This week, The Intercept published a series of articles on U.S. drone warfare, “The Drone Papers” — a title clearly intended to evoke memories of “The Pentagon Papers,” leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971.
Micah Zenko, a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes:
Having read probably every major reported story about U.S. counterterrorism operations for the past dozen years, I am consistently disappointed that journalists leave out essential context, history, or directly relevant previous reporting by other journalists. Often, what is promoted as an “exclusive” or “breaking” story can only be described this way by omission. Whether that omission is done unconsciously, due to a lack of knowledge of others’ work, or mandated by space constraints for print editions, it misleads readers about the uniqueness of the story reported. Thankfully, the Intercept has taken the time to put its stories into context and explicitly name and link to the work of other journalists and even academics. This is a model that all national security journalists should emulate.
Nevertheless, Zenko reaches this conclusion:
as impressive and important as “The Drone Papers” are, I am sadly certain that this balanced reporting and its eye-opening disclosures will not compel any new concerns or investigations in Washington. Nor should we ever expect them under this president and this Congress.
For researchers and human rights activists, reporting of this kind is bound to be welcomed, yet it’s debatable whether it contains any significant eye-opening disclosures. Indeed, I have my doubts about whether any major piece of investigative journalism can be based on Powerpoint presentations.
Only 15 copies of the Pentagon Papers were officially made. How many analysts, contractors, and other officials have had access to the so-called Drone Papers? If we knew that, we would probably be able to infer more about the position of the source and likewise assess whether the documents contain any closely guarded secrets.
Even though the Obama administration has been seriously lacking in transparency when it comes to the mechanics and legal rationales it has applied during a period in which it has succeeded in normalizing assassination, the fact that most Americans support drone warfare does not seem to be the result of a lack of information.
The American public is famously ignorant — especially when it comes to foreign affairs — yet I don’t believe that those Americans who support drone strikes do so because they don’t know enough about how the government decides who can justifiably be assassinated.
If the target is a man with a dark skin, an Arabic name, he wears a beard and baggy clothing, he has been deemed dangerous enough to be called a terrorist and is located in Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia, that in many Americans’ eyes is sufficient “due process” to incinerate him with a Hellfire missile.
The bureaucratic process leading up to such a missile strike is a legal and political structure built upon a broad social foundation.
That social foundation is what allowed President Obama to joke about drone strikes and what gave him the confidence to pursue a policy of assassination.
Prudence required the construction of necessary legal protections so that no one in the chain of command might later face prosecution, and yet what must have convinced Obama that he was entitled to claim the authority to sign death warrants was his well-founded belief that he was in alignment with the mood and values of the American public.
The permissive atmosphere that facilitated the implementation and expansion of drone warfare has always hinged on the assumptions that it takes place in parts of the world so forbidding that no American would want to be sent there and that those whose lives get snuffed out would never be welcome on these shores.
These are not political or legal considerations, but rather visceral sentiments about what it means to be an American and how little value is attached to the rest of the world and its inhabitants.
Moreover, drone warfare has been deemed acceptable not only because of who it targets and where it takes place, but also because it embodies the most popular conception of American justice.
The only so-called advanced nation on this planet that still applies the death penalty is one in which justice is primarily conceived in terms of retribution.
The legal process, rather than being seen as the method for administering justice, is just as often viewed as an impediment to the application of justice. From this perspective, drone warfare far from undermining the rule of law has instead, in the eyes of many Americans, made it more efficient.
Those American observers who choose to characterize drone warfare as an expression of the national security state gone wild, are also conveniently ignoring the culpability of fellow Americans. Blame the government and then everyone else remains innocent.
In reality, Obama was only able to sign off on drone strikes because he was getting a quiet nod from most Americans.