Saturday, February 8, 2014

Heather Roff on drones and emerging despotism

Heather Roff, my colleague at the Korbel School of International Studies, has written a fine article on the slide from drones to despotism. Here is Obama on "Terror Tuesday" afternoons pursuing a "disposition matrix" to murder individuals with drones in countries the US is not at war with. These acts combine aggression and frequently assassination of civilians, even children. See here and here.


As Heather writes, there is no judicial process here. Obama can, on secret testimony and shady advice from former National Security advisor, now CIA director John Brennan, even off Americans. This is the definition of tyranny.

In addition, Brennan mandated that any male child near a terrorist (a son bringing a glass of water to his father) counts as a terrorist if drones kill him. Stare into that example, and one might fairly conclude that both Brennan and Obama are evil.


Obama does show some remaining decency in trying to scale back drones, particularly in Pakistan this past month. See here. In the State of the Union speech, however, he said the citizens of other countries want to know that the US government is careful about whom it kills with drones on their soil. Listen carefully to that statement. First, the US government murders people, often civilians, in other countries - the international crime of aggression and, simply, murder (the circumlocutions about this even by many opponents of the use of drones are frightening). Second, one cannot be "careful" with drones fired off, often on weak information, from half a world away...


John Mearsheimer rightly refers to drone-aggression as "terror-inducing activity." For if China, for example, shot missile into the US and took out people (including many civilians), the American people and the US government state, would respond fiercely. Place yourself in John Rawls'"original position" and imagine that your family or even acquaintances are the victims of drone...


Obama and his listeners did not hear the plain meaning of his words...


Some State Department officials in Pakistan staged a revolt against CIA aggression by drone. Even Guardian article this week does not quite identify the cause of the split in English, speaking of "foreign policy goals," but not spelling out that ordinary Pakistanis are repelled by drone murder - think the Navi against Company drones in Avatar, and you will get the point:

"US diplomats have at times had major rows with their CIA colleagues over the havoc drone strikes can play with US foreign policy objectives.

Cameron Munter, the previous US ambassador in Pakistan, left his post in Islamabad early after furious disagreements with the CIA, which was exclusively focused on counter-terrorism rather than broader US foreign policy goals.

Many observers in Pakistan have noted the recent downturn in drone strikes, which US officials quoted in the Washington Post confirmed was a deliberate response to requests by prime minister Nawaz Sharif's government."


Heather's second post below focuses on the thoughtless of Eichmann, on Hannah Arendt's description, in carrying out crimes against humanity. Such bureaucratic thoughtlessness is multiplied by the substitution of drones and computer screens for responsibility, the "targeting" increasingly by machine and separate from human agency.


The US took out Abdulrahman Al Awlaki the 16 year old son of Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American citizen, his cousin, also a 16 year old American, and 10 other innocent people at a rural food stand in Yemen with drones. Abdulrahman was looking for his "drone-dispensed" Dad.


Neither the White House nor Brennan is bragging about these "kills," but the story is, at last, out, a paradigm of what this policy creates, a move toward despotism and even the use of drones to kill young and innocent Americans without a shade of evidence, let alone, judicial authorization...


Barack Obama taught constitutional law. If this is "law," what is lawlessness?


If this were Putin, would Americans have trouble with the word tyranny?


The "White House" and CIA preserve much secrecy about drone strikes, asserting the authority to kill Americans like Anwar Al-Awlaki, echoeed by the press as if evidence had been made available to scrutinize...

In most cases, there is silence, and thus, no reporting, even falsely alleging the possession of evidence.


If one adds to this tyrannical approach only the Joint Special Operations Command which sends some 66,000 forces to do operations in a 100 countries - it did not just take out Bin Laden, something commendable but does many other things (see Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars) - the President begins to look like a George III on steroids. For the JSOC is a private army of the President subject to no public review, including no military review. Admiral McRaven's forces are outside of, secret from the normal chain of military command.

That this is not consistent with democracy, that Barack does horrors and that other likely leaders are not Obamas, is clear.


And then there is the NSA's spying on Americans...

At least in that case, Edward Snowden released the papers, told the truth, shined a light, revealed the criminality, and has suffered Obama chasing him across the globe, CIA officials threatening to "off him" (it is, after all, along with torture under Bush, what the CIA has become accustomed to...).


Heather's first article adds important detail the Justice Department's bizarre notion of "imminence."

But I should note that the Egypt of Arab Spring and the America of Madison and Occupy, along with the courage of Edward Snowden, exemplify the kinds of response that the democracy needs to offer to an increasingly authoritarian elite...


"Heather Roff

The Short Slide From Drones to Despotism
Huffington Post
Posted: 02/11/2013

This past week a secret white paper outlining legal justifications for the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen came to light. The brief, titled "Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qaida or an Associated Force" discusses how the Obama administration might find legal support for what appears on first glance as a patently illegal act.

The paper argues that the extrajudicial killing of US citizens does not violate citizens' 5th Amendment rights to due process, nor does it violate 4th Amendment rights to unreasonable searches and seizures. What's more, the paper even goes so far as to claim that the policy of targeted assassination of suspected members of Al-Qa'ida (AQ) does not violate US federal bans on unlawful killings in Title 18 or Executive Order 12333, which bans assassinations. In other words, the policy denies that government does any sort of wrong by acting outside of a body of constitutional and federal law that states the contrary.

Yet how does this happen? The magic bullet in the Department of Justice's argument is its definition of "imminence." Because most law states that in cases where the state's interest is in tension with the individual rights holder's interest, a "balancing" test should occur. This balancing ought to weigh things like national interest, defense, public welfare, etc., against the individual's claims to freedom, protection under the rule of law, and justice. In the case of extrajudicial killing of American citizens identified as "senior operational leaders of Al Qa'ida or an associated force", the government argues that the state's interest outweighs that of the individual because the state is in a publicly declared state of war with the group and its affiliates. Therefore, the US is acting in self-defense, and under commonsense and legal reasoning, if one is facing an imminent threat, one may act in self-defense pre-emptively to thwart that attack.

This all seems like a tidy legal argument to make. However, upon closer examination it is at best a legal farce and at worst detrimental to the rule of law in the US (and possibly elsewhere). The government's definition of "imminence" in this instance is not the normal usage, where we typically mean something temporally impending. The DoJ actually denies that the temporal element should even be part of the definition of "imminence' in this matter.

Rather, the DoJ argues that "imminent "is a matter of three features: continually planning to attack the US, the feasibility of capture, and the value of deterrence. That a US citizen abroad is determined to be part of AQ and its affiliates means, therefore, that he automatically satisfies the first condition, for the argument runs that AQ has declared war on the US. This might hold some (though little) traction, but the two other features are bizarre additions.

The "feasibility" of capture means that it is impractical to enter into a foreign country and extract the person for legal trial. This is for two reasons. The first is that the foreign country denies its consent to allow US troops into its sovereign territory to engage in a capture operation. The second is that such an operation, even if consented to, might be too risky to the operatives. How then might the US kill such a person if it is unfeasible to capture him (assuming all of the legal arguments are sound)? Enter the drones.

While the DoJ's white paper does not explicitly claim that unmanned aerial vehicles are the weapons of choice to assassinate these targets, it does state that it is not "impermissible" to use them. In other words, when a foreign state, like Pakistan or Yemen, harbors "senior operational leaders" of AQ, the US reserves a right to act in self-defense by killing those individuals because those individuals, at some point, plan to attack the US. If the foreign country denies access to US forces, the US believes it can send drones into the country's air space (and thus sovereign territory), and carry out a kill operation. Which is somewhat odd, as if the foreign state denies consent to put boots on its ground, then how would it feel about violations of air space? Moreover, by continually engaging such threats with lethal force, the "imminence" argument goes, there will be a deterrent effect (but for whom is left unclear).

But who determines whether an individual is a senior operational leader of AQ or its affiliates? Who decides whether a caption mission is unfeasible? Who decides to send in the drones? Again, the paper is rather vague, using only the language of "an informed high level official of the US government." This "high level official" is able to act outside of judicial review, as involving the courts would be onerous and threaten to encroach upon the Executive's power and judgment in performing his tasks as the Commander in Chief.

But such an argument tears away the very bedrock of US constitutional law. This "high level official" acts as judge, jury and executioner of US citizens. The rule of law becomes nothing more than something convenient to justify such acts, but when the law contradicts executing individuals without trial, evidentiary procedures or protections, then the law is overridden with a justification of "state's interests." What's more, if this white paper is any indication of the Obama administration's viewpoint on the legal justification of a targeted killing program, then it views its actions as fully congruent with US legal principles. Because the government is a "public authority" it can, basically, do no wrong. Anyone it decides to target automatically becomes the subject of a lawful killing.

What does all this ultimately mean? It means that if you find yourself in the unfortunate position to be deemed a "senior operational leader", you have no recourse through the rule of law, no protection from execution, and even your status as an "enemy force" offers you no protection (for belligerents in conflict also have rights). Moreover, the US saddles up its moral high horse and claims that its actions do not threaten the bedrock of individual rights and freedoms, but are done for the greater good.

If constitutional law can be stretched to such an extreme, if the executive can amass even more power into its hands, then there is a risk that such power can be used in the future to further erode the rights of US citizens -- perhaps not abroad but at home -- if the "high level official" deems it so. The result? This "high level official" starts more and more to look like an authoritarian monarch rather than a person representing one function in a system designed to guard against such despotism.

The drafters of the US constitution constructed a federated system with checks and balances to guard against this result. It seems now, with an increase in executive power and a new technology that attempts to sanitize war (on our side), such constructions might no longer be sufficient to guard rights."


"Heather Roff Visiting Associate Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver

"How Automated Wars Rob Us Of Humanity
Posted: 04/30/2013 12:03 pm

Hannah Arendt once used the phrase "the banality of evil" to describe the character of Adolph Eichmann's acquiescence in committing atrocities for the Nazi regime. What this phrase means, in Eichmann's case, is that it was his "sheer thoughtlessness -- something by no means identical with stupidity -- that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period." Indeed, it is "that such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together," that evil is in this sense banal, means that there is no thought -- no decision -- to be (or to act) evil. It is so commonplace, and it is a lack of thinking that results in the most horrific of actions. Thus Eichmann's most dangerous element was that he threw away what it meant to be human -- he threw away his capacity for rational thought and reflection on right and wrong, good and evil.

We are at a similar juncture with regards to a "lack of thinking." In our case, however, it is in regards to the delegation of thinking to a machine, and a lethal machine in particular. What I mean here is that militaries, and the U.S. military in particular, envisions a future where weapons do the thinking -- that is, planning, target selection and engagement. Already the U.S. military services have capabilities that enable weapons to seek out and queue targets, such as the F-35 joint fighter and some targeting software platforms on tanks, like the M1 Abrams, as well as seeking out targets and automatically engaging them, like Phalanx or Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar (CRAM) systems.

The U.S.' decision to rely on unmanned aerial vehicles, or "drones," admits to the appeal of fighting at a distance with the use of automated technology. The current drones in combat operations, such as the Predator and Reaper, show the ease with which killing by remote can be accomplished. While drones are certainly problematic, from a legal and moral standpoint in regards to targeted killings, human beings still ultimately control this type of technology. Human pilots are in the "cockpit," and for better (or worse) there are human beings making targeting decisions.

The worry, however, is that militaries are planning to push autonomy further than the F-35 joint striker (which is far more autonomous than the Predator or Reaper) to "fully autonomous" weapons. Moreover, while we might try to push this worry aside and claim that it is a long way off, or too futuristic, we cannot deny the middle term between now and "fully autonomous" weapons. In this middle term, the warfighter will become increasingly dependent upon such technologies to fight. Indeed, we already see this in "automation bias" (or the over-reliance on information generated by an automated process as a replacement for vigilant information seeking and processing). With increased dependence on the technology, this automation bias will only increase and thus will lead to a degeneration of not only strategic thinking in the services, but like the case of Eichmann, a lack of thinking more generally.

The evil here is that through the banality of autonomy, we risk not only creating a class of unthinking warfighters, but that the entire business of making war becomes so removed from human judgment and critical thinking that it too becomes commonplace. In fact, it might become so banal, so removed from human agency, that even the word "war" starts to lose meaning. For what would we call a conflict where one side, or both, hands over the "thinking" to a machine, doesn't risk its soldiers' lives, and perhaps doesn't even place human beings outside of its own borders to fight? "War" does not really seem to capture what is going on here.

The danger, of course, is that conflicts of this type might not only perpetuate asymmetric violence, but that it further erodes the very foundations of humanity. In other words, if we are not careful about the increasing push towards autonomous weapons, we risk vitiating the thinking, judging and thus rational capacity of humanity. What was once merely automation bias becomes the banality of autonomy, and in an ironic twist, humans lose their own ability to be "autonomous."

The human warfighter is now the drone."

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