Death by Drone: What a pitch for Verizon


Finding your way around in The Intercept’s labyrinthine “The Drone Papers” is disorienting. By design, one supposes. The effect of reading through this account of America’s assassination program — ahem, “targeted killings” — is akin to the complaint of drone operators that watching targets via drone-mounted surveillance cameras is like “looking through a soda straw.”

Like any good techies, the military seems obsessed with power, speed and accuracy. They are “enamored by the ability of special operations and the CIA to find a guy in the middle of the desert in some shitty little village and drop a bomb on his head and kill him,” according to Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. And obsessed in particular, with eliminating “blink“:

A “blink” happens when a drone has to move and there isn’t another aircraft to continue watching a target. According to classified documents, this is a major challenge facing the military, which always wants to have a “persistent stare.”

The conceptual metaphor of surveillance is seeing. Perfect surveillance would be like having a lidless eye. Much of what is seen by a drone’s camera, however, appears without context on the ground. Some drone operators describe watching targets as “looking through a soda straw.”

Credit Tolkien with the conceptual metaphor of the lidless eye. (I’m sure a reader will correct me.)

Now, Sarah Palin promoted hunting from aircraft “to thin out predator populations.” So before we go all Dark Lord on you, it’s nice to know the Pentagon can have a little sport with hunting humans from the air. See slide:

A slide on “Manhunting Basics” takes a lighthearted approach to the core mission of the Haymaker campaign: finding and killing specific individuals.

Except hunt and kill one Cecil the lion from the ground, and there will be international outrage and protesters outside your workplace screaming, “Murderer!” Kill 10 humans from the air just to “Jackpot” one presumed terrorist — including the people just standing nearby and the occasional child — and nobody blinks. They are deemed “EKIA, or enemies killed in action,” and “guilty by association.” Good enough for government work.

The Intercept’s report on “targeted killings,” of course, contains the requisite acronyms and bureaucratese, the kind we of the Watergate era remember all too well. IIRC, one Watergate witness testified about “a male individual residing in the neighboring domicile.” Translation: next-door neighbor. “Counterinsurgency strike”? Translation: carpet bombing Cambodia.

Perhaps the most chilling for the rest of us is how government assassins pinpoint a targets’ location even in the dark:

Hellfire missiles—the explosives fired from drones—are not always fired at people. In fact, most drone strikes are aimed at phones. The SIM card provides a person’s location—when turned on, a phone can become a deadly proxy for the individual being hunted.

When a night raid or drone strike successfully neutralizes a target’s phone, operators call that a “touchdown.”

Not a terrorist? Don’t have one “residing in the neighboring domicile”? You’ve got nothing to worry about, of course. Still, Americans are already wary of NSA surveillance of our cell phones. Aha! But you’re a T-party “III Percenter” militiaman, and you know all about NSA surveillance and don’t use a cell phone? They get someone to plant one in your car and then shove a Hellfire missile up your ass. Touchdown! Stop that with your AR-15 in the dark.

What an advertisement for Verizon.

The most disturbing thing about the drone war — two disturbing things, among the disturbing things — is how often they crash and the fact that we will soon have the lidless eye flying over our heads looking through a straw from 144 sites in the United States:

In an April 2012 report, the Defense Department notified Congress it was planning to base drones at 110 sites in U.S. territory by 2017. A new Pentagon document, obtained by The Post, suggests that ambitions have grown. It states that the military is preparing to fly drones from 144 U.S. locations.

And they seem rather prone to crashing, as the Washington Post reported last year, and as The Intercept has as well.

Plus, our “targeted killings” program has made war so neat and clean and cost-effective, we have seen no need to stop it. Will we ever? Which reminds me, vaguely, of something familiar:

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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