It was appropriate that, on the same day President Obama announced that the never-ending war in Afghanistan is set to continue inexorably into the future, The Intercept released the most detailed look yet at the secret mechanics of the United States' drone program.
American troops are not going door-to-door in Afghanistan. Rather, the war is being conducted from the air and by remote control. When the U.S. military is not burning hospital patients to cinders, it is sending drones to kill people. The documents leaked to The Intercept by a whistleblower from the intelligence community provide a clear—and clearly disturbing—picture of what those operations look like.
The whistleblower told The Intercept that he came forward because the operation of the drone program "was, from the very first instance, wrong." Given the fact that Edward Snowden is currently stuck in Moscow, and that the Obama administration has proven singularly hostile to whistleblowers, he is especially brave to step out of the shadows. Looking at the documents, it is easy to see why he was unsettled enough to take such a risk.
In a way, they tell us what we have long known about the American assassination program. It is both coldly clinical and almost ridiculously imprecise, shrouded in secrecy and divorced from any truly independent judicial oversight. But it is one thing to know and another thing to see—to look at the way in which targets are literally turned into numbers on a chart, for instance. The Intercept's source also provided statistics that show how up to 90 percent of the people killed during five months of an American operation in Afghanistan were not the intended targets. One document tells a particularly chilling story: The U.S. divides people into two categories: "JP"(as in "jackpot," aka the intended target) and "EKIA" (or "enemy killed in action") which is just about everyone else. Words like "civilian" or "innocent" don't make their way into the official narrative. In the world of the drone, you are not only guilty until proven innocent, but you have to wait until you're dead for that question to even be considered.
The documents also show that, beyond these pressing moral questions, the drone strikes are actually an impediment to American intelligence gathering. From The Intercept's Jeremy Scahill:
The costs to intelligence gathering when suspected terrorists are killed rather than captured are outlined in the slides pertaining to Yemen and Somalia, which are part of a 2013 study conducted by a Pentagon entity, the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Task Force. [...]
By the ISR study’s own admission, killing suspected terrorists, even if they are “legitimate” targets, further hampers intelligence gathering. The secret study states bluntly: “Kill operations significantly reduce the intelligence available.” A chart shows that special operations actions in the Horn of Africa resulted in captures just 25 percent of the time, indicating a heavy tilt toward lethal strikes.
"A heavy tilt toward lethal strikes"—that is what our wars look like now, no matter if it does more harm than good. After Iraq, it will be a long time before any president is willing to send ground troops into battle again. Why would you, when you could send lifeless, murderous robots to do the work for you? And with drones, the operations need never end. You don't even have to answer to anybody. What a simpler way to continue the work of empire.
Much was made recently of President Obama's comments about the trigger-happy nature of his Republican opponents. “Right now, if I was taking the advice of some of the members of Congress who holler all the time, we’d be in, like, seven wars right now,” he told a group of veterans.
That Obama could gain any sort of reputation as a dove when he is currently conducting six different wars—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen—is a testament to the real success of the drone program. It may not have done anything to stem the flow of ISIS or the Taliban, and it may be fueling further terrorism in the Middle East, and its disregard for civilians may be a human rights outrage, and it may horrify anyone who values transparency and accountability in their government... but by god if it hasn't allowed the U.S. government to make the American public forget any of that is happening.
The only way we can really, honestly grapple with what our bombs and our missiles are doing halfway across the world—with the fact that there are people on the receiving end of those bombs, and that most of them were people who were not supposed to die, even by the shamefully secret standards of the White House—is if we remember. It is to the immense credit of both The Intercept and especially its source that they are putting in the work to ensure that people do remember—that they know what is being done in their name.