for re-instituting the assault weapons ban; calls to change our culture of glorifying violence; and even calls like President Obama made last night to just do something to make this better.

On the flip side have been many voices shouting that this is not the time for discussion of solutions. They try to counsel that there is simply evil in the world and there’s nothing to be done about it beyond the coping, the grief, and the prayers that such things don’t happen again.

But I can’t escape the glaring hypocrisy of the position that now is not the time to act. Consider for a moment what those same voices would be saying if a Muslim terrorist cell had raided that school and killed those children instead of a local white man.

As a country we have been all too eager to spend money and lives as well as sacrifice all manner of personal freedoms in the interest of keeping our families safe from the statistically small threat of foreign terrorism. And we sacrifice these things in almost knee-jerk reaction to events or near-events—consider 9-11, the underwear bomber, etc. We’ll let the government screen our calls and read our emails. We’ll let them illegally and indefinitely detain suspects, and perform so-called “renditions”. We’ll let them use torture as an interrogation technique. We’ll let them grope our wives and daughters prior to boarding a plane.  But hey, better safe than sorry, right?

But should the government want to provide medical services or restrict the ability for your neighbor to grocery shop while packing a semi-automatic pistol with a high capacity clip? Well, let’s not get crazy here. After all, this was just a troubled kid who went off the deep end. Shit happens.

But if that troubled kid looked Pakistani instead of like the guy next door? Well, shit would happen then too, but it would be different shit. And we wouldn’t be arguing about whether or not to act. This is America dammit. And overreaction to a threat is what we do best.


Is Wikileaks a terrorist or a news organization?

Julian Assange
Wikileaks founder, journalist, and proto-terrorist Julian Assange (photo by New Media Days on Flickr)

The news is abuzz with the story of Wikileaks releasing some of the 250,000 State Department documents they acquired.  Some, like Congressman Peter King, are claiming the release is worse than a military attack and calling for Wikileaks to be treated as a terrorist organization.  Others are touting Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as a hero for shining light on covert government actions using the government’s own documentation.

Clearly, some of the leaked documents are embarrassing, not only to the U.S. government, but to many foreign officials and diplomats as well.  But by and large, the documents just confirm rumors and suspicions of activities widely believed to have been happening anyway.  Is anyone truly shocked to learn that some diplomats are suspected to be spies?  Is it news that Middle Eastern countries other than Israel also view Iran as a growing threat? Are people aghast that China was actually behind the Google Gmail hacks?  On the contrary, it could be seen as comforting to ordinary citizens that our leaders are not as blind to what’s going on as it would seem from the official press releases.

While sunshine may be the best disinfectant, it’s hard to argue that some amount of secrecy isn’t required in order for the government to operate.  The key is trying to figure out where to draw the line.

The press was responsible for exposing information leaked from inside the government that resulted in the downfall of  President Nixon in 1974.  Were Woodward and Bernstein terrorists?   There’s no doubt the last decade would have played out much differently had the manufactured run-up to the Iraq War been exposed back in 2003.  Those secrets needed sunshine.

One of the recent Wikileaks releases shows that the President of Oman lied to his parliament about attacks against Al-Qaeda within their borders.  President Ali Abdullah Saleh covered up U.S. military strikes in Oman claiming instead that Omani forces carried out the attacks.  From the perspective of the Omanis who were lied to, was this valuable sunshine?

So far, no one has identified any specific released information that poses a danger to soldiers, diplomats, or anyone else, despite claims from the Pentagon that Wikileaks has “blood on their hands.”  In fact, there appears to have been some sort of self-censorship, coordinated by the NY Times, to redact documents deemed to potentially endanger individuals or national security.  Were some of the published documents over the line anyway?  Probably, especially considering that everyone draws the line in a slightly different spot.  But so far, indications are that all of the information released is at least close to the line, and thereby is much nearer to news than a terrorist action.

If there are lessons to be learned from this, perhaps they are these:

  • If you truly want to keep a secret, don’t share it on a network where millions of people have the security clearance to see it.  It only takes one rogue “friend” to expose you.  Has Willow Palin taught us nothing?
  • Think twice before you justify warrantless wiretaps or invasive security scans based on the assertion, “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.”  Just because you haven’t committed a crime doesn’t mean you’ll be comfortable hanging all your laundry on the line… and turnabout is fair play.
  • Stop labeling everything you don’t like with the word “terrorist”.  The meaning is diluted enough already.  If Wikileaks’ actions induced genuine terror in you, then you likely lack the constitution to sit through the Bride of Frankenstein without running screaming from the theater.  Buck up soldier.

Given that the 21st century press has earned the reputation as the lapdogs of government, it’s somewhat refreshing to see them reclaim at least a bit of their watchdog credibility—even if it does push the envelope a little.