How do you explain drone killings? With post-Orwellian "Newspeak"

In the logic of perma-war, "imminent threat" is everywhere and drone attacks on Americans are no problem

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 9, 2013 5:00PM (EST)

                      (Reuters/Jason Reed)
(Reuters/Jason Reed)

John Brennan’s confirmation hearing on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee struck many observers as a small but significant step in the direction of openness, a chink in the armor of secrecy that the last two presidential administrations have erected around the “war on terror.” Maybe that will turn out to be correct, and the incoming CIA director – the principal architect of President Obama’s drone war, and until recently a defender of rendition and “enhanced interrogation” – will launch a new era of transparency in Langley. While we wait for that, would you like to see this bridge I’ve got for sale in Brooklyn?

Indeed, watching the Brennan hearing, and then struggling through the troubling Justice Department “white paper” spelling out the legal justification for the drone killings of American citizens (which was recently acquired and released by NBC News), left me with quite a different feeling. In large part, this was the feeling that our government’s imperial creep continues uninterrupted, that most people simply don’t care (irrespective of their supposed political views) and that almost everyone involved in this charade, especially those of us in the media who are supposed to serve as the watchdogs, has agreed to ignore the most obvious and glaring questions.

Beyond all that, and to a large extent underlying it, there is also the post-Orwellian creep of our language, and of all public discourse, towards emptiness. What Orwell described was a phenomenon distinct to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, the abrupt replacement of ordinary language with a propagandistic and bureaucratic Newspeak designed to make ideological resistance impossible. In the electoral dictatorship now developing in the United States – and no, that isn’t a contradiction in terms – you can find sterling examples of such Newspeak and doublethink. But the most prominent American version, which I’m calling post-Orwellian, is subtler: Ordinary words whose meanings seem clear enough on the surface, such as “war” or “enemy” or “self-defense” or “imminent” (not to mention the ever-fraught “terrorism”) turn out not to mean anything at all, or to be legalistic terms of art with endlessly expansive frames of reference.

If this is starting to sound too much like a graduate seminar in literary theory, let’s remember that the real subject here is an amorphous 12-year war conducted largely in secret by two presidential administrations from opposing parties. Its result, if not its true purpose, has been the creation of an invisible and unaccountable national-security state apparatus and the consolidation of immense and unprecedented power in the executive branch. If the Bush administration claimed the right to detain and torture anyone it wanted to at “black sites” in insalubrious parts of the world, the Obama administration has arguably gone even further, claiming the right to kill anyone anywhere whom it deems to be an enemy combatant, including United States citizens like Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenage son, with long-range drone strikes piloted from afar.

Historians, political scientists and policy analysts will be hashing out the rights and wrongs of these issues for years to come, and there’s no denying that one reason we elect presidents is to entrust them with decisions that cannot realistically be made in public. But the combination of imperial creep and linguistic creep, and the reflexive America-first jingoism of almost all public discourse, even among so-called liberals, makes it difficult even to ask certain kinds of questions without seeming dim or embarrassing. Why, for instance, does the United States, and only the United States, possess the authority to treat the entire developing world as a war zone and rain high-tech death from above on villages in Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia and other places so classified we don’t know about them yet? (Some sources suggest that upwards of 3,000 alleged al-Qaida militants have been killed by drone strikes in those places during Obama’s presidency, along with several hundred civilians.)

I suppose to some people the answer seems self-evident, and I don’t want to sound hopelessly naïve: Yes, the U.S. is the world's only military superpower at the moment, yada yada. But, seriously, try to imagine what would happen if the Chinese or the Iranians started routinely blowing up people they didn’t like in countries thousands of miles away, randomly killing civilians by the dozens along the way. Every senator on that committee would give birth to multiple litters of kittens, call for the launching of World War III, and immediately pass laws granting the president unlimited war powers into the indefinite future. (OK, they already did that, pretty much.) The rhetoric of American exceptionalism, and in particular the idea that American military force is indispensable to world order and no longer needs to respect old-fashioned ideas about national sovereignty or what a war is or how we define the enemy – none of that is ever questioned, or even comes up.

A long time ago in a different context, Joan Didion observed that the reporter’s job was to “observe the observable.” What I observed on Thursday was that Brennan’s appearance before the committee, and his garrulous New Jerseyite act, made for effective political theater, but that its effectiveness had more to do with the semiotics of the event than with what was actually said. (I'm definitely never playing cards for money with that guy.) Specifically, the hearing was a show of faux-deference to legislative authority by an emissary from the imperial palace, which left the senators almost cravenly grateful for a few scraps of information and noncommittal promises of future cooperation. (I didn’t register which Republican senator used up his time by chatting about Chris Christie and complimenting Brennan’s wife.) Sure, a few of them complained, but everybody in that room understood that once Brennan is confirmed, the committee will be lucky to get a Hallmark card out of him next Christmas.

Brennan gave a cool performance, in both the ordinary sense and the Marshall McLuhan sense, and remained unflappable in the face of “hot” Code Pink protesters who disrupted the proceedings, calling him a war criminal and listing the names of children killed by drones. While the protesters rapidly became part of the spectacle’s colorful background, Brennan stuck to the leading role of a grownup who understands the nature of reality when others do not. You could even say he was there to define reality, an ultimate exercise in imperial power. Sounding eerily like Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara circa 1969, Brennan calmly explained that many of us misunderstood the CIA’s good intentions, and failed to appreciate “the care we take, the agony we go through, to make sure we do not have any collateral injuries and deaths.”

In fairness, we heard a few extraordinary things said about topics that are almost never discussed in open congressional session. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., almost the only Senate Democrat willing to criticize President Obama on civil liberties, told Brennan, “Every American has the right to know when their government believes it’s allowed to kill them.” (The director-designate did not respond directly.) Newly elected Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, suggested that the CIA’s drone-targeting decisions should be subject to judicial review, as espionage warrants are. King’s Maine colleague Susan Collins, arguably the Senate’s last moderate Republican, actually challenged the effectiveness, if not the underlying morality, of the drone war: “If the cancer of al-Qaida is metastasizing, do we need a new treatment?”

By now Collins, King, Wyden and the rest of the House and Senate intelligence committees may have gotten a chance to read the secret Justice Department evidence and arguments used to justify the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born al-Qaida imam who was killed by a drone in Yemen in September 2011. Whether those memos, released to the committees a day before the Brennan hearing, answer the questions surrounding Awlaki’s death is something you and I may never know. We can, however, read the long-winded and repetitious DOJ “white paper” disclosed by NBC, which is supposed to supply a legal framework for cases like Awlaki’s, and to answer Wyden’s question about when the government can kill its own citizens. (That document wasn't intended for public consumption either, but it was not classified and publishing or reading it is presumably not a crime.)

I would say that this white paper is a masterwork of ex post facto reasoning, or arguing from conclusions, except that it really isn’t. Even to the non-legal eye, some of it is pretty weak, such as the argument that attacking and killing a U.S. citizen in a foreign country does not necessarily violate that person’s constitutional rights, or specific federal laws against murder and manslaughter committed overseas. The key concepts repeated throughout the document, over and over again, are these: If the targeted person is “a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qaida or an associated force,” and if “an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States,” and if the person’s “capture is infeasible,” and if the operation is to be conducted in accordance with “applicable law of war principles,” then it’s OK to kill that person.

None of these reasonable-sounding terms are ever satisfactorily defined, and the basic mode of argumentation is to repeat them over and over again until all meaning and sense disappear. We are offered no clues about how someone is defined as a “senior operational leader,” or what constitutes an “associated force” of al-Qaida. (Or exactly what al-Qaida is, a name that has been borrowed by disconnected people all over the Islamic world.) Is every loser in Somalia with a few Kalashnikovs who decides he’s a jihadi an “associated force”? Nor are we enlightened as to which “informed, high-level official” gets to decide that someone is an imminent threat, or that capturing him is “infeasible.” (Brennan assured the senators on Thursday that accused terrorists always have the right to surrender, though I’m not sure a drone is equipped to handle that.)

The more you read this damn thing, in fact, the less illuminating it becomes. The war against al-Qaida, we are told, is a borderless and indefinite global struggle, “a non-international armed conflict” with “a transnational non-state actor,” and the government recognizes no “strict geographical limit on [its] permissible scope.” In other words, a potential enemy combatant, and the substitution of the laws of war for normal international law, may be found anywhere at any time – potentially within the United States itself, although that possibility is not mentioned.

While the phrase “imminent threat of violent attack” is repeated many times as a central mantra of justification, as if to conjure up ticking-bomb scenarios, it takes the authors some time to flesh it out – and there turns out to be a good reason for that. At his hearing, Brennan sought to reassure politicians, protesters and the public that the U.S. did not use drones to punish terrorists for past misdeeds, only to prevent them from committing future carnage. Yet the white paper casts things in a somewhat different light, ultimately making clear that “imminent” does not actually mean, you know, imminent:

“First, the condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.” Well, OK then! Al-Qaida leaders, by definition, are “continually planning to kill Americans,” and the group “would engage in such attacks regularly to the extent it were able to do so.” Since “the U.S. government may not be aware of all al-Qaida plots as they are developing and thus cannot be confident that none is about to occur,” the threat demands “a broader concept of imminence,” which apparently resolves to the notion that “the nation may have a limited window of opportunity within which to strike.”

If I’m reading this correctly, the legal concept of an “imminent threat” is necessary here because it turns these drone attacks into urgent and justifiable acts of war rather than targeted assassinations of political or ideological opponents, which would be illegal under both American and international law. Since there is no specific, identifiable threat to Americans in most of these cases involving random people on the other side of the world, al-Qaida members and their fellow travelers are to be defined as presenting a permanent and chronic “imminent threat." The "broader concept of imminence" makes it permissible to kill them whenever we get the chance.

Those of us outside the government-intelligence complex, as I said earlier, have no way of evaluating the case for taking out Awlaki or his 16-year-old son (who may have been collateral damage in an attack on someone else). If we imagine that he was about to send a posse of suicide bombers to a shopping mall in his native New Mexico, we might concede the point that his “citizenship would not immunize him from a lethal operation,” in the white paper’s phrase. But if I’m reading between the lines accurately, the real evidence against Awlaki was much more nebulous than that. They got a shot at him and they took it, and then maybe they started worrying about the legal ramifications of his birth certificate.

We have no choice, for the moment, but to fall back on the idea that the president appears to be a thoughtful person and to take his decision to kill his own citizens on trust. But let's quit pretending that putting our faith in the goodness of Caesar has anything to do with democracy. We can also hope that a few of the legislators entrusted with constitutional oversight will continue to ask questions. It’s not an inspiring prospect, given the dysfunctional character of Washington, the public apathy about war policy and the near-imperial power of the executive branch, which will outlive this president as it did the last one. As the white paper and the Brennan hearings demonstrate, the language of government contains ever less signal, and ever more noise. The words used by our rulers have become like drones driven by Langley flyboys, flying deep into hostile territories of non-meaning; they hover above us day and night, driving away all thought with their disconcerting buzz.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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