Daniel Klaidman’s love affair with drones

Glenn Greenwald describes the video below as “one of the most flagrant and repellent examples of rank government propaganda masquerading as objective journalism that I have ever seen”.

In his ongoing defense of drone warfare — in tandem with the promotion of his new book — Klaidman writes:

The fact that a CIA or military operator can take out a target from the comfortable confines of their cubicle, far removed from the battlefield, without subjecting themselves to any risk, troubles people. The suggestion is that the ability to kill remotely dulls one’s moral sensibilities. But is that true? It’s hard to know without talking to CIA drone operators themselves. Since the program is covert, that’s not possible. But in reporting my book, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, I was able to get a remarkable, if second hand, glimpse into the mind set of a CIA drone operator.

In the book, I report out a conversation between the State Department’s legal adviser, Harold Koh, and a drone operator at CIA headquarters. Koh, perhaps the most forceful advocate of human rights law in the Obama administration, was preparing a speech in defense of targeted killing, and wanted to do his homework; he wasn’t going to put his reputation in jeopardy without knowing the drone strike program and its protocols inside and out. He spent hours at Langley grilling agency lawyers and operators. The operators were naturally suspicious of Koh—a wariness only fueled by Koh’s blunt demeanor. “I hear you guys have a PlayStation mentality,” he said.

The operators of the unmanned drones were civilians, but most were ex-Air Force pilots who took umbrage at the idea that they were “cubicle warriors” morally detached from killing. The lead operator lit into Koh. “I used to fly my own air missions,” he began defensively. “I dropped bombs, hit my target load, but had no idea who I hit. Here I can look at their faces. I watch them for hours, see these guys playing with their kids and wives. When I get them alone, I have no compunction about blowing them to bits. But I wouldn’t touch them with civilians around. After the strike, I see the bodies being carried out of the house. I see the women weeping and in positions of mourning. That’s not PlayStation; that’s real. My job is to watch after the strike too. I count the bodies and watch the funerals. I don’t let others clean up the mess.”

The conversation must have proved persuasive; Koh gave his speech, defending the legal underpinning of the job the drone operator and his colleagues do.

The expression “take out” has become so widely adopted it might seem that it barely warrants attention these days, but still, I find it a revealing euphemism. Journalists like Klaidman clearly prefer “take out” rather than “kill” even though the expression conjures up images of a gangster ordering the elimination of a rival. To speak of taking out targets is to transparently align oneself with those who exercise the power to order executions.

Klaidman mounts a defense of drone operators and attempts to demonstrate that their remoteness from the battlefield does not shield them from the moral weight of warfare. Indeed, through the words of the operative that he cites, Klaidman implies that a drone operator who spends hours following the movements of his target, acquires through this intimate view a deeper and more moral understanding of what it means to kill. He ignores the possibility that the predator hunting his prey gains just as much insight into premeditated murder.

Both Klaidman and the unnamed drone operator invoke this perverse image of humanitarian concern: that if a child’s father is blown to shreds but the child survives because the assassin didn’t fire his missile until after the child had moved a safe distance from the blast zone, then the drone operator, the CIA or Pentagon, the U.S. government, and by extension the American people, can all regard themselves as merciful. Look, we don’t kill the little children. How tender and caring we all are.

In the comic book categories through which Americans are encouraged to view the world, label someone a “terrorist,” and all other labels, such as “father,” “husband,” “brother,” suddenly fade into irrelevance.

For those not fully convinced by Klaidman’s argument, the apparent clincher is that the only alternative to drone strikes is much more destructive air strikes. A Hellfire missile does less damage than a 500lb bomb and that’s why its use constitutes a “humanitarian advance.” Case closed, Klaidman would have it.

The lie embedded in this line of reasoning is that absent the bomb or the missile we are inviting another 9/11 attack on the United States and thus strikes of one kind or another are a necessity. Klaidman, like all true believers in the war on terrorism, refuses to acknowledge that just as was the case eleven years ago, the ability of terrorists to attack targets in the United States does not hinge on the freedom of movement of a handful of al Qaeda operatives in North Waziristan.

Klaidman’s how-I-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-drone mission seems like a kind of sexual infatuation. During a couple of years research he has concluded that drones are simply irresistible. And since he appears to have confined himself to interviewing advocates of remote warfare it’s not surprising he would reach that conclusion. Presumably the idea of going to Pakistan and talking to survivors of drone attacks is something Klaidman would have viewed as unthinkable — even though had he wanted to balance his research in this way, I have no doubt that The Bureau of Investigative Journalism or Clive Stafford Smith at Reprieve could have facilitated such interviews.

Klaidman makes a feeble appeal for greater transparency around Obama’s drone warfare policy, but secrecy applied to drone attacks is no different from secrecy applied anywhere else: it’s primary function is to impede the political, legal, and media scrutiny that might undermine the operation of the program. As always, secrecy serves as a license for criminality.

The drone operator is really the high tech equivalent of a sniper and as Randall Collins has noted, the sniper, even within the military, is regarded as a different kind of killer.

Snipers tend to be disliked even by their fellow soldiers, or at least regarded with uneasiness. A British sniper officer in World War I noted that infantrymen did not like to mingle with the snipers “for there was something about them that set them apart from ordinary men and made the soldiers uncomfortable”… World War II soldiers sometimes jeered at them. U.S. snipers in Vietnam were met with the comment: “Here comes Murder Incorporated.”

For Klaidman though, the unassailable virtue of drone warfare is precision. “It is precisely the pinpoint accuracy of drones that makes them such a significant humanitarian advance over other kinds of weaponry.”

But as a method of assassination, a Hellfire missile launched from a Predator drone is actually among the least precise weapons. That’s why Osama bin Laden was assassinated by a more traditional method — a bullet in the forehead — Obama couldn’t risk the uncertainty that would prevail from a drone attack.

And those of us who object to drone warfare are not as Klaidman would have it, afraid of the drones’ supernatural power — we are afraid of a very worldly presidential power which claims the right to execute anyone anywhere.

When a handful of officials can meet in secret, review secret evidence, and apply a secret legal rationale to issue a death sentence and when the revelation of a “kill list” created in this way prompts virtually no public outcry, then we should not only fear our government — we should fear the passivity of those around us who seem blithely indifferent about America’s slide towards totalitarian rule.

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4 thoughts on “Daniel Klaidman’s love affair with drones

  1. rosemerry

    I could not even stomach the four minutes of Klaidman, but thanks Glenn for the great post as usual.

  2. Denny

    Klaidman is a very trenchant example of the ‘New Warrior’ psychology. Despite his thoroughly ‘researched’ intimate information concerning the remote murder program of the U.S. Government; he is merely a fairly intelligent groupie, wannabe and cheerleader for random death. That the drone pilots are so ‘concerned’ about injuring and killing civilians is not proven by the large numbers of dead innocents found in the final statistics. That’s dead children, women, the infirm, the aged and finally, men. Klaidman and the people he’s interviewed possess a contempt for human life which is almost immeasurable except when one stares at the remains of the smoldering bodies and homes found after their attacks. Their ilk is not slouching toward Bethlehem anymore. They’re slouching home.

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