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Category Archives: War

A Closer Look at the NBC Drone Memo

Commentary and analysis concerning the Justice Department “white paper” is just pouring in.

All those links are good reading, and more thorough analysis than I will do at this time, when there’s not yet much new to say. But for the link-averse, here are a few of the highlights:

Killing an American can happen if the citizen is “a senior operation leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force.” While not amorphous, that’s pretty vague. What is an associated force, exactly? That’s not defined, so I guess it’s whatever the government wants it to be.

This killing will be hunky-dory when:

  1. An informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States
  2. capture is infeasible, and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible; and
  3. the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.

Let’s talk about (1):

Who is making the decision as to whether a given American citizen is a terrorist? Oh, you know… somebody. They’ll be “informed” and “high-level.” Don’t worry about it, they know what they’re doing. Is there any oversight or review to this decision? Doesn’t seem to be, so I guess we’ll just have to trust whomever makes the call to not make any mistakes, because there’s no clear recourse available should that happen.

But hey, at least we know that should it come to this, at least we’ll know there was an imminent threat against our nation. Well… you know how sometimes you have to interpret a word liberally to make it work in context?

“Certain aspects of this legal framework require additional explication. [. . .] [A]n ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack [. . .] does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

That’s certainly a non-traditional definition of the word.

Also, this totally wouldn’t be an assassination in violation of Executive Order 12333, because it’s an act of “national self defense” against an imminent threat. By which they mean a threat that lacks any clear evidence of its existence, any known target, or any particular time that it might occur. Also, let’s not box ourselves in… the Terrorist might not even be plotting anything at the moment, but if he’s “recently been involved in activities posing an imminent threat”, and there’s no evidence he’s turned in his membership card and gone home, we can infer that he’s still hard at it. That assumption is probably generally accurate, but when coupled with the Justice Department’s new-and-improved definition of “imminent,” it appears to open the time-frame up to such a degree as to render it basically meaningless.


“[C]apture would not be feasible if it could not be physically effectuated during the relevant window of opportunity or if the relevant country were to decline to consent to a capture operation. Other factors such as undue risk to U.S. personnel conducting a potential capture operation also could be relevant. Feasibility would be a highly fact-specific and potentially time-sensitive inquiry.”

Part of that sounds pretty reasonable. You can’t capture someone who cannot be reached during a given period of time. That’s just physics, and such. The country in which they reside might not want U.S. forces running around looking for the target (but naturally they’ll be fine with drones dropping bombs within their territory). And whether or not this is feasible would be fact-specific and time-sensitive, which looks a lot like a roundabout way of saying it’s just a judgment call, and one with little in the way of definite criteria. “If you can capture ’em, maybe do that, as long as it’s not too much trouble.”

And what, if anything, does it really mean that “the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible”? The three-point criteria dictate when it’s legal to bomb an American citizen, so I suppose the U.S. will continue to monitor whether capture is becomes feasible, right up until our “person of interest” is exploded?


The paper asserts that all of this is definitely legal, at one point analogizing the action of bombing a declared terrorist to a police officer shooting a dangerous suspect who’s attempting to flee the scene. For reasons illustrated on Lowering the Bar’s commentary, I don’t really think this analogy works. Another argument states, basically, that since this declared terrorist would be an American, it might be argued that killing them would be murder or manslaughter, but those terms only apply to “unlawful killings,” and since the government would be exerting “public authority” then it can’t be unlawful. In short, it would sure be illegal if we weren’t the one’s defining what illegal means. This section is long on assertions, and short on clear analysis.

The whole paper buries the reader in arguments that depend on you acceptance of either questionable propositions or the very conclusions they  purport to reach.


NBC Acquires Justice Department Drone Memo

It is being reported that NBC has acquired a Justice Department white paper which purports to provide legal justification for targeted killings (read: assassinations), using drones, of American citizens abroad.

Initial commentary suggests that some key terms used in the justification are being used in a somewhat “innovative” fashion, shall we say.

When I’ve a few moments to dedicate to it, I’ll give the memo a real read, form a semi-coherent opinion, and announce said opinion here. Yes, really. Two days, tops.

For now, you can read the memo yourself here.

(Hat tip to the Volokh Conspiracy)

“In the Future, There Will Be Robots…”

I had begun writing this a week or so ago, and intended to devote much more time to the ethical debate over drone use. However after reading an article this evening, much of what I would say has been rendered academic, and largely moot, in light of reports that U.S. drone operators have been deliberately targeting rescuers and mourners. I’m rarely shocked, but even I find this shocking. It is appalling, illegal, and would constitute war crimes.

[UPDATE:] Interview with Chris Woods of the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

And they will fight wars on our behalf.

As per this article on the New York Times’ website, it would seem the Iraqis continue to be annoyed by the presence of American drones in their skies, despite the fact that those drones now being operated by the Department of State instead of the Pentagon, or the CIA. I would imagine that this distinction is largely lost on them, and even if it’s not, they don’t generally see it as all that important. It’s probable they are also unconcerned with the distinction between official U.S. military equipment and personell, and that of the many private contractors who still remain in Iraq. We may have technically packed up and left, but we’ve hardly left Iraq to the Iraqis.

Drone warfare was also the topic of this article in ‘The Atlantic.’ Mr. Foust argues that our increased reliance on drones has political and diplomatic repercussions, and have yet to become a fully integrated part of our military and foreign policy decisions. Intead, we are relying on them, and in effect painting ourselves into a corner. This all seems fairly obvious, if you’ve been paying attention.

“As one example, drones carry inherent political costs to the regime that allows them. Among domestic populations, drones are almost always unpopular, as they represent a distant and unaccountable foreign power exercising the right to kill them at will.”

When discussing the political cost to regimes that allow foreign drones to operate within their territory, I would hasten to add that not only does this decision carry political consequences, but that it should carry those consequences. If the American government decided to allow Russian or Chinese drones to fly within our borders, launching missiles at whomever their operators deemed a legitimate target, we would be completely correct not only in being quite upset with the foreign power, but also in feeling that our own government had sold us out to an enemy.

When Mr. Foust writes “[…] it should concern U.S. policymakers deeply that the drone program is further destabilizing an already tenuous situation.” he ignores the very real human cost of drone warfare, and diffuses the blame for this. If you take his verbage at face value, it is as though these missle strikes which regularly kill other people in addition (and occasionally instead of) their target somehow just happen, and that the thing we need to be most concerned with is whether or not the local rulers will be able to keep their population in check. How very pragmatic. It’s true, of course, that we cannot be sure he is as unconcerned with the human cost of our drone use policy, but if he has any objetions then he should make them explicit.

“There are no immediate plans for an autonomous lethal drone yet […] but the rush to robots in warfare is worrying. There just isn’t enough thought about what consequences these systems impose on U.S. policy. There needs to be.”

While I’ve yet to hear word of the Pentagon soliciting bids for Terminators, claiming there are no “immediate plans” for them is probably only true if you define “immediate” fairly strictly. There are certainly reasons to support the development of autonomous combat robots. These reasons might even appear to be good. A standard goal of combat is to neutralize (kill, maim, or otherwise render combat ineffective) your enemy without them inflicting the same fate upon you. Substituting machines for humans would certainly appear to be an effective way to approach this problem. “Soldiers” with the precision of a computer, and without the burden of emotions, might even seem like a development that would make war a more humane endevor for all concerned.

I agree with Kenneth Anderson over at The Volokh Conspiracy that drones have a morally caustic effect, in that the lessen our restraint from armed conflict. In removing our own troops from the battle, we no longer have to be concerned with the harshest consequences of warfare, that of the death and dismemberment of our own people. Instead we can concentrate on killing and dismembering our enemies with a much more detached perspective. You might argue that this detachment would instead allow the drone operator to more objectively evaluate the situation, freed as they are from bodily harm. However I think the actual effect is quite the opposite, instead enabling the operator to approach the battle from a video game-like perspective.


After more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan everyone is tired. The Obama administration has resumed talks with the Taliban, and despite some setbacks there’s optimism, at least in some quarters.

Thus far the Taliban are refusing to talk with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, desiring instead to talk directly with the U.S. Why not cut out the middle-man, right? Pakistan, which has been accused of exercising control over the Talibansays it will back peace talks, as long as they’re “Afghan-led.” Rumors of talks taking place is Saudi Arabia are being denied.

So what’s the bottom line? It appears that after ten years of war with insurgents we’d like to leave soon, and somewhat gracefully. Perhaps we have somewhere else to be. So with thousands dead, and an enormous price tag hanging hanging on it, we’ll turn the country back over to the government we toppled, and leave it to the diplomats and intelligence services to sort out whether it can be made into a client state. You can bet that both the United States and Pakistan will be trying. In the final analysis, will anything have been accomplished?

Yet Closer to War

Another day, another step closer to conflict with Iran.

Due to their refusal to kowtow to American demands, U.S. legislators are working on yet more sanctions against the nation, and an American submarine and destroyer have moved into the area, almost certainly headed for the Persian Gulf. The whole exercise is a bit of a paint-by-numbers, with propaganda, increasing  sanctions, and moving forces into striking distance. It’s the same song and dance that preceded the invasion of Iraq, just more. I suspect that our government neither expects these sanctions to achieve their ostensible goals, nor genuinely cares. Sanctions are simply a tick-box that needs checked before we can be “justified” in overt military action.

There may be large flies in our ointment, though. There is a piece on Fox asserting that China is arming the Iranians, by funneling weapons and technology through the North Koreans. I’m intensely skeptical of anything on Fox, as they’re deeply loyal to the (conservative) establishment, but it is a possibility worth considering. If the Chinese are arming the Iranians with ICBMs and related tech, and if the Iranians have acquired nuclear warheads, then going to war could prove quite costly. At the moment I’m no more sold on this than I was on the Iraqi WMDs, but it’s something to consider. Michel Chossudovsky, Director for the Centre for Research on Globalization, goes further, asserting that China, which imports most of its oil from Iran, would back Iran in a conflict with the West, and push us into a world war. It’s a point for debate whether China needs us or them more, but should they decide on ‘them,’ then they possess an unimaginably powerful weapon: They could liquidate their holdings of American debt, and crash the dollar.

While myself and others object to conflict with Iran on moral as well as practical grounds, and do not consider them a legitimate threat to American security, I fear that a great many more Americans have swallowed the media Kool-Aid, and believe intervention is justified and necessary. Even if the public at large doesn’t believe this, the ruling classes have made it plain that they have every intention of going to war. While I very much hope to be wrong, I have every expectation that this war is now inevitable.

A New War, Just in Time

It would seem that war with Iran is now all but inevitable. The European Union is planning to boycott all Iranian oil by July, and Iran has stated that it will definitely blockade the Strait of Hormuz if this embargo disrupts their crude exports, which seems more likely than not. Meanwhile, the United States has deployed troops to Israel, deployed troops to Kuwait, is building military hospitals and airstrips in Georgia, and as ever, maintains a battle group in the area. Who’s in for a betting pool on how long before someone starts shooting?

A more cynical man might question the timing of all of this, and wonder how long before the current administration begins with variations of “Don’t change horses mid-stream” ?

And This is the Thanks They Get…

The United States enlisted the help of many Iraqis while fighting our war, and conducting our subsequent occupation. For their services to our government, they were promised our support and assistance. Namely visas, to allow them to emigrate to America, and escape the revenge of our enemies. By and large this has not happened. We have instead abandonded, and thus betrayed them.

If you listen closely, you can almost hear someone in Washington trying to assure Afghans that it’ll be different with them.