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US CHIEF MAGISTRATE’S DRONE WARFARE May 31, 2012

Posted by wmmbb in Duckspeak, Peace, Terrorism Issues, US Politics.
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Roman Emperors,  or at least the Roman Kings, who pre-dated them were Chief Magistrates much like Charles I of England who lost his head over the issue.

This unfortunate history has been referenced and not just in the early days of the American Republic. The President of the United States has been described as the “Chief Magistrate” by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson.

Now it seems that President Obama has pushed the idea further afield beyond the territorial extent of the United States to Pakistan, Yemen, and anywhere else the terrorist impunity of the murderous drone missile attacks might be launched at his discretion. Such is the responsibility of defending the homeland of the free and the brave.

Jo Becker and Scott Shane wrote in The New York Times, “Secret Kill List Provides a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will”. This is a extended and detailed account  that includes misgivings of officials and is implicitly critical of the President’s failing. We are given a first hand description of the operation of due process, with the implication that to be a membership  of al Qaeda makes you guilt of a crime against the United States of America, a capital crime:

It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.

This secret “nominations” process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia.

The video conferences are run by the Pentagon, which oversees strikes in those countries, and participants do not hesitate to call out a challenge, pressing for the evidence behind accusations of ties to Al Qaeda.

“What’s a Qaeda facilitator?” asked one participant, illustrating the spirit of the exchanges. “If I open a gate and you drive through it, am I a facilitator?” Given the contentious discussions, it can take five or six sessions for a name to be approved, and names go off the list if a suspect no longer appears to pose an imminent threat, the official said. A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan, where that agency conducts strikes.

The President, without any sense of hubris, has made himself responsible for particular attacks:

Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations. A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions. And he knows that bad strikes can tarnish America’s image and derail diplomacy.

“He realizes this isn’t science, this is judgments made off of, most of the time, human intelligence,” said Mr. Daley, the former chief of staff. “The president accepts as a fact that a certain amount of screw-ups are going to happen, and to him, that calls for a more judicious process.”

But the control he exercises also appears to reflect Mr. Obama’s striking self-confidence: he believes, according to several people who have worked closely with him, that his own judgment should be brought to bear on strikes.

Asked what surprised him most about Mr. Obama, Mr. Donilon, the national security adviser, answered immediately: “He’s a president who is quite comfortable with the use of force on behalf of the United States.”

And yet despite the qualifications in the article, it is a kill first policy. The deciders argue for their moral integrity, or at least others do for them:

Harold H. Koh, for instance, as dean of Yale Law School was a leading liberal critic of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies. But since becoming the State Department’s top lawyer, Mr. Koh said, he has found in Mr. Brennan a principled ally.

“If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude,” Mr. Koh said. “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”

The president values Mr. Brennan’s experience in assessing intelligence, from his own agency or others, and for the sobriety with which he approaches lethal operations, other aides say.

“The purpose of these actions is to mitigate threats to U.S. persons’ lives,” Mr. Brennan said in an interview. “It is the option of last recourse. So the president, and I think all of us here, don’t like the fact that people have to die. And so he wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous checklist: The infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.”

Yet the administration’s very success at killing terrorism suspects has been shadowed by a suspicion: that Mr. Obama has avoided the complications of detention by deciding, in effect, to take no prisoners alive. While scores of suspects have been killed under Mr. Obama, only one has been taken into American custody, and the president has balked at adding new prisoners to Guantánamo.

It turns out that specific instances “hardened” the President’s resolve and made him angry. In more direct and simple language he sought revenge – as perhaps his adversaries are seeking to do.

“Many times,” General Jones said, in similar circumstances, “at the 11th hour we waved off a mission simply because the target had people around them and we were able to loiter on station until they didn’t.”

But not this time. Mr. Obama, through Mr. Brennan, told the C.I.A. to take the shot, and Mr. Mehsud was killed, along with his wife and, by some reports, other family members as well, said a senior intelligence official.

The attempted bombing of an airliner a few months later, on Dec. 25, stiffened the president’s resolve, aides say. It was the culmination of a series of plots, including the killing of 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex. by an Army psychiatrist who had embraced radical Islam.

And then, I suppose, there is the stuff his domestic political opponents might say about him, such as he is weak of terrorism. As President, he has committed crimes against humanity, casting doubt about his implied divinity, although, according to the article, lessons were learnt from experience:

The very first strike under his watch in Yemen, on Dec. 17, 2009, offered a stark example of the difficulties of operating in what General Jones described as an “embryonic theater that we weren’t really familiar with.”

It killed not only its intended target, but also two neighboring families, and left behind a trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more innocents. It was hardly the kind of precise operation that Mr. Obama favored. Videos of children’s bodies and angry tribesmen holding up American missile parts flooded You Tube, fueling a ferocious backlash that Yemeni officials said bolstered Al Qaeda.

The sloppy strike shook Mr. Obama and Mr. Brennan, officials said, and once again they tried to impose some discipline.

The killing the American cleric was not sloppy but deliberate, and Obama declared it an easy decision to make:

That record, and Mr. Awlaki’s calls for more attacks, presented Mr. Obama with an urgent question: Could he order the targeted killing of an American citizen, in a country with which the United States was not at war, in secret and without the benefit of a trial?

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared a lengthy memo justifying that extraordinary step, asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.

Mr. Obama gave his approval, and Mr. Awlaki was killed in September 2011, along with a fellow propagandist, Samir Khan, an American citizen who was not on the target list but was traveling with him.

If the president had qualms about this momentous step, aides said he did not share them. Mr. Obama focused instead on the weight of the evidence showing that the cleric had joined the enemy and was plotting more terrorist attacks.

The article concludes with the pros and cons:

Mr. Blair, the former director of national intelligence, said the strike campaign was dangerously seductive. “It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” he said. “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

But Mr. Blair’s dissent puts him in a small minority of security experts. Mr. Obama’s record has eroded the political perception that Democrats are weak on national security. No one would have imagined four years ago that his counterterrorism policies would come under far more fierce attack from the American Civil Liberties Union than from Mr. Romney.

Aides say that Mr. Obama’s choices, though, are not surprising. The president’s reliance on strikes, said Mr. Leiter, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, “is far from a lurid fascination with covert action and special forces. It’s much more practical. He’s the president. He faces a post-Abdulmutallab situation, where he’s being told people might attack the United States tomorrow.”

The notion that governs this activity and the manner of its execution is that there is a war between the United States of America and al Qaeda, its former surrogate in Afghanistan, that state of belligerence extends to the Taliban, and while this is doubtful in Yemen the same policy of killing is perpetrated. The application of the laws of war, International Humanitarian Law, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were not mentioned. It is all about what serves a narrow “national interest” and supposedly what protests the nationals of a particular territory.

Jefferson Morley at Salon.com has written extensively about drone warfare. This includes, Boredom, terror, deadly mistakes: The secrets of the new drone warfare. It turns out the technological fix required some improvements:

The problems with the current operator system is that it was designed for engineers, not pilots, say drone specialists. The original drone was just an aerial surveillance vehicle; missiles were not added until 2001. Then with American forces at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, many commanding officers in difficult situations demanded this efficient new weapon for tracking and eliminating perceived enemies.

. . .The two most common causes of U.S.-inflicted civilian deaths, according to the science board, were the “lack of positive identification” and the “lack of tactical patience.”

On the first problem, technological improvements should help, say drone specialists. By bringing together more feeds of accurate intelligence into the control station, the pilots should be able to more precisely identify an armed enemy with higher-resolution photography and greater access to databases.

The second common cause of civilian deaths, the “lack of tactical patience,” is not a problem that can be solved technologically. That is a matter of training American soldiers to live in a surreal moral universe.

. . . “We don’t know if PTSD is more common among drone pilots than among aircraft pilots. It’s just different.”

. . .The issue is not trivial. Some legal authorities argue drone pilots could be charged with war crimes in the future. All the while, the drone war continues to escalate. According to a May 2010 report from the Human Performance Wing of the Air Force, the number of operator control stations in use is expected to double from 64 in 2010 to 168 by the end of 2012. The new stations will have a number of significant modifications including a more comfortable seat, unified screen, upgraded throttle and improved pedals.

The science board hopes that improved technology will mean that fewer noncombatants get killed.

Jefferson Morley speaks on the Alyona Show:

Chris Woods of the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism is the lead author of a report in 2011 of civilian drone deaths. He argues drone strikes raise issues of legality of these attacks and the international legal framework. His report included eye witness testimony. He is speaking on RT:

Glenn Greenwald has followed up on the NYT report at Salon.com, Obama the Warrior. The legal and moral issues involved will not be debated at length in the American election of President, since presumably killing defenceless people is considered to be toughness, and any associated trauma can be borne by those press the buttons in the desert of Nevada. Nor will it exercise the consideration of the mass media, since violence is an important part of the dish served, or beyond some serious head nodding in such outlets as the NYT.

All national interests and national leaders should be subject to the rule of law. If the rules of war do not envisage drones they should amended as to bring them up to date so as to address the crimes of the past, the present and the future. The presumption of divinity is one matter, and impartial, independent and open adjudication is another.

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