Government DoubleSpeak & the Permanent War Footing

MQ-1 Predator

“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…”


On NSA Reform & The Media: Have we Learned Nothing?


“POLITICS, noun—a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

We’ve long since lost confidence in how major media outlets report on national security / surveillance matters, and their take on yesterday’s hearings in Washington only entrenches that belief. After all, what’s the purpose of “journalism” if media outlets are content merely reporting the facts (i.e., describing them) instead of analyzing them? Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we prefer journalism that’s in line with Judge Gurfein’s observation in the Pentagon Papers case: “[a] cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority” (emphasis ours). Notice Judge Gurfein’s phraseology that the work of the press “must be suffered” by authority figures suggests that true journalism must be both tenacious and aggressive.

The majority of reporting on yesterday’s surveillance-related hearings fails on both counts. Take The Washington Post (WP), whose article on the hearings ran with the headline “Snowden’s Leaks: Are journalists ‘fencing stolen material’?” While the WP spent fifteen paragraphs exploring the question, they never bothered to present the obvious answer: no. The facts here should not be misunderstood—the answer to the WP’s question is a simple “no” because there is no evidence whatsoever that Glenn Greenwald or any of the other journalists reporting on the Snowden documents has ever sold anything to anyone. As Greenwald himself has stated: “I have never, ever sold a document[.]” That Greenwald has never sold an NSA document didn’t stop major media outlets from writing page upon page exploring the hypothetical situation of whether selling such a document would be a crime.

In other words, rather than explore whether everything Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and others said at yesterday’s hearing was based in fiction or fact, many media organizations quoted the officials at length, implicitly suggesting that what they said either makes sense or should be taken seriously. But we know neither is true. Take a look at this quote from Rogers, reprinted by The New York Times in its article on the hearings: “If I’m hawking stolen, classified material that I’m not legally in possession of for personal gain and profit, is that not a crime?” Almost every word of the sentence is inaccurate, yet readers of the NYT wouldn’t know it. First, Rogers’ hypothetical is nonsensical because (as noted above) there is no evidence that anyone has hawked confidential material. Rather, Greenwald has had a clear history of partnering with—not selling or hawking to—other media outlets in reporting on the Snowden documents, including Globo in Brazil and Der Spiegel in Germany. The second part of Rogers’ hypothetical—selling the materials “for personal gain and profit”—also emerges more from Rogers’ vivid imagination than concrete fact. While Greenwald’s prominence and stature have no doubt increased as a result of his work on the Snowden documents, there’s again no evidence to suggest he pursued this story for personal profit. And there’s plenty of evidence to indicate he’s working on these stories because he believes them to be in the public interest.

Regardless of whether media outlets believe their work to be better “after Snowden” than before, their reporting continues to leave much to be desire on these issues. We’ve previously documented how many politicians in Washington have essentially no credibility when it comes to speaking sensibly or truthfully about NSA surveillance or reform, yet the major media outlets continue to report on these events as if they do. Our question is a basic one: why?

Journalists on Twitter and elsewhere repeatedly declared that yesterday’s hearing demonstrated the Obama Administration’s desire to “criminalize” journalism, to quote Greenwald. Hearing that disheartens us somewhat, because these journalists should know better than anyone that this Administration already has taken significant, concrete steps in the attempt to criminalize journalism. Did we already forget the time when the Department of Justice (DOJ) obtained two months worth of telephone records from the Associated Press without their knowledge? At the time—and this was less than a year ago, keep in mind—AP President & CEO Gary Pruitt said “The DOJ’s actions could not have been more tailor-made to comfort authoritarian regimes that want to suppress their own news media,” (emphasis ours). Can it be we no longer recall that the DOJ suggested FOX News reporter James Rosen was a “co-conspirator” as part of his reporting? We remember those things, and we’re here to ensure you do too. Indeed, the mainstream discussion around NSA surveillance reminds us of the poem Ozymandias from Percy Bysshe Shelley—media outlets are focusing on NSA reform with bated breath without realizing there’s no reason to believe there’s any substance behind the Administration’s promises of reform. Promise of NSA reform is like the statue in Shelley’s poem—there’s nothing really there. “Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,” Shelley tells us, “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Silence as Betrayal: Reflections on the Media & the Drone War


“I’ve chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam because I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.”
—Martin Luther King Jr., 1967, “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam

“The Champion”—the title of a recent article on President Obama in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates—must have been written in a world where the surveillance disclosures and the drone war do not exist. For how else can one claim in good faith: “[t]here are moments when I hear the president speak and I am awed”? When it comes to surveillance / drone matters, we often find ourselves more shocked than awed, as Obama’s previous speeches on the subject would likely have been recognized by George Orwell as “pure wind.” Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we believe these critical aspects of Obama’s presidency and legacy cannot go ignored.

Whether viewed from a Yemeni wedding or an Afghan village, no one familiar with the drone war would conclude, as Coates does, that “Obama is as thoughtful as ever[.]” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports Obama has already authorized eight times as many drone strikes as his predecessor, at least one of which intentionally targeted a US citizen—an act The New York Times has said is “extremely rare, if not unprecedented.” All military-age males at the site of a drone strike are now defined as “combatants,” regardless of whether they were carrying rifles or roses. And yet Coates expects “that admiration for [Obama’s] thoughtfulness will grow as the ages pile upon us.” The victims of the drone war seem unlikely to join the congregation.

And where Coates dodges the drone war, he sidesteps the surveillance state. Instead of asking how a “thoughtful as ever” President could embrace surveillance programs such as XKeyscore and PRISM, Coates says things like this: “I don’t expect, in my lifetime, to again see a black family with the sheer beauty of Obama’s on such a prominent stage.” We are unsure how to react to such a statement. While former NSA Director Michael Hayden has made clear surveillance programs have “expanded” under President Obama, instead of examining the issue up-close Coates prefers to focus on superficial “sheer beauty.”

In fairness to Coates, the primary topic of his article was, as the sub-heading put it, “how black America talks to the White House.” We’re not clear on Coates’ answer to the question, but in the context of the drone war, we are reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation in 1967 that “my own government” is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today[.]” One can quibble with King’s characterization, but there can be no doubt of the drone war’s often violent—both physical and mental—impact on civilians. And while King was speaking with regard to Vietnam, his observations likely ring true for many of those living in the vast swaths of land from Somalia to Yemen to Afghanistan: “They must see Americans as strange liberators.”

Keystone XL and The Economy: All About the Money?


“The most surprising feature of business as it was conducted was the large attention given to finance … The second feature was the general indifference to better methods of manufacture as long as whatever was done got by and took the money. In other words, an article apparently was not built with reference to how greatly it could serve the public but with reference solely to how much money could be had for it…”
—Henry Ford, “My Life and Work

Earlier this week, the State Department published its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the Keystone XL Project. While both The New York Times and The Washington Post focused their reporting on the Project’s environmental impact—a critical question, no doubt—here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW) we want to explore the reasons why some argue the Keystone XL pipeline should be built in the first place. Our analysis indicates that what will ultimately be flowing through the pipeline is not necessarily Canadian crude but American cash.

During the State of the Union (SOTU), President Obama declared that “our energy policy is creating jobs[.]” Keystone XL, however, will only yield enough work to remove a bucket of water from an ocean of unemployment. The SEIS itself states how many jobs we can expect: “[d]uring construction, proposed Project spending would support approximately 42,100 jobs” (emphasis ours). With an estimated construction period of one to two years, that’s not a long-term solution to the unemployment crisis. A grand total of 50 employees will be required to operate the pipeline once it’s fully operational—30 percent of which are temporary. By comparison, the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates 10.4 million Americans are currently unemployed and the labor force participation rate is at its lowest point since 1978. Keystone XL does nothing for job creation.

Indeed, the  Project’s appears unlikely to have a significant impact on the job market or the economy at large. The SEIS confirms that construction of the Project would contribute .02% to GDP. And while President Obama may have said during the SOTU that “America is closer to energy independence than we have been in decades,” Keystone XL won’t help us get there. That’s because much of the crude oil transported by Keystone will end up refined in the Gulf and sold in foreign markets. As Tim Dickinson notes in his article* for Rolling Stone, “[t]he tar-sands boom has the United States poised to become a top player in the global-export market for gasoline and diesel” (emphasis ours). Make no mistake: much of the crude that will flow through Keystone XL to refineries dotting the Gulf Coast will find itself sealed, shipped, and then sold abroad.

Only when we consider the final destination of the Canadian crude can we begin to appreciate what motivated its origins: a desire for profit. As implied above, that the Keystone XL pipeline ends in Houston is not an accident. Houston houses one of the largest coker units in the world, and those units refine crude oil, which is precisely what Keystone XL will bring from Canada. Once refined into petroleum coke–which Dickinson describes as “like concentrated coal–denser and dirtier than anything that comes out of a mine”–it can be sold abroad for a profit. As explained by environmentalist Bill McKibben: Keystone XL “guarantees a steady flow of profits to oil barons who have their hearts set on tripling production in the far north.”

* Tim Dickinson’s article is not yet online as of this writing. The article is entitled “How the U.S. Exports Global Warming” and can be found beginning on p. 32 of the 13 February 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.