If drone warfare has come up at all this election season, it’s been in passing. The candidates don’t differ much on the use of pilotless drones. But how is the face of war changing, and how do our peace movements need to respond?
Jeremy Scahill is an award-winning investigative journalist and a founding editor of The Intercept. He’s the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, Dirty Wars (the book and the film), and now The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program, written with the staff of The Intercept.
Scahill joined me recently for a conversation that ranged from “death by metadata,” to corporations in the kill chain and the military-industrial complex.
You can watch the conversation in full (or listen to the podcast) on “The Laura Flanders Show.”
Laura Flanders: Let’s start with the meat of the matter, the book. It is based on a mountain of classified documents that you and your colleagues went through. Briefly, what is the most important thing we need to take from it?
Jeremy Scahill: The Obama administration and the president himself have claimed really from the first year of the administration on, that this is somehow a cleaner way of waging war, that it’s a smarter way of waging war and that it’s a more effective way of killing terrorists and protecting Americans. There’s no doubt that under President Obama dozens of people, who, I think, objectively could be declared terrorists, have been killed. Whether they went through a judicial process is a whole other story. But the entire thing is predicated on a lie, the lie that this is a cleaner, safer way of waging war. The reality is — and the documents that we obtained show this — in nine times out of 10, of the people killed in drone strikes by the US, the US doesn’t even know their identities. In other words, nine of the 10 people were not the intended targets of the strike. Were they other so-called bad guys? Maybe.
You have a chapter in the book co-authored with Glenn Greenwald called “Death by Metadata.”
Right. That’s how people are essentially being killed today. It’s not that you are locating an individual and killing them. They are locating people’s SIM cards [in their cell phones] or their handset numbers, and there’s a number of things. They call them selectors. Everything is in corporate language…. The SIM card has a way of communicating with the cell phone tower, and the phone itself has a way of communicating with the Wi-Fi communication. Your phone is basically just like a homing beacon that’s constantly admitting signals without your knowledge. So the US, the NSA, the CIA and the military are using those signals being emitted by everyone’s phones to triangulate the location of a phone that they believe to be in the possession of an individual, and that’s how they trigger the drone strike. In many cases, they’re not even 100 percent certain that they have the person, but they know they have the phone.
What if you’ve given your phone to someone?
It does happen. In fact, the source who gave us these documents, the whistleblower who worked on the targeted assassination campaign, said that they would watch the Taliban go into meetings. Then they would shuffle a bag of SIM cards, pass them out, and then they would all go their separate ways. They understand the system. There have also been a number of cases where people have been killed because they had a phone that US intelligence believed was connected to terrorism. Then a drone strike takes place, and it turns out not [to have targeted] the “right” person.
Now, the White House says it’s releasing documents purporting to tell us more about who’s targeted and why. What do we need to think about when we hear the White House talk about its releases?
President Obama is a constitutional lawyer by trade and training and has a lot of support from liberals … I think people generally on the liberal end of the spectrum say, “Well, we trust Obama with this stuff. We wouldn’t want the Republicans to have it” — which is a whole other moral discussion — “but we trust Obama.”
“Corporations are making a killing off of this killing.”
When the president of the United States looks into a camera and says, “The number of civilians killed is minimal” … I don’t think it’s that the president is knowingly lying to people. It’s that the system — and this is what our documents in the book show — is created so that the number will almost always be zero when asked how many civilians were killed because everyone killed in a drone strike, unless they are clearly a woman or a child, is going to be designated as an enemy killed in action. The only way you lose that designation after death is if posthumously you are proven to have not been a terrorist.
It’s sort of the reverse of due process. When Obama says, “The number of civilians killed is minimal,” it’s because the system produces the number zero or very low numbers every time they do a strike unless a journalist or a human rights organization goes to the scene and figures out, “Wait, these people weren’t terrorists. This was a wedding party.”
Now, you said some people even on the liberal side of the spectrum are comfortable with, “Well, as long as Obama’s in charge,” but he’s not the only person in charge. There’s a whole kill chain. An extraordinary part of your book is Cora Currier’s reporting on the materials that you were able to receive. The other piece of it is that corporations are involved in all of this, too. Talk a little bit about the role the corporations play in our assassination complex.
First of all, many of the slides that were produced that we have in the book for the US military were actually done by a national security division of the IBM corporation where they have a whole national security division. They use some of the same language and actually the same templates for slides that are about hunting and killing people for other corporate clients [too]. It seems like they are producing widgets. I mean that’s how they talk about it. The banality of evil just is kind of oozing from these things because it’s like, who are the authors who wrote these documents that refer to find, fix, finish, all of these terms that they use? We have a whole glossary of them in there.
“There’s nothing new in warfare except the technology.”
I mean corporations are making a killing off of this killing. You have Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and then you have these huge farms filled with private contractors who are on loan or being rented to the US government to be drone pilots or to be intelligence analysts. Those individuals are essentially part of a matrix that is a for-profit industry of killing. It’s wrapped in this flag of patriotism and national security. But at the end of the day there’s very little difference between what is happening now with the warfare industry and drones [and] what happened with [President] Lyndon Johnson when he was throwing contracts to Bell Helicopter because they were a Texas company and the Vietnam War seemed like a great market for them.
The military-industrial-war-killing complex is, as you said, nothing brand new, but this definitely is a new form. We often talk on this program about the history of capitalism and how it keeps going. First you exploit land, then you exploit people, and increasingly it looks as if war has become the way capitalism self-perpetuates.
If you look at what the US is doing in Africa right now, it is a form of neocolonialism…. You have an increasing number of what they call small footprint bases throughout Africa. The US, rather than deploying large numbers of troops, is starting to create outposts where they can fly drones and other essentially robotic tools of war and then also partnering up with unsavory militias or human rights-abusing governments. I recently did a story about how Erik Prince … the creator of Blackwater [is] creating a privatized air force using crop dusters manufactured by a farm company in the US state of Georgia and weaponizing them to sell to the Christian supremacist leader of South Sudan.
You have this growing covert or not-so-covert military presence in Africa. If you just rewind history half a century, there were these liberation struggles against exploitation of natural resources, against stomping out any attempts at self-determination. I feel like there’s nothing new in warfare except the technology. These companies are very much like the Dutch East India Trading Company and United Fruit. They’re just a little bit more sophisticated in how they conduct their business.
One of the topics we hear about a lot is the close relationship between the US policing system and Israel’s. Does Israel show up a lot in these leaks?
Well, Israel doesn’t show up in these documents. In some ways, Israel is more effective at keeping secrets than the US intelligence community. You haven’t had this scale of a leak on the Israeli program at all. In fact, the only real … remember, and I know you’ve reported on this a lot, Mordechai Vanunu, the former Israeli nuclear worker, blew the whistle in the early 1980s about Israel having nuclear weapons, which was an open secret, but he confirmed it. Then, he was, as a result of that, kidnapped and then had his entire life destroyed, spent decades basically in prison or being driven to insanity.
“All of these policies that were unleashed around the world now have come home in the most real way ever.”
There is a very deep Israeli connection to this. That is that the US has whole cloth adopted the Israeli assassination model. In the ’90s, Israel began very openly and proudly bumping off people, Palestinians who they considered to be either too popular of leaders or they accused of being heads of terror cells. After 9/11, when the Bush administration was trying to basically keep all of the blame on the Clinton era, Richard Clarke, who was the counterterrorism czar in the waning years of Clinton and then continued on with Bush, testified in the secret hearing in front of Congress that the reason that they didn’t want to use a weaponized drone to kill [Osama] bin Laden early on or to launch a cruise missile strike that would effectively kill him is they didn’t want to give the perception to the world that the US was running an Israeli-style assassination program. Fast forward to the middle of the Bush administration and then the Obama administration, [and] we have become the Israeli assassination program across the globe.
How does our peace movement need to change to respond to the current moment?
I think that if we step back and look at it, especially people that are just really focused on antiwar activism [need to] pay attention to the fact that everything you’ve been opposing around the world is here now … It’s in the targeting of young Black people by law enforcement. It’s in the paramilitarization of police forces in this country…. It’s [in] the militarization of the border. All of these policies that were unleashed around the world now have come home in the most real way ever, where local police forces all look like SWAT teams now. There’s a whole program that the Homeland Security Department runs to give grants to local law enforcement to obtain armored vehicles that the military is done using in Afghanistan. Those are now facing down against protesters, but also [more generally against] Black communities or poor communities.
Jeremy Scahill’s book is The Assassination Complex co-authored with the staff of The Intercept. “The Laura Flanders Show” airs multiple times weekly on KCET/LINKtv, (DIRECTV Ch. 375 and DISH Network Ch. 9410), on FreeSpeech TV and in Spanish and English on the Latin American network teleSUR. For more information or to watch more coverage of drone warfare, go to LauraFlanders.com.