“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
—George Orwell, 1984
While the phrase “War on Terror” may have dropped from official parlance years ago, the term’s core feature—a violent conflict that knows no limits in terms of time or terrain—remains part and parcel of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we look at the media’s discussion of the current drone war and we’re left wondering whether the more things change, the more they stay the same. Yesterday we learned from The Intercept that NSA surveillance of electronic metadata provides the intelligence behind many drone strikes, and we also learned from the Associated Press that the Obama Administration is weighing whether to kill (another) U.S. citizen via drone strike abroad. Taken together, these reports suggest that the U.S. government’s “Assassination Program”—to borrow the phrase from Glenn Greenwald & Jeremy Scahill—has expanded beyond the realm of reason or rationality. Indeed, that the U.S. government even has such a program should shock and awe those who value national sovereignty, international law, human rights, the U.S. Constitution, and human dignity. If we are to have any hope of changing the tide of history, however, we must begin to wrestle with the reality that this war has no end. After all—how can we hope to confront what we have not yet understood?
When President Obama declared that “America must move off a permanent war footing” in his State of the Union (SOTU) address, he could only have been intentionally channeling Orwellian DoubleSpeak for that phrase to make sense. In its first of a three-part series on Obama’s counterterrorism practice of targeted killing, for example, The Washington Post (Post) details the “disposition matrix” that the Obama Administration employs to determine whether an individual in the matrix lives or dies. A critical aspect of the Post’s article emerges partway through: the targeted killing program transcends the boundaries of time. “Among senior Obama administration officials,” the Post reports, “there is a broad consensus that such [targeted killing] operations are likely to be extended at least another decade” (emphasis ours). That time frame—another decade—would drag the drone war into 2024. Some Administration officials apparently conceded 2024 may be closing the curtain too soon on targeted killings, noting there was “no clear end [in] sight” for the program, and that there are plans to “continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years” (emphasis ours). And despite presiding over the implementation and expansion of these very programs, President Obama speaks with a straight face about moving away from a permanent war footing. How can that be? Obama has also allowed the NSA to launch surveillance programs such as XKeyscore and PRISM that, like the targeted killing program, suggest the government is engaged in a conflict that is almost infinite in scope and duration.
And don’t take our word for it. Obama’s SOTU—yes, the same speech where he spoke of moving off the war footing—itself presages a conflict on which the sun will never set. “While we’ve put al-Qaida’s core leadership on a path to defeat,” Obama intoned, “the threat has evolved as al-Qaida affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world. In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali, we have to keep working with partners to disrupt and disable these networks” (emphasis ours). Numerous aspects of that sentence should immediately jump out to careful readers. Notice that while the President suggests the war is over with one hand (al-Qaida is on the “path to defeat”), with the other hand he informs us the war is not really over at all (it has grown to include “Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali”). And look at the countries Obama mentioned. Mali? Do most Americans even know where that is? (Answer: West Africa). More critically, what are U.S. drones doing in Yemen and Somalia? We—and the public in general—have essentially no idea. Obama has refused to release most of the legal memos that outline his alleged authority to engage in targeted killing, and so despite having previously assured Americans “an unprecedented level of openness in Government,” we only get a glimpse into the drone war during the occasional news story such as when a U.S. drone strike converts a Yemeni wedding into a family funeral. Iraq is also mentioned as a site of extremist activity to “disrupt,” which is somewhat curious given that here is a video Obama declaring the war in Iraq is over—back in 2011. How can the war in Iraq have ended in any meaningful sense if, three years later, we are actively “working with our partners” to “disrupt and disable” extremist activity there and around the world? It seems that the way to get America off the war footing (at least in DoubleSpeak) is to kill more people. This is not hyperbole: Obama has launched eight times as many drone strikes as his predecessor and there’s no end in sight. The light at the end of the tunnel is (yet another) drone strike.
Media outlets must write candidly about a war that appears to have no end, otherwise the debates surrounding the tactics, strategy, and legality of the drone war will reverberate into an echo chamber where they will be heard only by the speakers themselves. In the interim, those running the drone war and targeted killing programs will likely continue their actions more-or-less unchanged. A good example of this phenomenon is exemplified in the AP article cited above regarding the latest U.S. citizen abroad the Obama Administration has set its sights on. The AP begins its piece noting the targeting of another American citizen “underscores the complexities of President Barack Obama’s new stricter targeting guidelines for the use of deadly drones.” Read that sentence carefully. Why didn’t the AP say, for example, that the Obama Administration’s targeting of yet another U.S. citizen underscores a drone war gone out of control? Or that it underscores the increased acceptance of the (in our view, absurd) proposition that it’s OK to kill U.S. citizens abroad without due process? If, as The New York Times has reported, the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen abroad is “extremely rare, if not unprecedented,” then wouldn’t yet another targeting of a U.S. citizen just a few years later underscore something slightly more fundamental than “the complexities” of Obama’s “stricter targeting guidelines”? Various news outlets have already reported that Obama’s new guidelines are nothing but Orwellian “pure wind,” devoid of any real substance and designed to make murder respectable. To make matters worse, the AP article itself quotes Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah for the proposition that “[s]o little has changed since last year[.]”
The evidence suggests Shah stands correct, not just for last year but for many more before that. If and until journalists understand that the U.S. government is firmly implanted on a permanent war footing—in other words, understand that Obama’s SOTU was primarily delivered in DoubleSpeak—we will continue to witness the expansion of a drone war that has no end. And if that turns out to be the case, we will find ourselves in the company of the protagonist of 1984, for as we know, “Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war…”