Droning On

It was a layered Christmas. Those of us who were kids in the fifties and came of age in the sixties are the quiet old folks now – that Animal House movie might as well have been about Ancient Rome, and that Summer of Love and then Woodstock have now faded into something like myth. Did any of that really happen? It should have. It’s now something to look up. The kids don’t get it of course – but they’re the adults now, with their mortgages and their careers, and they chat about such things. And their kids now run all over the place, laughing and shouting and terrifying the two cats – as kids should. It’s just another family Christmas – on three temporal planes, as such things always are.

But over the last several years there’s been an odd quiet now and then, for at least a few hours. Almost suddenly there’s no movement. The cats wander back into the room. And it’s the video games – various kids curled up in a corner of the sofa, with the handhelds, staring at the little screens as the faint blips and beeps and snatches of tiny music sound softly – and two of them are upstairs on the computer, involved in something more complex. And all of them are simply removed from the real-time present. They’re elsewhere. They’ve been removed from the day. In some ways it’s a relief – it gives the adults a chance to be something like civilized. And the kids will be back to stick hockey in the garage or their ball game in the street soon enough. But the sudden stillness is still odd. That didn’t use to happen.

But technology changes things. And this technology – like a good book – removes you from the here and now. But the video games seem somehow different than good books – somehow narrower, as you interactively drive fast or slay dragons or steal cars or whatever. This is addictive fast action, displayed on a small screen, divorced from ideas and emotion, or any sort of even vaguely deep thought. It’s not like a book at all. You just figure out how to beat the system, really just complex computer code, displayed in amazing graphics, devised by a team of geeks up in San Jose or wherever. It is great fun, but isolating. You lose yourself, and the outside world, in the game. Unlike with a good book, you don’t later reconnect with real life, such as it is.

But that’s fine. It keeps the kids quiet for a time, and it probably improves their eye-hand coordination and their problem-solving skills. And there’s no point in taking these things too seriously. It’s just another toy, and toys change all the time. But on the other hand, toys sometimes evolve into tools, and Greg Miller in the Washington Post inadvertently shows how that has happened:

The Obama administration’s counterterrorism accomplishments are most apparent in what it has been able to dismantle, including CIA prisons and entire tiers of al-Qaeda’s leadership. But what the administration has assembled, hidden from public view, may be equally consequential.

In the space of three years, the administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries. The apparatus involves dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force cockpits in the Southwest and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents.

Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts. But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.

The rapid expansion of the drone program has blurred long-standing boundaries between the CIA and the military. Lethal operations are increasingly assembled a la carte, piecing together personnel and equipment in ways that allow the White House to toggle between separate legal authorities that govern the use of lethal force.

Miller doesn’t mention video games, but he doesn’t have to, and at Balloon Juice, John Cole offers a simple comment:

Killing people in defense of this nation should be open and in full view of the public, not something decided in a CIA star chamber. And I just can’t wait until other nations get this technology and start to use it as casually as we have been.

We did get casual, as you lose yourself, and the outside world, in the video game, and David Dayen offers this:

On the foreign policy front, the biggest development of 2011 was not the European crisis, which could still lead to a breakup of the common currency. It was not even the Arab spring. It was the development of the new American way of war, the unaccountable, secret, shadow operation being undertaken throughout the world in the name of fighting terrorism. Of all the “Nixon goes to China” moments the Obama Administration could have pursued, they actually followed through on this one, and it has had the intended effect. By engaging in a more aggressive covert war strategy than his predecessor, Obama has pushed to the right of Republicans while muting criticism from Democrats who don’t want to give their party leader a hard time, as long as there are no terrorist attacks.

It’s a new world, as Miller notes:

In Yemen, for instance, the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command pursue the same adversary with nearly identical aircraft. But they alternate taking the lead on strikes to exploit their separate authorities, and they maintain separate kill lists that overlap but don’t match. CIA and military strikes this fall killed three U.S. citizens, two of whom were suspected al-Qaeda operatives.

And Dayen says this highlights a real gap in our national conversation:

We simply do not wrestle with the fact that this Administration has asserted a right to kill from a robot plane in the sky anyone they designate as a terrorist, without restrictions or checks on that authority. What’s more, they have put in place the infrastructure to carry out this alleged right, and once governments put in place that infrastructure, they usually feel obligated to use it.

Somehow it’s just a video game, with what Dayen cites as this complication:

What’s more, this secret war completely blurs the lines between the covert operations of the military and the covert operations of the CIA, as Miller discusses. The Pentagon becomes an impossibly large front organization for the real war games hiding in the shadows, without oversight, without publication.

But Dayen also notes that countries have begun to fight back against these programs:

Pakistan kicked out the CIA drone program recently, leading to the Christmas drone truce. In Yemen, the strikes continue, but if elections yield a popular government, the same dynamic could result. The Administration relishes the thought of instituting a drone program in Somalia because they would have no government to deal with in approving it.

But this is not a video game, and Dayen suggests it may be time to talk about just what is really going on:

The drone program is an official secret in Washington, which conveniently resists open discussion about it. But we should have a conversation about the implications of an asserted right to kill anyone, including US citizens, from the sky without due process, at the whim of a star chamber of national security officials, without the input of any more accountable organization. It’s impossible not to acknowledge the slippery slope potential here. The alleged benefits of taking out Al Qaeda operatives pale in comparison to the possibility of a future with robot executioners displaying extreme prejudice on anyone a rogue CIA officer feels like silencing. It doesn’t matter whether this President’s intentions for the drone program are “circumscribed,” as senior officials claim in the piece. It matters whether the precedent is set.

Someone has lost themselves, and the outside world, in the game. But Miller hints at why that happened:

Those results, delivered with unprecedented precision from aircraft that put no American pilots at risk, may help explain why the drone campaign has never attracted as much scrutiny as the detention or interrogation programs of the George W. Bush era. Although human rights advocates and others are increasingly critical of the drone program, the level of public debate remains muted.

Senior Democrats barely blink at the idea that a president from their party has assembled such a highly efficient machine for the targeted killing of suspected terrorists. It is a measure of the extent to which the drone campaign has become an awkward open secret in Washington that even those inclined to express misgivings can only allude to a program that, officially, they are not allowed to discuss. …

Another reason for the lack of extensive debate is secrecy. The White House has refused to divulge details about the structure of the drone program or, with rare exceptions, who has been killed. White House and CIA officials declined to speak for attribution for this article.

No American pilots at risk and most Democrats barely blink – it’s just a game when no one’s at risk, and when no one knows who we just killed. And Kevin Drum offers this:

I remain convinced that manned fighters would attract far more attention than drones, and we’ve allowed ourselves to be lulled into indifference simply because of the video-game nature of the drone program. This is reinforced by the fact that there’s essentially no partisan opposition any longer. Republicans are in favor of anything that kills more bad guys, regardless of collateral damage, and Democrats are unwilling to make trouble for a president of their own party. Put those two things together, and drones have become stealth weapons both politically and technologically.

The truth is that I’m not sure what to think of all this. The bulk of the U.S. drone program has been in Afghanistan, where we’re fighting a declared war, and in Pakistan and Yemen, where drone strikes are carried out with the cooperation of the host country. … But I wonder how long that will last. Somalia is next on the list, and an administration official tells Miller that it’s an inviting target not because the host government would cooperate, but because there’s basically no host government to worry about. That’s one more step along a slippery slope to simply using drones wherever we want because nobody is really paying much attention.

And Digby adds this:

Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts. But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.

The article doesn’t seem to find any of this particularly shocking. They ran it on the Monday after Christmas, so they certainly weren’t looking for any publicity. But it is just a little bit disconcerting that a President who ran as an anti-war candidate and received the Nobel Peace Prize is doing it, don’t you think?

Sources indicate that much of the growth of this program came about because of the growth of the technology. I guess that, like children with toys, those who have access to them simply have to use them.

That may be a bit too glib. The toys in question are pretty wonderful – even amazing – and great fun. But they’re just toys. Perhaps you need to think a bit before you convert a toy into a weapons system.

And Glenn Greenwald certainly thinks a bit:

In sum: the President can kill whomever he wants anywhere in the world (including U.S. citizens) without a shred of check or oversight, and has massively escalated these killings since taking office (at the time of Obama’s inauguration, the U.S. used drone attacks in only one country, Pakistan – under Obama, these attacks have occurred in at least six Muslim countries). Because it’s a Democrat (rather than big, bad George W. Bush) doing this, virtually no members of that Party utter a peep of objection (a few are willing to express only the most tepid, abstract “concerns” about the possibility of future abuse). And even though these systematic, covert killings are widely known and discussed in newspapers all over the world – particularly in the places where they continue to extinguish the lives of innocent people by the dozens, including children – Obama designates even the existence of the program a secret, which means our democratic representatives and all of official Washington are barred by the force of law from commenting on it or even acknowledging that a CIA drone program exists (a prohibition enforced by an administration that has prosecuted leaks it dislikes more harshly than any other prior administration).


Inside the White House, according to officials who would discuss the drone program only on the condition of anonymity, the drone is seen as a critical tool whose evolution was accelerating even before Obama was elected.


The Most Transparent Administration Ever™ not only prevents public debate by shrouding the entire program in secrecy – including who they’re killing and why, and even including their claimed legal basis for these killings (what Democratic lawyers decried during the Bush years as the tyranny of “secret law”) – but they then dispatch their own officials to defend what they’re doing solely under the cover of anonymity so there is no accountability. And, of course, the Post (in an otherwise good though imperfect article) dutifully allows them to do this. In other words: if you ask us about our systematic killing operation, we’ll refuse to answer or even acknowledge it exists and we will legally bar critics from talking about it in public; nobody in government can comment on any of this except us, which we’ll do only by issuing anonymous decrees declaring it Good and Right.

And in the Post, Miller also offered this:

Key members of Obama’s national security team came into office more inclined to endorse drone strikes than were their counterparts under Bush, current and former officials said. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former CIA director and current Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, and counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan seemed always ready to step on the accelerator….

The only member of Obama’s team known to have formally raised objections to the expanding drone campaign is Dennis Blair, who served as director of national intelligence. During a National Security Council meeting in November 2009, Blair sought to override the agenda and force a debate on the use of drones, according to two participants.

Blair has since articulated his concerns publicly, calling for a suspension of unilateral drone strikes in Pakistan, which he argues damage relations with that country and kill mainly mid-level militants. But he now speaks as a private citizen. His opinion contributed to his isolation from Obama’s inner circle, and he was fired last year.


Obama officials love secret, targeted killing far more even than Bush officials did. They’re “always ready to step on the accelerator” (and, of course, they went further than Bush by even targeting U.S. citizens far from any battlefield). Only Admiral Blair raised objections, and was fired for them, and is now reduced to explaining in Op-Eds that these killings at this point do relatively little to harm Al Qaeda but rather do the opposite: they increase the risk of Terrorism by fueling anti-American hatred, predictably left in the wake of the corpses of innocent men, woman and children throughout the Muslim world piled up by the Obama program.

It seems some folks don’t see this as a cool video game. Their kid is dead. And Greenwald points out where this has left us:

Americans love to think that they are so very informed as a result of the robust, free press they enjoy, while those primitive, benighted Muslims are tragically manipulated and propagandized by their governments. Yet here we have an extraordinarily consequential “vast drone/killing operation,” and while those in the Muslim world are well aware of what it is and what it does and debate all of that openly and vigorously, Americans are largely kept in the dark about it.

He goes on to say that this Post article “provides such a vivid snapshot of what Washington is and how it works” – which may be a bit harsh, or not. Maybe they just haven’t thought this through.

And the press isn’t helping. Greenwald goes on to discuss commentators who have periodically discussed Obama’s drone program critically – Rachel Maddow in 2009 here and here – and Chris Hayes has sought to include perspectives from the region where we do this sort of thing. But there’s not much of that – and he flagged this CNN article describing a child-victim. But he notes that article has now been substantially re-written – without any explanation. Our government denies drone strikes in that part of Pakistan. CNN shut up.

And then there’s the political climate, where there’s no partisan gain to be had from it, and most of Obama’s fans won’t even discuss this:

Given that it’s a policy supported by both parties, it doesn’t help one side or the other win an election, so what’s the point of talking about it? Anyone who does raise it will be immediately met with these vapid questions from election-obsessed partisans: but what does this have to do with the election (the one that’s still almost a full year away}? Won’t it help Mitt Romney if you complain about this? In general, people aren’t tuning in to MSNBC to hear stories about the Muslim children killed by President Obama’s covert killing operations (and certainly aren’t turning in to hear their bereaved relatives interviewed): it doesn’t prove how horrible Rick Perry and John Boehner are, so it’s the last thing Ed Schultz or Al Sharpton are going to talk about …

And of course it’s all fine with Fox News and the Republicans on the other side of things.

But what are we to make of all this? The video games are just fine. They’re kind of cool. But life isn’t a video game. Even the kids know that. Why don’t the adults know that? What happened to them? They’re the ones who keep droning on.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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