When I broke into news reporting during the 1950s, the advice from veteran journalists was: “Kid, if a story is important, stay with it, even if few other reporters do.” Since news of our pilotless killer drones hurling more Hellfire missiles abroad has largely vanished from our press, here is more evidence of President Obama’s fixation on this dark side of our war on terrorism.
An impressive exception to the inattention to Obama’s favorite weapon is investigative reporter Adam Entous of Reuters. In “How the White House learned to love the drone” (May 18), he quotes two administration officials (who, of course, refused to be named) saying that killing wanted terrorists is simply “easier than capturing them.”
In a previous column, I quoted another U.S. intelligence officer in Yemen saying the same thing. Particularly revealing is Entous’ conversation with another intelligence official who confidently pointed out that this long-distance way of avoiding American combat deaths is “politically foolproof” for Obama because political campaigners of both parties compete “on who can kill more” of the jihadists.
Fearing no reprisals from American public opinion, Entous reports that, contrary to the administration’s claim that only high-level terrorists researched are targeted, “the CIA has killed around 12 times more low-level fighters than mid-to-high-level al-Qaida and Taliban leaders since the drone strikes intensified in the summer of 2008.”
Another of his sources, who was involved in our robotic warfare and has since left the service, added that the CIA’s targeting low-level foot soldiers worries him because “if it becomes a more generalized ‘kill anybody’ (approach), it degrades the notion we’re going after serious threats to the United States.
“It’s a slippery slope.”
The slope can be so steep that it does serious injury to our standing in the world, not only among our allies but also by becoming a boon to terrorism recruiters. On Scott Simon’s always-illuminating Weekend Edition program on National Public Radio, Mary Ellen O’Connell, a research professor at the University of Notre Dame, said:
“I am not at all against the use of technology that protects our soldiers, and I’m with the American public on that entirely. But I do think a lot about not only the legal but the moral ramifications of the drone, the ability to kill from thousands of miles away, not just a mile or two away. And what is that doing to us a nation?
“Are we really thinking through our leadership obligations to think, since we’re the first ones to have this technology and to use it regularly, are we really setting the pattern for the rest of the world? Are we really setting the legal and moral norms that should be governing their use only in situations of real necessity?” (“Drones Add Dangerous Silence to War,” NPR, July 17.)
Also troubled, as Reuters noted, are certain American military officers who are very much aware that the most murderous of the drone planes are run by the CIA.
“This is a proud military,” Adam Entous writes, “and many hate the drone program because it is a constant reminder that they’re not in control,” a former U.S. intelligence officer said. The CIA has sometimes been a law unto itself.
But, Entous adds, other American intelligence officers “proudly tout the drone campaign as the most precise and possibly humane targeted-killing program in the ‘history of warfare.’”
President Obama, please tell us how you define “precise” and “humane.”
Adds Jeffrey Addicott, a former legal adviser to Army Special Operations Forces, as he asks Entous: “Are we creating more enemies than we’re killing or capturing by our activities? Unfortunately, I think the answer is yes. These families have 10 sons each. You kill one son and you create 9 more enemies. You’re not winning over the population.”
Last year, another ever-vigilant reporter, Walter Pincus of The Washington Post, did tell us how enamored of the drones President Obama already was. He reported (Aug. 11, 2009): “The Air Force will train more pilots to fly unmanned aerial systems from ground operations centers (thousands of miles away) than pilots to fly fighter or bomber aircraft, Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz, the commander of Air Education and Training Command, told an audience.”
And this year, as more drones hover in the skies of Pakistan, a New York Times editorial reported that Obama diplomacy in Pakistan nonetheless pressed forward: “The State Department has committed to spend $107 million over two years to help Pakistanis better understand the United States. Plans include bringing 2,500 Pakistani academics and others on exchange visits and expanding after-school English classes in Pakistan.”
The Times adds: “There also are proposals to bring more American academics to Pakistan and to reopen cultural centers” (May 29).
“They should move ahead,” The New York Times urged the State Department.
Do you suppose that any of our visiting academics in Pakistan – in order to also learn more about the culture of sizable parts of the population that may scorn taking our English classes – will find the time to visit some of the Pakistan families continuing to mourn the loss of their loved ones who have been torn apart by Hellfire from our drones?
And back in our homeland, the Nation (June 24) reports: “Thanks to newly announced federal contracts, Wisconsin National Guard is planning to build a new $8 million base for unmanned drones. Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri is to be a drone base control. Rapid City’s nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base also recently ‘won’ a drone contract.
“In none of these places was there much of anything but joy at the news.” Maybe the State Department will bring visiting Pakistani academics there as well as to Whiteman.
Will there be anything but joy in Congress and the White House?