“We aren’t known for torturing people any more. In the Obama era, we’re known for killing them.”

I want to make this discussion of drones and the Obama kill list as brief as possible — first, because each of the news-facts speaks for itself, and second, because there are many important implications to all this, each of which could be a long piece in itself.

So first some background, then the news, then a taste of several implications.

Background — Obama likes his drones

We’ve discussed here many times Obama’s apparent love affair with unmanned drones and drone kills. For example:

■ How does “targeted assassination” work in the Obama administration? (Alternate title: Is John Brennan Obama’s death czar?)

■ Obama approves drone strikes where identity of target is “unknown”

■ Obama admin to US court: The drone kill program is so secret, it may not even exist

Of the three, my favorite is the middle one — about Obama targeting people based on “data signatures” and not actual identities. That one is truly scary. Don’t miss the first one, though. John Brennan — the “death czar” of the alternate title, who simultaneously swings both his kill-cred pipe and humble servant status — is back in the news, and just this week.

So what’s the news that brings all this up?

Secret White House paper on drone kill-policy leaked

NBC News has just obtained a secret White House position paper on drone-kills — they’re calling it a “white paper” — that has the DC and national security world all abuzz. Here’s that story in a nutshell (my emphasis everywhere):

A confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or “an associated force” — even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.

Drone via Shutterstock

Drone via Shutterstock

The 16-page memo [pdf], a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, provides new details about the legal reasoning behind one of the Obama administration’s most secretive and controversial polices: its dramatically increased use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects, including those aimed at American citizens, such as the  September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged al-Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both were U.S. citizens who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes.

The secrecy surrounding such strikes is fast emerging as a central issue in this week’s hearing of White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, a key architect of the drone campaign, to be CIA director.  Brennan was the first administration official to publicly acknowledge drone strikes in a speech last year, calling them “consistent with the inherent right of self-defense.” In a separate talk at the Northwestern University Law School in March, Attorney General Eric Holder specifically endorsed the constitutionality of targeted killings of Americans, saying they could be justified if government officials determine the target poses  “an imminent threat of violent attack.”

But the confidential Justice Department “white paper” introduces a more expansive definition of self-defense or imminent attack than described  by Brennan or Holder in their public speeches.  It refers, for example, to what it calls a “broader concept of imminence” than actual intelligence about any ongoing plot against the U.S. homeland.

“The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States 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,” the memo states.

I won’t quote more than that, but the whole news piece is here, and this link takes you to the memo itself (pdf). It’s well worth your time to read both.

On the one hand, the news is that John Brennan will come before the Senate in a confirmation hearing; thus he may be asked about this.On the other hand, the news is that we’re into “thought crimes” here, since no proof of a specific attack is needed.

And on the other other hand, there’s the problem of no due process, unless “due process” means a bunch of exec branch rabbits get to pull the trigger on you or your kids during a lunch meeting. Nothing about this, for example, requires the president to be in on the decision. He can delegate the whole thing, or enjoy it all himself. His call.

As Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, said:

“This is a chilling document. … Basically, it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen.”

Very troubling, to say the least.

Senator Wyden has questions

A number of senators have questions about this policy (and they damn well better). Among them Senator Wyden (D-OR). He’s asking publicly:

“[H]ow much evidence does the President need to decide that a particular American is part of a terrorist group?”

“[D]oes the President have to provide individual Americans with the opportunity to surrender?”

“[C]an the President order intelligence agencies or the military to kill an American who is inside the United States?”

Think about those questions. The first one doesn’t specify “foreign” terrorists, and suggests that the definition of “terrorist” is, as Rachel Maddow noted in one of her features on this, a problem of “identity”— who you are in your heart, not what you did or plan to do. The second question is stunning — can I give myself up to save my life? Not if I don’t know I’m on the list to begin with.

And the third question addresses the obvious next step after we allow U.S. citizens to be targeted — can kills be done within the U.S., if they’re not already doing so?

What will the Senate do?

All of this is potentially explosive, which means that the spineless Democrat-controlled Senate could easily wimp out. This could happen in either of two ways. One, no Dem senator will be allowed to ask tough questions (sorry, I meant to write “taught party-discipline” like they were during the lockstep filibuster votes). This is the less likely way, in my opinion. Because this is so big, Dems in the Senate must now make a show of complaining.

The second, and in my view, more likely road to wimpdom is a showtrial with an innocent verdict. That is, Brennan will be hard-questioned and then confirmed. Note that the implication will then be that the Senate will have thus confirmed the policy while pretending to dislike it. Look for this outcome unless the Republicans rear their heads. (But don’t bet on Republican relief. We’re talking about blood here, kills, and Republicans love their manhoods just as much.)

Either way, that’s the Senate angle. Now for the president.

How much does Obama love his drones?

All the evidence suggests that Barack Obama really likes his dronings. This is the most muscular Democratic foreign policy since Truman dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima — and remember, that was a war crime. (It’s a war crime to punish civilians for the actions of the military, or hadn’t you heard?)

I’ll offer two pieces of evidence. First this:

I hear a certain delight in this, a certain casual lack of conscience — and also an echo of “Those WMDs gotta be somewhere…“. This makes me cringe; it’s death he’s joking about, civilian lives taken on his orders. Children who are no less precious than those at Newtown. In one accounting:

As many as 168 children have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan during the past seven years as the CIA has intensified its secret programme against militants along the Afghan border.

In an extensive analysis of open-source documents, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that 2,292 people had been killed by US missiles, including as many as 775 civilians.

The strikes, which began under President George W Bush but have since accelerated during the presidency of Barack Obama, are hated in Pakistan, where families live in fear of the bright specks that appear to hover in the sky overhead.

In just a single attack on a madrassah in 2006 up to 69 children lost their lives.

Can Obama not feel for the parents of children, being a parent himself? After all, the point of the “joke” above is the protection of his own daughters. Does he not see that desire in others, feel that pain in others? If this man were a Republican, Democrats would call him a beast, based just on that “joke” alone.

The second piece of evidence, though, is a more substantive, and comes again from Rachel Maddow (4:52 in the clip at the link):

We are not known for torturing people any more. What we are known for, in the Obama era, is killing them.

The whole clip expands that point, but this is the heart. Put differently — Bush tortured; Obama kills instead. Sy Hersh made the same point in 2009:

It’s more complicated now the torture, and there’s not as much of it. But one of the things we did, ostensibly to improve the conditions of prisoners, we demanded that the American soldiers operating in Afghanistan could only hold a suspected Taliban for four days, 96 hours. If not… after four days they could not be sure that this person was not a Taliban, he must be freed. … So what happens of course, is after three or four days, “bang, bang” — I’m just telling you — they turn them over to the Afghans and by the time they take three steps away the shots are fired.

And unless you think, with Maddow, that torture has been eliminated, Hersh begs to differ:

But the stuff that goes on in the field, is still going on in the field — the secret prisons, absolutely, oh you bet they’re still running secret prisons. Most of them are in North Africa, the guys running them are mostly out of Djibouto [sic].

But that’s a side point. The main one is this — Bush tortured; Obama kills.

If you trace Bush’s preference for torture to a personality trait — remember those stories of child-Bush blowing up frogs? — to what do you trace Obama’s preference for kills? I don’t know about you, but this man scares me. We don’t have an archtypal story to hang this on, like we do with Bush and his frogs, but there’s something here that’s not right.

What will come after Obama?

Bush was to the right of Clinton on military muscle and overreach. Obama is to the right of Bush. The next president will be to the right of Obama. That march will go to the sea, to the last outpost, to the edge.

Inevitably, at some point the definition of “terrorist” will encompass political enemies. Like … Occupy. Or Anonymous. Or maybe a Senate candidate from Berkeley with a Howard Zinn past and an interest in doing real damage to America’s baronial order. We’re already partway there — Bradley Manning is being tortured out of his mind, literally, for serving secrets to Wikileaks that threaten the State. At some future point, he would just be taken out, made a stain on the pavement — like we and our “allies” do already with foreign nuclear scientists we don’t approve of.

Every ruling elite in the world designates threats to its hegemony as “terrorists.” What goes around will definitely come around, if it hasn’t done already. (I’m looking at you, convenient small plane crashes.) Count on it.

Blame Truman

Finally, where did this start? What’s ground zero in the “we’re so good, we don’t need rules” attitude that Americans so revel in? It’s easy to argue that ground zero in American war-crime-as-policy is in fact, Ground Zero — Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thanks to Digby for this find. Her inner quote reads in part:

Have we perhaps in our self love become the angels of our own despair?  The atomic bomb dropped on Japan was the founding myth of our national security state, and we have as Americans benefited from that.  The bomb allows us to win by any means necessary; which makes us, because we win, right.  And because we are right, we are therefore good.

Under these conditions there is no morality but our own.  And if we hurt or interfere in other nations, the bomb allows us to be forgiven and apparently live without the consequences of our mistakes.  Thus life becomes the law of the jungle and the one with the biggest club feels good because he’s right.  That is the law of brutality that governed Earth at it’s origins many thousands of years ago.

Digby adds:

[W]e’re standing by as presidents of two parties declare their right to order the extra-judicial killings, the Democrat … of the pair extending it to American citizens.

The whole piece is dead on; please do read.

Where does this lead? Digby is hopeful. Me, not at all. We will solve our economic woes before we let go of our post-war national pride in and love of the now-humongous, cancerous, headless beast, the National Security State. That they will have to pry from our cold dead national hands; or it will have to be forced from us by a tragedy too shameful, too large for anyone who hears it to countenance.

Our entire culture is soaked in it; at the moment, it’s who we are. I’d rather we were shamed than forced to stand down, but neither choice is a good one.

Bottom line

See what I mean? This piece is already long, yet each sub-piece could easily expand into a chapter, a larger essay. This is important though, and I didn’t want you to lose the connections by stretching this across days, so I collected them here.

Obama, drones & death — offered for your consideration. Thanks for your ears and your attention.


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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