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Terror Tuesday: The duel over state-sponsored homicide

United Nations headquarters, NYC

The combatants are hardly evenly matched. A man armed with nothing but the paper weapon of international law stares down the firing range at the most formidable military machine the world has ever known. 

On August 19, in the wake of three drone strikes that killed at least 13 people in northwest Pakistan as Ramadan drew to a close, Ben Emmerson QC, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, rattled that paper weapon. 

Demanding an “end to the conspiracy of silence,” he announced that the issue of US drone strikes “is moving rapidly up the international agenda.”

“Users of targeted killing technology should be required to subject themselves, in the case of each and every death, to impartial investigation,” he declared. “If they do not establish a mechanism to do so, it will be my recommendation that the UN should put the mechanisms in place through the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly and the Office of the High Commissioner.”

It is at present inconceivable that the US government could be induced to hand over the videos of drone strikes to any international agency or, for that matter, to an American watchdog group.

As it has amply demonstrated, the Obama Administration doesn’t “do” accountability and has appeared imperious to international censure ever since its first year in office, when Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions, warned the US that its ‘targeted killing’ program could well violate international law. 

Last month, an article in Counterpunch by Doug Noble made the important point that although the technology of death may be novel, none of what the US government is doing should surprise us. In “Assassination Nation: Fifty Years of US Targeted ‘Kill Lists’ – From the Phoenix Program to Predator Drones,” Noble reviews covert US targeted killing programs from Vietnam, to Latin America’s death squads and CIA-engineered coups, to assassination programs exported to the broader world and the Bush Administration’s post 9/11 global hunt for terrorist suspects.

The continuity with the past extends to key personnel now serving the Administration that promised “change we can believe in.” Men with long CIA and Special Forces pedigrees are calling many of the shots in the steadily expanding forever war.

Imagine the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism going head to head with Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who was associated with the torture policies of the Bush Administration and head of its newly created Terrorist Threat Integration Center and National Counterterrorism Center. 

Brennan, who served with the CIA for 25 years, claimed in June 2011 that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop” and publicly acknowledged – and defended – the death-by-drone program in April 2012. 

He also recently defended the escalating number of drone strikes in Yemen, which have soared to 28 so far in 2012, up from a total of 10 in all of 2011. Brennan argued that such strikes “are part of the solution” and that the US is only targeting militants with the “murderous agenda” of attacking the US and its allies – and not those militants involved in the country’s civil war. Talk about precision!

Or imagine facing down the man Obama selected to be his Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, Michael Vickers. 

Vickers, the DoD’s senior civilian adviser on counter-terrorism strategy, now oversees the Defense Intelligence Agency, the NSA, and the National Reconnaissance Office among other DoD intelligence agencies. 

His past exploits include serving with US Special Forces and the CIA, advising Bush on Iraq strategy and being the chief strategist for arming mujahideen “Freedom Fighters” (including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani) to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, ushering in the blowback that produced al-Qaeda and paving the way for his current career leading the hunt for those deemed al-Qaeda militants.

That hunt takes the world as the battleground. “It’s not just the Middle East,” Vickers told The Washington Post. “It's not just the developing world. It's not just nondemocratic countries — it's a global problem," he said. "Threats can emanate from Denmark, the United Kingdom, you name it."

In retired Col. Andrew Bacevich’s words, “The Vickers approach means acting aggressively to eliminate would-be killers wherever they might be found, employing whatever means are necessary.  Vickers ‘tends to think like a gangster,’ one admirer comments. ‘He can understand trends then change the rules of the game so they are advantageous for your side.’”

In a duel with Vickers and agenda setters of a similar mindset, the backers of international law don’t appear to stand much of a chance.

Would things be different if the American public had ready access to information about the indiscriminate and counterproductive nature of the drone wars being waged by the CIA and Pentagon in the name of national security – assuming they would not be scared off by the news that expressing opposition to drone strikes might bring them to the notice of the intelligence arm of the New York Police Department?

Gareth Porter recently presented “credible new evidence that the majority of the deaths in the drone war in Pakistan have been civilian noncombatants – not ‘militants,’ as the Obama administration has claimed.”

Porter is highly critical of the way the New American Foundation (NAF) has adopted the Obama Administration’s definition of any military-age male in the vicinity of a drone strike as a combatant or militant when compiling statistics of  casualties on its “Year of the Drone” website. Detailed data on 24 drone strikes indicates that “civilian casualties accounted for 74 percent of the death toll, whereas the NAF tally for the same 24 strikes showed civilian casualties accounted for only 30 percent of the total.”

As Glenn Greenwald documents in his August 20 column in the UK Guardian, drone strikes have on several occasions targeted funerals of drone victims as well as rescuers who show up after an attack.  As well as killing large numbers of civilians, this tactic, he writes, “ensures that journalists will be unwilling to go to the scene of a drone attack out of fear of a follow-up attack.”  At least one of the three strikes targeting Pakistan as Muslims prepared to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr feast ending Ramadan appears to have been aimed at people who rushed to help victims of a previous strike.

Do not expect this sort of information to appear in the mainstream US media.  Although it was The New York Timesthat revealed how the Obama Administration kept down the number of civilian casualties by adopting its all-purpose definition of ‘militant,’ its subsequent coverage gives no hint of the subterfuge represented by the term.

Take, for example, Elizabeth Bumiller’s account of how some of the Air Force’s 1300 drone pilots do their job in “A Day Job Waiting for a Kill Shot a World Away.”  She describes how a drone pilot in Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in New York reacts “when the call comes for him to fire a missile and kill a militant” – once women and children are out of the picture. 

Dwelling on the care taken by the pilots to avoid any civilian casualties as they gaze at the images taken by the drones’ powerful cameras, she writes that “among the toughest psychological tasks” is killing “a militant” after watching him “as he plays with his children, talks to his wife and visits his neighbors.”

And then at the end of a work day “he steps out of a dark room of video screens, his adrenaline still surging after squeezing the trigger, and commutes home past fast-food restaurants and convenience stores to help with homework – but always alone with what he has done.”

UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson QC does not want an independent investigation of what the Hancock Field video screen warriors have done. Their telewar is aimed at fighting the enemy some 7,000 miles away that is in a declared war zone, Afghanistan.

It is the covert lethal actions being undertaken outside of war zones by CIA operatives and US Special Forces from proliferating secret bases that are his prime concern. 

As the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president moves further down the path charted by the likes of Michael Vickers, we would do well to heed the words of former mainstream journalist Chris Hedges:

We celebrate fictitious red-white-and-blue virtues while our clandestine armies, which at times achieve short-term objectives but always finally plunge us deeper into violence, have steadily weakened and discredited the nation as well as the purported values for which it stands. These clandestine armies travel the globe, awash in hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, sowing dragon's teeth that rise up later, like the warriors in the myth of the Golden Fleece, to become mirror images of our own monstrosities.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.