Obama 19.Drones – the Normative Debate.27.02.13

Obama 19. Drones: The Normative Debate 27.02.13


Howard Adelman

Al Qaeda and its associated forces, that is a co-belligerent organized force committed to fight alongside al Qaeda against the United States and its allies even if the primary goals differ, have enough coherence to be called an enemy and enough intent to attack the United States, its assets and its allies so that the violent conflict with them can be called a war. The ethical and legal issue is whether the conduct of that war, particularly in the use of drones, follows the norms of just war theory.

One can find a profusion of writing criticizing the drone program for being illegal and unethical as well as counter-productive. Most of that writing is polemical though there are a small number of legal critiques. As an example of a polemical critique, read Saijad Shaukat, "Killing Civilians: Obama’s Drone War in Pakistan," Global Research, 14 December 2012: "these strikes are illegal, unethical and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty as well as the UN Charter." The denunciations contain neither evidence nor arguments and are simply critical opinions.

Ignoring opinionated screeds, broadly speaking, the debate over strikes targeted at individual members of al-Qaida has centered on their legality, their ethics, the wisdom of using them, and the standards by which they are approved. The assumption all around is that a war against the terrorists who perpetrated or who are allied with the perpetrators of 9/11 is a just war for a just cause and a just war if proportionate to the continuing harm being carried out. The questions are about the conduct of the war, in this case the conduct of employing drones from which missiles can be sent to assassinate individual members of the enemy.

The question should not be about targeting per se, though some seem to think that is questionable. The use of lethal force against known individuals who are members of an enemy group has long been regarded as legal and in accordance with the laws of war. See Harold Koh, "International Law and the Obama Administration," American Society of International Law, Washington, 25 March 2010; Koh, now Dean of the Yale Law School, was then Legal Adviser to the State Department and offered the first legal justification for the use of drones by the Obama administration in response to a request from Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings who claimed that the use of drones by the CIA, not per se, butabsent appropriate cautions and accountability mechanisms, would be illegal under international law.

There are associated groups allied with al Qaeda that the United States has not yet attacked. Jabhat al-Nusra is one. It constitutes the Islamist faction of the rebel group attempting to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria. Recently it took responsibility for the Damascus bombings and for the rout the day before yesterday of the Syrian army from the Golan Heights. (See Salem Al-Dimashki, "Syria’s Druze Grapple With Jabhat al-Nusra,", ALMONITOR, 8 February 2013) Israel now faces extremist Islamist forces not only in Gaza (Hamas) and in Lebanon (Hezbollah), but now on its Syrian border. The great fear is that Jabhat al-Nusra will gain access to Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons.

In war, chemical weapons are now banned from use. Weapons that are used must be authorized by a proper authority, be motivated by the right intentions, must have a reasonable probability of success, must be proportionate in the harm done relative to the good in eliminating enemies – this is often referred to as the principle of discrimination since all efforts possible must be in place to minimize collateral damage to civilians while still allowing the military mission to go ahead. Finally, the initiative must be employed as a last resort and, as we shall see, this norm is the one most often misinterpreted. It is rare in public life that a policy is debated primarily in just war terms, so I will take enough space to deal with the various issues.

Right Authority

Usually right authority is taken to mean the authority source that tells a soldier to implement the decision – that is the source of the top-down command. In the case of the Obama administration, the leadership accepted the challenge to establish and make sure that the democratic voter also supported their use of drones in the war against the Islamic extremists. They went further and thought that the public in the countries in which they were being used also should support America’s use of drones and should not get caught up in a mistaken belief that drones were employed careless of the harm they do and can cause. John Brennan in his 2012 speech at the Woodrow Wilson Centre acknowledged "that we, as a government, along with our foreign partners, can and must do a better job of addressing the mistaken belief among some foreign publics that we engage in these strikes casually, as if we are simply unwilling to expose U.S forces to the dangers faced every day by people in those regions." This latter is not really an ethical norm that can be attached to the agent utilizing the weapon, but is really only one of the success measures. On that measure, as can be seen in the last blog, the Obama administration has not been successful. However, Brennan viewed the fulfillment of that norm as dependent on America taking due diligence to avoid or minimize civilian casualties and fulfilling the principle of discrimination. As Brennan insisted, "there is absolutely nothing casual about the extraordinary care we take in making the decision to pursue an al-Qaida terrorist, and the lengths to which we go to ensure precision and avoid the loss of innocent life."

1. Public Opinion

61% of American voters approve the use of drones to target Islamist radicals. 18% are opposed. (Huffington Post, "Omnibus Poll" 10-11 January 2013) though by a margin of 2:1 they regarded targeting American citizens who had joined al Qaeda abroad as illegal. (Fairleigh Dickinson Poll, 7 February 2013). That latter poll were confident in the military carrying out such attacks (75%) but 10% less, 65%, supported making the CIA responsible for the CIA attacks. Thus, except for targeting American Islamists, the administration enjoys strong support for using drones for such purposes and assigning that task to the CIA even if they would prefer that the military carry the responsibility.

Support from the public of the countries in which drones are being used is not required for their use to be legally and ethically justified. For, as I indicated in my last blog, America is woefully lacking in such support. However, if drones create a backlash in the countries that host Islamicist warriors, that is nothing compared to the backlash against American boots on the ground. The strategic, but not ethical or legal requirement, could be the principle of using a method of fighting that, if at all possible, minimizes a local backlash.

2. Political Authority

John Brennan defended the strategic wisdom of using drones.

Targeted strikes are wise. Remotely piloted aircraft in particular can be a wise choice because of geography, with their ability to fly hundreds of miles over the most treacherous terrain, strike their targets with astonishing precision, and then return to base. They can be a wise choice because of time, when windows of opportunity can close quickly and there just may be only minutes to act. They can be a wise choice because they dramatically reduce the danger to U.S. personnel, even eliminating the danger altogether. Yet they are also a wise choice because they dramatically reduce the danger to innocent civilians, especially considered against massive ordnance that can cause injury and death far beyond their intended target. In addition, compared against other options, a pilot operating this aircraft remotely, with the benefit of technology and with the safety of distance, might actually have a clearer picture of the target and its surroundings, including the presence of innocent civilians. It’s this surgical precision, the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaida terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it that makes this counterterrorism tool so essential.

The geographic issue is much more complicated than Brennan implies for the issue is not simply about the difficulty of the terrain, but that the target is not living in an area of battle but located in a region in which there are no ostensible hostilities. Such objections were made by Mary Ellen O’Connell from the University of Notre Dame Law School who served as chair of the International Law Association (ILA) on its Committee on the Use of Force. (See the interview with her posted on the International Relations and Security Network on 20 February 2013. http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?lng=en&id=159629)

Brennan in his ethical as opposed to his strategic defence of the use of drones went beyond the simple argument that Barack Obama as Commander in Chief of the United States forces was fully authorized to use drones. Congress passed the AUMF, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force one week after 9/11. (Pub. L. No. 107-40, 115 Stat. 224 2001) The congressional authorization mandated the use of all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons that the president determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

Brenner also said that in such authorization, Obama was accountable to Congress. "Ensuring the ethics and efficacy of these strikes also includes regularly informing appropriate members of Congress and the committees who have oversight of our counterterrorism programs." He credited oversight with also improving the effectiveness of the use of drones, but since he did not explain himself, and since it is difficult to see how a committee could help make a weapon more effective, I have no idea what he meant by that claim.

In addition to the formal status of the president in the governing structure of America, Brennan required subjecting that authority to a system of accountability in response to a subsequent op-ed in The New York Times by Mary-Ellen McConnell (6 February 2013) who implied that this was the key weak link in the Obama administration’s justification for the use of drones. (See her 2012 book, What is War? An Investigation in the Wake of 9/11. I will note that McConnell, whatever her legal reasoning and her excellent bona fides as a lecturer on the subject to members of the US defense department, was just totally off base in that op-ed in claiming that Brennan has refused "to openly discuss the legal basis for America’s campaign of targeted killings of terrorism suspects." In my reading, he gave speech after speech in 2010 and 2011 doing precisely that, as did other members of the administration. More to the point, though it is a joy to read impassioned critiques, and while I would have loved to be convinced, I personally found her criticisms not only to be very unrepresentative of the vast majority of legal scholarship but simply unpersuasive. Further, she did what many others critics have done, confused human rights protections with just war law and ethics. The two are radically different.

Brennan then introduced a third factor that buttressed his case for rightful authority – the extreme care in the process of making the decisions. "This is the seriousness, the extraordinary care, that President Obama and those of us on his national security team bring to this weightiest of questions: Whether to pursue lethal force against a terrorist who is plotting to attack our country."

But what if the drone attack is not against a named terrorist but against a group who seem to be demonstrating behavioural patterns as if they were terrorists, the so-called "signature strikes"? (Cf. Cora Courier and Justin Elliott "Drone war concerns go far beyond the killing of American citizens," Pro Publica 26 February 2013) How can suspicious behaviour justify the use of lethal force by unmanned drones? Further, what about the authority for killing American citizens abroad by using drones that the American public does not seem to support? Four American citizens have been killed abroad by the use of drones compared to 2,600-3,000 militants and civilians. Kmal Derwish who was killed in a drone attack in Yemen, the first drone attack outside of Afghanistan, was an American citizen. He was the first of four American citizens killed in drone attacks. As I wrote yesterday, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both American citizens, were killed in Yemen on 30 September 2011. Two weeks later, the fourth American citizen, al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, was also killed.

By what legal authority does the government justify such assassinations? I should note that Jeh Johnson found the use of the term "assassination" to be repugnant, both legally and because of psychological associations with the murders of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I would strongly defend its use for it accurately describes in ordinary language what takes place even if it is a term that would not want to be employed by a defence attorney in a legal case defending such killings. Perhaps I am more comfortable with its use because I am a Canadian.

Brennan answered the latter question of killing American citizens abroad by citing Attorney General Holder’s legal brief. "When that person is a U.S. citizen, we ask ourselves additional questions. Attorney General Holder has already described the legal authorities that clearly allow us to use lethal force against an American citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qaida. He has discussed the thorough and careful review, including all relevant constitutional considerations, that is to be undertaken by the U.S. government when determining whether the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States." I will discuss that justification in the next section.

3. Legal Authority

John Brennan in his 2012 Woodrow Wilson talk summarized the legal defence of drone attacks as follows:

First, these targeted strikes are legal. Attorney General Holder, Harold Koh, and Jeh Johnson have all addressed this question at length. To briefly recap, as a matter of domestic law, the Constitution empowers the president to protect the nation from any imminent threat of attack. The Authorization for Use of Military Force, the AUMF, passed by Congress after the September 11th attacks authorized the president “to use all necessary and appropriate forces” against those nations, organizations, and individuals responsible for 9/11. There is nothing in the AUMF that restricts the use of military force against al-Qaida to Afghanistan.

As a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaida, the Taliban, and associated forces, in response to the 9/11 attacks, and we may also use force consistent with our inherent right of national self-defense. There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield, at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat.

The full legal justification can be found in the Department of Justice White Paper released by NBC News.


Those targeted can be a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force of al-Qa’ida – that is, an al-Qa’ida leader actively engaged in planning operations to kill Americans. Three conditions were specified:

1) the determination is made by an informed high-level official of the U.S. government that the target poses an immanent threat of violent attack against the United States;

2) capture is infeasible;

3) the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.

The Presidential authority was sanctioned by international law and the law of defence, Congressional authorization "to use all necessary and appropriate military force" and his own role as Commander-in-Chief and his sworn duty to protect the country. (Cf. Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, "Memo Cites Legal Basis for Killing U.S. Citizens in Al Qaeda," The New York Times, 5 February 2013) Not included in the memo is any reference to the 2006 endorsement by the U.S. Supreme Court that determined that the United States is in an armed conflict with al Qaeda. The legality has been backed by all three branches of government in the United States.

The memo referred to indicated that the lawfulness of the use of lethal force in a foreign country would require the consent of the host nation’s government in order not to offend the principles of sovereignty and neutrality if the host nation is unable or unwilling to suppress the threat posed by the individual targeted. But as I indicated yesterday, Pakistan, at least in public, vociferously criticized the drone campaign, though in noticeably slippery language.

Aren’t American citizens protected by the Fourth Amendment on the rights of citizens and the prohibition against unreasonable seizures and the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment? How could they be targeted? Killing American citizens abroad is not illegal according to the leaked legal brief citing Mathews v. Eldridge since the individual’s interest in protecting his/her own life would be offset by the United State’s obligation to forestall the threat of violence. Such an interpretation has evidently been upheld in a series of Supreme Court decisions beginning with Hamdi, 542 U.S. at 518. The Obama administration lawyers have asserted that it would be lawful to kill a United States citizen if “an informed, high-level official” of the government decided that the target was a ranking figure in al Qaeda or its associated organizations who posed “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” The key criteria are:

  • Is the individual a senior operative?
  • Is the threat immanent? A threat would be considered immanent even if the individual were engaged in planning operations to kill Americans. Immanence in the document is defined to include: the relevant window of opportunity; the possibility of reducing collateral damage to civilians and: the likelihood of heading off future disastrous attacks on America.
  • The threat does not have to take place on a hot battlefield for there is no geographic limit when the enemy is involved in a non-international (i.e. non-inter-state) armed conflict.

(The 16-page classified legal memo leaked through NBC News is also available online at other sites. Cf. http://openchannel.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/02/04/16843014-justice-department-memo-reveals-legal-case-for-drone-strikes-on-americans?lite)

Whether such a legal briefing holds up in the courts, it did seem to settle down much of the furor and cries for transparency concerning the legal justification for drone attacks. (Cf. Sarah Holewinski, "Drones: An Outlier in a Transparent Presidency, Politics, 19.01.2013) Further, although the leakage of the legal justification did seem to quiet down the large number of Americans critical of killing American citizens abroad, it served to raise new questions about deliberately targeting low level operatives or for targeting behaviour rather than identity-based targets, the so-called "signature strikes".

Another legal justification was offered by the Pentagon General Counsel, Jeh Johnson, in his speech at the Oxford Union on 30 November 2012. The speech, "The Conflict Against Al Qaeda and its Affiliates: How Will It End?" (Johnson at Oxford) has been published online by Benjamin Wittes on "Lawfare". Benjamin Witte is a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings and co-directs the Harvard Law School-Brookings Project on Law and Society. (http://www.lawfareblog.com/2012/11/jeh-johnson-speech-at-the-oxford-union/) Johnson’s job is to ensure that everything the Defense Department does is consistent with U.S. and international law. I will leave aside for the moment whether the defence he offered applies to CIA operations, but it is generally assumed that the legal doctrine binding the military is much stricter than one binding the CIA. On 22 February 2012, Jeh Johnson also gave the Dean’s Lecture at Yale Law School entitled, "National Security Law, Lawers and Lawyering in the Obama administration. (Jonson at Yale) I will now cite both speeches and suggest they are fully consistent with the 16-page leaked memo. There is also a forthcoming conference at the Notre Dame Law School on "The Ethical, Strategic and Legal Implications of Drone Warfare" 19-21 March 2013.

In his account, Johnson indicated that the US had signed agreements with the Afghan government on "strategic operations". He said nothing about an equivalent agreement with the Pakistan government. Johnson also indirectly referred to Obama’s decision to rename the war as a war against al Qaeda and its affiliates and not the abstract category, Bush’s "War on Terror". "We have made clear that we are not at war with an idea, a religion, or a tactic. We are at war with an organized, armed group — a group determined to kill innocent civilians." The definition specifically excludes journalists, activists or propagandists solely engaged in those pursuits or even self-radicalized terrorists inspired by al Qaeda for they remain civilian suspects subject to criminal law and are not part of an armed force. The targeted individuals have to be part of an armed force and they are attacked in a way consistent with the law of war and its principles of proportionality, necessity and distinction. Such a war will end only when a tipping point is reached that al Qaeda and its affiliates are degraded to such an extent that it is no longer to be regarded as an effective military force but only clusters of bedraggled terrorists.

In my review of the legal justification of Obama’s drone policy that involves what I already have argued is a conventional even if transforming mode of arms delivery to nonconventional targets, I am convinced that is arises from a healthy and robust debate among legal professionals rather than a pre-packaged response to fit a predetermined policy. I have pointed out where I find lacunae – deliberately attacking low level targets or signature strikes. However, in general, the reasoning is careful and credible, pragmatic and carefully delineated. The courts will determine whether the rationale is definitive.

Whatever the results, the rule of law is once again the supreme authority in the United States in generals and governs the use of drones.

Finally, when considering lethal force I am of course mindful that there are important checks on our ability to act unilaterally in foreign territories. We do not use force whenever we want, wherever we want. International legal principles, including respect for a state’s sovereignty and the laws of war, impose constraints. According to the Obama doctrine, the United States of America respects national sovereignty and international law.

4. Ethical

In President Barack Obama’s speech in Oslo accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the president said that “all nations, strong and weak alike, must adhere to standards that govern the use of force.” And he added: “Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength.” This reflected his approach to broader questions regarding the use of force and the importance he placed on the use of force conforming to international legal norms.

John Brennan insisted that targeting enemies with drones was not only legal but ethical as well.

Targeted strikes conform to the principle of necessity, the requirement that the target have definite military value. In this armed conflict, individuals who are part of al-Qaida or its associated forces are legitimate military targets. We have the authority to target them with lethal force just as we target enemy leaders in past conflicts, such as Germans and Japanese commanders during World War II.

Targeted strikes conform to the principles of distinction, the idea that only military objectives may be intentionally targeted and that civilians are protected from being intentionally targeted. With the unprecedented ability of remotely piloted aircraft to precisely target a military objective while minimizing collateral damage, one could argue that never before has there been a weapon that allows us to distinguish more effectively between an al-Qaida terrorist and innocent civilians.

Targeted strikes conform to the principle of proportionality, the notion that the anticipated collateral damage of an action cannot be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. By targeting an individual terrorist or small numbers of terrorists with ordnance that can be adapted to avoid harming others in the immediate vicinity, it is hard to imagine a tool that can better minimize the risk to civilians than remotely piloted aircraft.

For the same reason, targeted strikes conform to the principle of humanity which requires us to use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering. For all these reasons, I suggest to you that these targeted strikes against al-Qaida terrorists are indeed ethical and just.

If we begin with the use of lethal force via drone attacks, the use of drones armed with missiles is considered as conforming to the principle of necessity if those firing the drones are properly trained and, after careful consideration of the evidence, conclude that the individual targeted poses a significant threat to U.S. interests and the action is necessary to prevent future attacks and to mitigate an actual ongoing threat to save American lives. The threat cannot be an abstract one so the individuals targeted must be either high level leaders who initiate such plans or mid-level leaders either with expertise to produce the explosives or train others in their production or responsible for the execution of those plans. Thus, the threat must be a significant one. The targets cannot be low level militants, though low level militants can be killed in such attacks.

The strike against a particular individual must be intended to prevent an attack before it can be carried out or to disrupt the planning process in preparing such attacks. There is one other criterion in applying the "necessity" criterion: capture must be the preferred option, not elimination. And it is on this factor that the Obama program of using lethal drone attacks is most vulnerable to criticism. The administration has simply not justified its actions in showing that in every case capture was not feasible and lethal drones had to be used. Using the drones did not make their use illegal, but unless the option of capture was truly weighed, then the actions are unethical. With respect to Zero Dark Thirty and CIA objections to mis-portrayal in the film, the argument was never made that the account of bin Laden’s killing was basically inaccurate. There is no explanation of why he was not captured alive since he was by all accounts not armed when he was killed and the Americans were never able to possibly probe and find what intelligence might have been in his head. The Americans did capture Ahmed Warsame, a member of al-Shabaab in the Arabian Peninsula when he was traveling from Yemen to Somalia, but he stands out as a rare exception rather than the more predominant course of action.

What about the principle of distinction that requires attacks to be limited to military objectives. Civilians may be killed in accordance with the principle of proportionality which I have yet to discuss, but civilians and civilian structures should not be the object of the attack. "Signature strikes" pose a challenge to such a principle since by their nature, the object of the attack lacks clarity. Noticing a pattern of behaviour that accords with a militant group’s behaviour is precisely why signature strikes should not be authorized. The evidence is insufficient to support the objective and, in addition, the risk of collateral damage and breaking the principle of proportionality is too great.

The third principle of proportionality requires that any innocent civilian life lost in such an attack, or anticipated to possibly be sacrificed, must be in proportion to the military objective to be achieved. Put bluntly, the higher the value of the target, the greater the loss of civilian lives that can be tolerated. This cannot be interpreted to mean that one can simply ignore collateral damage to civilians or civilian property. Quite the reverse! In all cases, the greatest effort must be taken to minimize and mitigate harm to civilians and their property. It just means that after taking such care, the damage of civilians and their property cannot be excessive in relation to the target of the attack.

John Brennan argues that, "we only authorize a strike if we have a high degree of confidence that innocent civilians will not be injured or killed, except in the rarest of circumstances. The unprecedented advances we have made in technology provide us greater proximity to target for a longer period of time, and as a result allow us to better understand what is happening in real time on the ground in ways that were previously impossible. We can be much more discriminating and we can make more informed judgments about factors that might contribute to collateral damage."

This suggests that the more technology advances, the standards for proportionality increase so that we should expect fewer and fewer civilian casualties per militant killed. Brennan has even implied an almost zero tolerance for civilian casualties which I consider an impossible standard. "[T]here have indeed been occasions when we decided against conducting a strike in order to avoid the injury or death of innocent civilians. This reflects our commitment to doing everything in our power to avoid civilian casualties, even if it means having to come back another day to take out that terrorist, as we have done previously. And I would note that these standards, for identifying a target and avoiding the loss of innocent — the loss of lives of innocent civilians, exceed what is required as a matter of international law on a typical battlefield." According to the stats, they may have approached those standards in 2012, but I remain sceptical.

Brennan insists that, " despite the extraordinary precautions we take, civilians have been accidentally injured, or worse, killed in these strikes. It is exceedingly rare, but it has happened. When it does, it pains us, and we regret it deeply, as we do any time innocents are killed in war. And when it happens we take it very, very seriously. We go back and we review our actions. We examine our practices. And we constantly work to improve and refine our efforts so that we are doing everything in our power to prevent the loss of innocent life. This too is a reflection of our values as Americans." This suggests a new modification to the discrimination and proportionality rule – that when mistakes are made, reviews must follow to see what lessons can be learned to prevent collateral damage in the future.


Steve Coll ended his New Yorker piece, "Name Calling" (4 March 2013) with the following paragraph: "Jihadist violence presents an enduring danger. Its proponents will rise and ebb; the amorphous threats that they pose will require adaptive security policies and, occasionally, military action. Yet the empirical case for a worldwide state of war against a corporeal thing called Al Qaeda looks increasingly threadbare. A war against a name is a war in name only." Obama had replaced Bush’s War Against Terror with a war against al Qaeda and associated forces that seems to be a war without end.

I believe Jeh Johnson provided a reasonable answer to Steve Coll for defining that end. I also think that the various justifications for the use of drones to target enemies have answered such questions as clarifying why the war against al Qaeda counts as an armed conflict, that the issue of "immanent threat has been clarified, and made clear that the authorization for drone attacks must be under the direct authorization of the Executive Branch but without clarifying why the CIA rather than the armed forces have been charged with the task of implementation, though it has been suggested that it is a combination of their more direct access to eyes on the ground and the CIA’s greater nimbleness, practical matters of delivery rather than an assessment in terms of legal and ethical issues. The Obama administration has insisted that drone attacks cannot be carried out in countries where the ruling government objects to such attacks as an infringement on its sovereignty, but has not clarified the process whereby such objections can be registered. In fact, the administration has suggested that the sovereign state must explicitly concur in permitting such attacks, but given the behaviour of Pakistan, it also means that the sovereign state can publicly disavow any such approval.

According to the Obama doctrine, pre-emptive strikes are permitted, but here are three areas in which the Obama doctrine appears to fall woefully short. The Obama administration does not seem to have explicitly rules out targeting low level militants though the doctrine clearly implies they should be ruled out as targets, but the practice suggests this is certainly not always the case. The doctrine is clear in theory that capture is preferred, but the practice seems to point to killing as the first order of business. Third, the whole doctrine of signature strikes based on patterns of behaviour need to be explicitly ruled out if the Obama doctrine is to be taken at face value.

Finally, I want ironically to return to the principle of "last resort". Last resort does not mean that you try all other options first. It does mean that you consider other options as preferable if they are also both feasible and prudent. Since no outsiders have had access to the discussions on the use of drones, and since we have only had reassurances that the principle has been taken into consideration, I am unable to assess the degree to which this has been the case.

Tomorrow: Obama’s Resurrection of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process 28.02.13

[Tag Obama, drones, Brennan,
Johnson, discrimination, necessity, proportionality, just war]

Obama 19.Drones.Normative Debate.26.02.13.doc


Obama 18. The Results of the Drone Program 26.02.13

Obama 18. The Results of the Drone Program 26.02.13


Howard Adelman

In my blog today I will quote extensively from the report by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School (Stanford Clinic) and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law (NYU Clinic) called “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan Acknowledgments” (SNYU Report). The Report came out at the end of 2012 and has been the most comprehensive critical report of the Drone Program of the Obama Administration. The critique is summed up as follows:

The central justification for US drone strikes is that they are necessary to make the US safer by disrupting militant activity. Proponents argue that they are an effective, accurate, and precise tool to that end. However, serious questions have been raised about the accuracy and efficacy of strikes, and the publicly available evidence that they have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best. Considerable costs also have been documented. The under-accounted-for harm to civilians–injuries, killings, and broad impacts on daily life, education, and mental health–was analyzed in detail above, and must be factored as a severe cost of the US program. In addition, it is clear that US strikes in Pakistan foster anti-American sentiment and undermine US credibility not only in Pakistan but throughout the region. There is strong evidence to suggest that US drone strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivate attacks against both US military and civilian targets. Further, current US targeted killing and drone strike practices may set dangerous global legal precedents, erode the rule of law, and facilitate recourse to lethal force.

In this blog I will focus on the result of the Drone Program under the following headings:

1. Ratio of Militant:Civilian Deaths

2. Military and Political Results

3. Homeland Security

1. Ratio of Militant:Civilian Deaths

In a speech at the Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies on "Obama Administration Counterterrorism Strategy," on 29 June 2011, John Brennan, Obama’s point man on counter-terrorism was recorded on C-Span as having claimed that, “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop." Such a claim is just not credible. Fortunately, there are a multitude of sources that allow the claim to be checked.

John Brennan in his 2013 speech at the Woodrow Wilson Centre said: "In the course of the war in Afghanistan and the fight against al-Qaida, I think the American people expect us to use advanced technologies, for example, to prevent attacks on U.S. forces and to remove terrorists from the battlefield. We do, and it has saved the lives of our men and women in uniform. What has clearly captured the attention of many, however, is a different practice, beyond hot battlefields like Afghanistan, identifying specific members of al-Qaida and then targeting them with lethal force, often using aircraft remotely operated by pilots who can be hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away."

Was the strategy of killing off members of al Qaeda successful? At what cost?

Brian Katulis and Peter Juul of theCenter for American Progress declared that "Destroying Al Qaeda" has been "America’s Greatest National Security Accomplishment in Decades." (I November 2011) "The Al Qaeda network over the past three years suffered its greatest losses since the United States and its allies evicted the terrorist organization from Afghanistan in 2001…Hardly a week goes by without some key figure in the Al Qaeda network and its affiliates being targeted in a range of actions, including drone strikes as well as other actions by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent attacks and degrade the Al Qaeda network. The damage done to Al Qaeda by the Obama administration represents America’s greatest national security success since the fall of the Soviet Union and the peaceful integration of Eastern European countries in the 1990s."

How can the US know that they have killed a targeted al Qaeda militant without an ability to conduct post-strike investigations on the ground? In fact, without such investigations, how can the US know how many civilians have been killed if they claim that the collateral damage has been very limited? How does the Obama administration define a militant and differentiate a civilian from a militant? Before we answer that, I will first examine some fairly reliable reports on the body count.

In the Brookings Institute Afghanistan Index prepared by Ian Livingston and Michael O`Hanlan dated 31 July 2012, on p. 32 there are two charts (Figures 5.3 and 5.4) that show, first the monthly unarmed drone attacks in Pakistan and in the second chart an estimate of the total number of deaths from US drone strikes in Pakistan from 2006 to 24 July 2012. The latter figures are mostly taken from Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, “Revenge of the Drones,” New America Foundation, 19 October 2009 and a follow-up study, “The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2010,” 24 February 2010. There are no parallel figures for the results of fatalities from attacks by piloted aircraft, either because there were none or because drone attacks were seen to belong to a special category. I reproduce the chart below:

Deaths (low) Deaths (high)

2012 All 162 207
Militant 162 207
2011 All 378 536
Militant 362 500
2010 All 697 993
Militant 581 939
2009 All 368 724
Militant 265 501
2008 All 273 313
Militant 133 164
2004-2007 All 89 112
Militant 81 103
Total All 1,879 2,887
Militant 1,586 2,416

Several observations can be immediately drawn. First, the attacks accelerated in 2008 even before Obama took office with Bush`s orders to use Predator and Reaper drones instead of boots on he ground, and expanded again when Obama took office in 2009, reaching a peak in 2010. Second, if the chart is to be believed, the accuracy greatly improved in killing militants compared to the deaths of non-combatants. In 2008, for every militant killed, another civilian died as collateral damage. In 2012, no civilians were killed. In between, the accuracy of killing militants significantly improved though it was not perfect as Brennan claimed. A third observation: the results look too good. At first glance, they are not credible. Who was counted as a militant? When you send a tomahawk missile raining down on the home of a militant, how is it that no wives or children were killed?

The SNYU Report is even more critical, challenging the US narrative of minimal collateral damage. “The best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization. TBIJ reports that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.” The Brookings top end figures were 2,887 killed. The estimated average killed in the TBIJ report was 2,943, or 60 more than the top figure in the Brookings Report, a 2% difference, well within any margin of error. Civilian deaths in the Brookings report were 529 at the top end versus an average of 664 in the TBIJ Report, or about 25% higher. While the SNYU Report criticized the use of the oversimplified civilian/“militant” binary, it relied on precisely that binary in championing the TBIJ Report figures. I will come back to that binary in the discussion of the legal authority for the use of drones in my next blog.

The SNYU Report stated baldly that the government narrative of accuracy and relatively little collateral damage is false. However, if the figures the SNYU Report cites are to be believed, that depiction is accurate for 2011 and certainly for 2012. While acknowledging the existence of real threats in the Pakistani border areas and the need for defence, “in light of significant evidence of harmful impacts to Pakistani civilians and to US interests,” the Report concluded that “current policies to address terrorism through targeted killings and drone strikes must be carefully re-evaluated.”

Let us re-evaluate the militant/civilian ration of deaths assuming the slightly higher TBIJ figures. Ignoring the significant decline in the number of civilians killed, we are talking about an average of 74 civilians killed per year and 1 civilian killed per 4 militants.

Perhaps one should re-evaluate the use of drones and targeted killings, but hardly on the basis of the SNYU Report of civilians killed as collateral damage. Based on other war zones and comparative rates of civilian deaths to militant deaths, these figures frankly look amazing. One may be justly appalled at the damage on a personal level, but in comparative terms to any other military conflict, these figures are hard to believe, not for how bad they are but for how good they are. In the Korean War, two civilians were killed for every soldier. In WWII, the ratio was 3.2:1. In Vietnam, the ratio was 2:1. In the 1982 Lebanon War, the ratio was at least 4:1. In the series of wars in former Yugoslavia, the best estimated ratio was 1:1. In the militant actions of Palestinians on Israel in the first Intifada, the ratio of civilian to military deaths was 5:1. Only in Gaza did the ratio of militants to civilians killed reach an unprecedented low level of 1 civilian for every 30 militants. However, subsequently in Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza War, in my analysis, the ratio was 1:3 and in the Palestinian estimates, the ratio was reversed using similar totals but categorizing the deaths differently. If the US achieved a 1:4 ratio of civilian to militant deaths, especially if the ratio kept improving over nine years, this should be regarded as a very positive achievement.

Further, if one added to the numbers a large number of "spies" killed by al Qaeda itself to uproot alleged informers, then the number of militants indirectly killed by the program could be further increased. Then why the expression of such outrage by many on the "left"? Drones are a safer way of executing terrorists than employing ground troops according to then White House Counter Terrorism advisor John Brennan, who went on later to confirm that currently civilian causalities are "exceedingly rare". Clare Cullen argued that this was only the case because the CIA’s definition of a “combatant” is so broad that it effectively means anyone killed in a drone strike, as long as they are “military-age males” can be classified as a combatant. (Clare Cullen "Obama’s Drone Wars strain the liberal principles he espoused in 2008" iPolitics, 8 June 2011) If the use of "signature strikes" become more common that target people because they have the profile of a militant rather than because they have been individually identified as such, then the ratio of killing more militants than civilians improves, but only because of re-categorizing those killed.

I have no doubt that living under the threat of drones hovering above until it locates its target is terrorizing “giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities”. I also have no doubt that when Tomahawk or Hellfire missiles reach their targets that the property damage is considerable and that a number of civilians are injured as well. These attacks disrupt lives, livelihoods and cultural patterns. In sum, collateral damage goes well beyond the civilians killed and the property destroyed to disrupt the way of life of the civilian population in the target zone. War is, indeed, hell!

What about the claims of the SNYU Report that repeated efforts to kill high-level targets have killed civilians each time so that, in order to measure the principle of discrimination, the total of civilians killed for an individual target over multiple attempts should be calculated? The answer is straightforward. The risk of collateral damage has to be calculated for each individual action. The overall totals are simply an indicator, and only an indicator, of whether those individual decisions were reasonable. As well they serve as a measure for assessing the overall war effort and whether the actions accord with just war norms.

The real issue does not really arise when one or two individual civilians are killed as collateral damage, but when mistakes are made. This is true of all wars. Thus, the attempt to kill the head of the Pakistani Taliban, resulted not only in his wife being killed, but in dozens of civilian deaths in four earlier failed attempts.

A year earlier, a drone strike killed Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, while he was visiting his father-in-law; his wife was vaporized along with him. But the US had already tried four times to assassinate Mehsud with drones, killing dozens of civilians in the failed attempts. One of the missed strikes, according to a human rights group, killed 35 people, including nine civilians, with reports that flying shrapnel killed an eight-year-old boy while he was sleeping. Another blown strike, in June 2009, took out 45 civilians, according to credible press reports. (SNYU Report)

There are three other reasons, however, for distrusting the figures and ratios. Without ground spotters to report on the numbers killed on the ground, how could you possibly have accuracy?

The accuracy of a drone strike fundamentally hinges on the accuracy of the intelligence on which the targeting is premised. That intelligence has often been questioned. An anonymous US official cited by Tom Junod in his August 2012 Esquire article admitted that “[y]ou get information from intelligence channels and you don’t know how reliable it is or who the source was. The intelligence services have criteria, but most of the time the people making the decision have no idea what those criteria are.” (SNYU Report)

Second, given the record of errors in getting the individual targeted, even one where the collateral damage was to American service men killed by "friendly fire" – "In April 2011, for example, US forces used a predator drone to fire upon and kill two American soldiers in Afghanistan who had apparently been mistaken for Taliban fighters." Not all civilian collateral damage belongs to the same group as the enemy. But the main focus is on non-American civilians.

In September 2010, US special forces bombed the convoy of Zabet Amanullah, a candidate in parliamentary elections, killing him along with nine fellow election workers; US forces reportedly mistakenly believed Amanullah to be a member of the Taliban.[11] In both Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been documented cases of opportunistic informants providing false tips to settle scores, advance sectarian or political agendas, or to obtain financial reward.[12] For example, in Guantanamo, a reported 86 percent of those imprisoned were turned over to coalition forces in response to a bounty offered by the US.[13] Pakistani and Afghan villagers reported the bounty amount was “[e]nough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life.

When errors are cumulative, the ratio of civilian:militant deaths seems much worse.

Although proclaimed dead in January 2009[20] and again in September 2009,[21] Ilyas Kashmiri, the alleged head of Al Qaeda’s paramilitary operations in Pakistan, gave an interview to a Pakistani journalist in October that same year.[22] Our research team spoke with a survivor of the September 2009 strike in which Kashmiri was initially reported to have died. That survivor, Sadaullah Wazir, who was 15 years old or younger at the time of the strike, lost both his legs and an eye in the strike.[23] Kashmiri was again proclaimed dead in June 2011,[24] but even this account has been contested.[25] Similarly, Abu Yahya Al-Libi, declared to be Al Qaeda’s #2 or #3, was thought killed in a December 2009 drone strike,[26] only to be reportedly killed more than three years later in June 2012.[27] Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone has also traced the multiple US attempts to strike the TTP’s former leader Baitullah Mehsud.

There is also the issue of the number of high level versus low level targets. There can be no question that, by the law of averages, the majority of those killed had to be lower level targets. In a May 2010 article by Adam Entous, he claimed that US spokesman told him that by that time “only 14 top-tier leaders of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other militant groups” had been killed as well as “two dozen high-to-mid-level leaders”; 90% were low-level fighters. Why would anyone expect any better results? If 2500 are killed and 25 (1%) are high-level targets and another 225 (9%) are mid-level targets, that is not abnormal for regular or asymmetrical warfare.

Between 2004 and 2007 only four senior al Qaeda commanders were killed: Nek Mohammed, a senior Taliban commander in South Waziristan in 2004; Abu Hamza Rabia, al Qaeda’s operational commander in 2005 on 1 December; Imam Asad, a Chechen who served as camp commander of bin Laden’s elite personal security force, killed 1 March 2006; Liaquat Hussain, second in command of the Bjour TNSM killed 30 October 2006. In 2008, assassinations picked up noticeably with Bush’s employment of drones; 19 al Qaeda leaders were killed in 2008 alone. More specifically, the high-level al Qaeda targets killed included: Abu Laith al Libi, senior military commander in Afghanistan of al Qaeda’s Shadow Army killed 29 January, except that his death was also declared in December 2009 and then again in June 2012; Abu Sulayman Al Jazairi, an Algerian leader and in charge of the external network of al Qaeda killed on 14 May in Pakistan; Abu Khabab al Masri, al Qaeda’s WMD expert killed in South Waziristan 27 July, though he was previously thought to have been killed in January 2006; Khalid bin Abdul Rehman a local Taliban commander and a rumoured potential successor to second in command Abu Zaid-al-Kuwaiti killed by a Predator drone attack 13 August; Abu Haris a senior al Qaeda military commander from Syria who had just become al Qaeda’s Operations Chief in the Tribal areas was killed 8 September; Khalid Habib commander of the Shadow Army on 13 October; Abu Jihad Al Masri, leader of the Egyptian Islamic Group and head of al Qaeda intelligence, 31 October; Abdullah Azzam Ala Saudi the liaison officer between al Qaeda and the Taliban on 19 November; Abu Zubair Al Masri, an explosive expert killed 21 November. In 2009, 17 more were killed including: Sheik Ahmed Salim Swedan wanted for planning the US Kenyan and Tanzanian embassy bombings killed 1 January; Osama Al Kini, Pakistan operations chief and also a planner of the American Tanzanian and Kenyan embassy bombings, killed on 1 January as well; Abu Musa al Masri, a senior explosives expert and trainer killed 21 October. In the next 3 years and 2 months, an additional 48 top level and middle level al Qaeda were killed. (See The Long War Journal, "Senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed in US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004-2013" http://www.longwarjournal.org/pakistan-strikes-hvts.php) In the next blog, I will discuss whether the policy of decapitation itself is prudent, legal and ethical.

Alexander Downes argues that the drone program had become an attrition rather than decapitation program since many of the old high level targets have been killed. ("The Truth About Obama’s Drone Campaign: It’s About Attrition, Not Decapitation," Politics, 01.19.13) "Drone strikes are mostly killing low-level Pakistani militants, not al Qaeda leaders. This strategy is unlikely to cause the collapse of al Qaeda or even the Pakistani Taliban and may have counterproductive effects. Obama’s second term may therefore require new thinking on drones." Is the evaluation necessary because of the cost? If the collateral damage has been reduced significantly, what reason is there for stopping the program even if the ratio of lower level militants rises? Does killing of enemy militants increase recruitment?

If killing enemies increases the recruitment of others, then all war efforts are useless except in wars aimed at totally exhausting the human fire power on the other side. Further, there is a difference between aiming to disrupt and weaken an enemy structure and forcing it to disintegrate. There is no indication that Obama has that totalist kind of optimistic goal. Rather, what is envisioned is a long term attrition war until the extreme militants see the futility of their efforts.

The critics who argue either that decapitation is counter-productive because new leadership quickly springs up to replace those killed and/or that the efforts to kill militants only stimulate more anger and resentment, particularly when civilians are killed, and thus attract new recruits to the cause, then have the responsibility to articulate an alternative way of dealing with militants. In the end, it would appear that the alternative is retreat and withdrawal of support from more moderate regimes and allowing those regimes to fight their own battles against extremists. The problem then, if Iran is an example, militancy itself has no bounds and will inevitably clash either in the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, partner Muslim majority countries and areas such as Israel-Palestine or former Yugoslavia. These, however, are larger strategic issues, so I will return to the grounded question of numbers.

If the above figures are accurate, then the Obama regime has figured out how to use drones to watch and wait for their targets over extended periods of time and then use precision-guided missiles to kill the target while, at the same time, minimizing collateral damage. The increasing percentage of Taliban leaders compared to al Qaeda may indicate that the decapitation program has been successful if only in scattering the remnants of al Qaeda. Though the Taliban and al Qaeda do not have the same objectives, and although the Taliban do not target America as America but only as occupiers, the Taliban still host the al Qaeda terrorists.

2. Military and Political Results

What about measurements of other results. Has the threat from al Qaeda been reduced? Has its prime effort in the media war been decimated, especially since al Qaeda`s release of videotapes has all but disappeared from the airwaves? Has the attack on terrorists turned Pakistani public opinion against the United States?

When Pakistan’s Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt. Gen. Zaheerul Islam visited America in August 2012, he told the then-CIA Director David Petraeus that predator strikes are proving counterproductive, giving a greater incentive to fundamentalist and extremist elements in Pakistan and increasing anti-U.S. sentiments among the people. (Saijad Shaukat "Killing Civilians: Obama’s Drone War in Pakistan: Illegal, Unethical, Violating Sovereignty and the UN Charter," Global Research, 14 December 2012) Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar reiterated the same points after meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on 21 September: following these illegal and counterproductive strikes and when Pakistanis rather than foreigners are killed, public antagonism is aroused against the "U.S. War". President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan made the same point addressing the UN General Assembly on 25 September: if drone attacks provoke the tribal people in North Waziristan against Pakistan’s security forces, if they create the grounds for increased recruitment, then “Drone strikes and civilian casualties on our territory add to the complexity of our battle for hearts and minds through this epic struggle.”

Public opinion polls indicate that anti-US sentiment has risen is Pakistan.

Despite the vast foreign aid the US has invested in Pakistan, a 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitude project found that 74% of Pakistanis consider the US an enemy, up from 64% three years ago. Only 45% of Pakistanis felt it important to improve relations with the US, down from 60% the previous year, and fewer support cooperation or even receiving aid from the US.

US drone strikes are extremely unpopular in Pakistan. A 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitude project found that only 17% of Pakistanis supported drone strikes. And remarkably, among those who professed to know a lot or a little about drones, 97% considered drone strikes bad policy. As numerous analysts have noted, “[i]f the price of the drone campaign that increasingly kills only low-level Taliban is alienating 180 million Pakistanis–that is too high a price to pay.” (SNYU Report)

The unpopularity of the drone program goes well beyond Pakistan.

In 17 of the 20 countries polled by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the majority of those surveyed disapproved of US drone attacks in countries like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.[82] Widespread opposition spans the globe, from traditional European allies such as France (63% disapproval) and Germany (59% disapproval) to key Middle East states such as Egypt (89% disapproval) and Turkey (81% disapproval).

Pakistani’s highest government officials do not appear to be speaking out of two sides of their mouths, quietly acceding to the drone attacks while vociferously attacking them in public. Why would they take such a tack on American soil? Were they just warning the Americans to be more accurate in their targeting? After all, the drone attacks were taking out increasingly higher numbers of Taliban than of al Qaeda. They certainly seemed much more concerned about the program than its accuracy. Pakistani military had been attacked and 100 military personnel had been killed over the previous two years. Suicide attacks from the tribal areas were increasingly launched in the heart of Pakistan’s major cities. Were the political leaders merely trying to offload the blame for these attacks on the USA and using these to explain why quiet diplomacy and the rapprochement initiative with the Taliban leaders had not worked?

The fragile Pakistani state may have been further weakened by the drone program. Public opinion in Pakistan may have turned even more against America. However, there is also evidence suggesting other problems are much more worrisome to Pakistanis. Certainly, every time another car bomb explodes in Pakistan, increasing numbers of cries arise in shriller and shriller tones that it is America, not al Qaeda, that is to blame. On the other hand, while Shuza Nawaz, the author of the history of the Pakistan military, Crossed Swords, argued that if attacks were diverted from the Tribal areas to Pakistan proper, America would have crossed a red line. However, even though the attack against bin Laden was less than a mile for a large Pakistani military base, the Pakistani response was relatively mute.

Further, there is plenty of evidence of increasing strife between Islamic militants and moderates throughout the region totally independent of the drone strikes. Look at the protests in Shahbag Square in Bangladesh about bringing people to justice for their war crimes while Islamists denounce the protests as anti-Islam. (Syed Zain al-Mahmood, "Bangladesh split as violence escalates over war crimes protests," The Observer, 23 February 2013) Further, evidence suggests that the Pakistani public has become more anti-Taliban than ever. The pro-Taliban parties received only 2% of the vote in the Pakistani elections. Of course the actions of the Taliban in their assassination campaign (Benazir Bhutto), the blowing up of the Marriott Hotel depicted in Zero Dark Thirty, the public flogging of the 17 year old girl, the execution of a young couple for adultery. All these activities provoked much more disgust aimed at the Taliban than any knee-jerk anti-Americanism instigated by American drone attacks in Waziristan.

In the Woodrow Wilson Center talk, Brennan insisted that the threat from al Qaeda had been reduced. “In Pakistan, al-Qaida’s leadership ranks have continued to suffer heavy losses. This includes Ilyas Kashmiri, one of al-Qaida’s top operational planners, killed a month after bin Laden [though he had previously been reported killed in January
2009]. It includes Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, killed when he succeeded Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s deputy leader. It includes Younis al-Mauritani, a planner of attacks against the United States and Europe, until he was captured by Pakistani forces.” Brennan continued. “With its most skilled and experienced commanders being lost so quickly, al-Qaida has had trouble replacing them.” Brennan even quoted bin Laden to support these conclusions: “The rise of lower leaders who are not as experienced and this would lead to the repeat of mistakes.” These results are supported by Daniel Byman (Georgetown University) and his studies of the effects on Hamas and Hezbollah of decapitation programs of the Israeli government. In Byman`s words, "you drive down the age and experience of the leadership." In February of 2008, even Dennis Blair Director of National Intelligence, who emerged as such a strong critic of the drone program, testified to Congress that al Qaeda was having great difficulty replacing the loss of key leaders.

Communication links have been broken. The number of places to train and groom the next generation of operatives has been significantly reduced. Contrary to the contention of the SNYU Report, Brennan, while admitting that new offshoots have been developed in other areas, al Quaeda was “struggling to attract new recruits. Morale is low, with intelligence indicating that some members are giving up and returning home, no doubt aware that this is a fight they will never win. In short, al-Qaida is losing badly.” He then quoted bin Laden again from documents captured in his compound acknowledging “disaster after disaster” and urging his subordinates to flee the tribal regions, and go to places “away from aircraft photography and bombardment.” But go where? Missile killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in Yemen on 30 September 2011; just weeks later, al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, was also killed.

Brennan continued. “It is harder than ever for al-Qaida core in Pakistan to plan and execute large-scale, potentially catastrophic attacks against our homeland. Today, it is increasingly clear that compared to 9/11, the core al-Qaida leadership is a shadow of its former self. Al-Qaida has been left with just a handful of capable leaders and operatives, and with continued pressure is on the path to its destruction. And for the first time since this fight began, we can look ahead and envision a world in which the al-Qaida core is simply no longer relevant.” In contrast to this interpretation on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of drones, former director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, who was fired by Obama, claimed that, “[Al] Qaeda officials who are killed by drones will be replaced. The group’s structure will survive and it will still be able to inspire, finance and train individuals and teams to kill Americans.”

In an article by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann entitled "The Drone War" in the New Republic (3 June 2009) relaying how the drone war had been significantly accelerated since Obama became president, the authors asked whether, even if the drone war succeeded in decapitating many of the leaders and scattering them all over, had not the effort resulted in endangering Pakistan itself thereby both undermining American policy in the region as well only temporarily damaging al Quaeda. This is the BIG question and the one I am unable to answer.

There is one other effect of the drone back which I am now convinced is unstoppable. There is now a drone arms race underway. Further, drone warfare propably increases the readiness to resort to fire arms because of the significantly reduced risks to one’s own soldiers. Drones are a game changer. “There’s something important about putting your own sons and daughters at risk when you choose to wage war as a nation. We risk losing that flesh-and-blood investment if we go too far down this road.” (Administrative System, supra note 98 (“FATA . . . remains under the direct executive authority of the President (Articles 51, 59 and 247).” Quoted in SNYU Report).

“When politicians can avoid the political consequences of the condolence letter—and the impact the military casualties have on voters and on the news media—they no longer treat the previously weighty matters of war and peace the same way…. [drones are] short-circuiting the decision-making process for what used to be the most important choice a democracy could make.” ( Wasseem Ahmed Shah, FCR Reform Process Should Not Stop, Dawn (Aug. 15, 2011), http://dawn.com/2011/08/15/fcr-reform-process-should-not-stop/ Cited in SNYU)

3. Homeland Security

The most important and uncontentious result is that there have been NO successful attacks against the American homeland OR Europe since the drone program was accelerated and given priority. More importantly, no plots have been uncovered or even disrupted that have been forged in the Tribal areas.

However, attacks on the homeland are not the only consideration. One of the results is not only what happens on the battlefield but how it affects the hearts and minds of the folks back home. If they become disgruntled by a strategy, if they organize an effective vocal opposition, that alone undercuts the strategy because it enhances the morale of America’s enemies and makes them more determined to wait America out. Professor Jack Goldsmith of the Harvard Law School, a former assistant attorney general in the administration of George W. Bush, wrote: “The government needs a way to credibly convey to the public that its decisions about who is being targeted, especially when the target is a U.S. citizen, are sound. First, the government can and should tell us more about the process by which it reaches its high-value targeting decisions. The more the government tells us about the eyeballs on the issue and the robustness of the process, the more credible will be its claims about the accuracy of its factual determinations and the soundness of its legal ones. All of this information can be disclosed in some form without endangering critical intelligence.”

Brennan claimed to have answered that challenge in his Woodrow Wilson Centre speech. Goldsmith at first agreed with him, but on further reconsideration after further leaks, Goldstone opined, " There are actually at least two questions here: (1) Has the USG officially acknowledged CIA drone strikes?; and (2) Even if the USG has not officially acknowledged CIA involvement in the strikes, should it be required to do so in light of its manipulation of the secrecy system through extensive opportunistic leaks? On both issues I find myself increasingly in the ACLU camp." (Empty Wheel, 31 May 2912) Brennan had not shown, as he promised, that the vetting of targets was "painstaking" and "exhaustive".

This goes to the heart of the accountability issue to be discussed in the next blog, but has virtually no impact in determining whether the drone program was effective.

Tomorrow: Obama 19. Drones: The Normative Debate 27.02.13


[Tag Obama,
drones, collateral damage, civilians killed, political fallout]

Obama 18.Results.Drone.Program.26.02.13.doc


Sociopaths 27.01.2013


Howard Adelman

Psalms 73:18-20
18. Only on slippery places do You set them; You cast them into darkness. 19. How they have become desolate in an instant! They came to an end, they were consumed by terrors, 20. like a dream upon awakening. O my Lord, disgrace their image in the city.

Lance Armstrong’s public confession to doping in the bicycle racing world is a famous scandal around the world. Chris Spence’s resignation as Director of Education for the Toronto School Board for serial plagiarizing is a more local Canadian scandal in the educational world. In the medical world, and even more locally known, the anaesthesiologist, Dr. George Doodnaught, is undergoing a criminal trial alleging that he sexually assaulted 29 female patients when they were under conscious sedation? He claims he is innocent of the charges.

These three cases do not have the same degree of fame or, rather, infamy. Lance was known the world over as winner of seven Tour de France Grand Prix in bicycle racing as the leader of the U.S. Postal Services Team as well as a cancer survivor and philanthropist. Chris Spence was known in educational circles in Toronto as the very popular superintendant of education. Though also from Toronto, but in contrast to Chris Spence until charged with sexual assault, Dr. George Doodnaught was relatively unknown outside medical circles. What he did share with Lance Armstrong is that both had five children and possibly both are sociopaths. I believe, though Chris Spence was a serial liar, the evidence does not indicate he was a sociopath.

All three share the same ignominy of being well respected members and even leaders in their field until they were publicly exposed. At least two were known for overcoming enormous challenges. Lance Armstrong overcame cancer and even established a cancer charity, Live Strong. Chris Spence was a hero to the black community having risen from a child of Jamaican immigrants in Canada to a star line backer for the B.C. Lions (cf. his 2000 biography, Skin I’m in: Racism, Sports and Education) and an educator who eventually led the largest school board in Canada. But all three have become better known as frauds or alleged frauds for serial lying. The doctor continues to deny that he committed sexual assaults over a long period while his patients were under anaesthesia.

Further, society was taken in by their frauds and subsequent denials. People suspended any willingness to disbelieve and initially protected the reputations of all three, insisting on the integrity, responsibility and honesty of each of the men. In fact, Lance Armstrong, as by far the best known, wore his heroic status like a cloak to help hide his perfidy. In his interviews with Oprah Winfrey, he disclosed that fraud had become endemic to his life. Chris Spence in football learned that an essential element in successful play was the fake (or feint) whereby one runs in one direction to mislead an opponent and then breaks away in another. And one can only imagine the extra thrill an anaesthesiologist might have in fondling, kissing and even sticking his penis in the mouth of a partially sedated patient as his medical colleagues operated on that same patient on the other side of an antiseptic blue curtain. In fact, if the charges are upheld, one suspects that the thrill of performing in public under such high risk of exposure was part of the adrenaline rush in at least the Armstrong and possibly the medical scandal.

In education, plagiarizing is considered the foremost crime. In sports, taking banned substances to enhance performance is currently considered the greatest sin. And certainly sexually assaulting a helpless patient and then telling her that she was hallucinating under the influence of the anaesthetic can be considered one of the greatest breaches of the Hippocratic oath. In each case, the history of deceit allegedly went a long way back. Subsequent to the discovery and proof that Chris Spence had plagiarized parts of an op-ed piece, journalists uncovered a history of plagiarism that evidently went back to at least his PhD thesis for the University of Toronto and likely even his term papers as an undergraduate at York University where I taught for 37 years. For faking is an acquired skilled developed over time, not simply in presenting borrowed material as one’s own, but in presenting oneself in public as a significant achiever. It is not just the specific act that is faked; it is the whole performance.

These are not victimless crimes either. Mike Anderson was a bike mechanic who worked for Lance Armstrong between 2002 and 2004 not only to maintain his bikes but as a personal assistant, but was fired soon after finding steroids in Lance Armstrong’s medicine cabinet. When he asked for help in establishing a bike shop as he claims he had been promised, Armstrong sued Anderson for being unstable and untrustworthy. As Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah, he couldn’t remember how many people he had sued and, one might add, how many lives his actions ruined — including not only that of Mike Anderson but also that of Greg LeMond, now the only American winner of the Tour de France. Armstrong charged LeMond twelve years before his admission to doping with having a questionable relationship with Dr. Michele Ferrari, the famous doctor of dope, which charges led to the cancellation of LeMond’s sponsorship by Trek even though it was LeMond who resisted Armstrong’s entreaties to establish a connection with Ferrari and was evidently fired from the US team for it. Other victims included Frankie Andreu, Armstrong’s former team mate, and Emma O’Reilly, his former masseuse who in her 2003 book depicted Armstrong’s doping and whom Armstrong branded as an alcoholic whore for accusing him of back-dating a prescription to cover up a discovery that he had elevated levels of cortisone in his body in 1999.

Anderson, in his interview with Sports Illustrated , depicted Armstrong as completely lacking in empathy and incapable of genuine contrition. Kathy LeMond said he lied about her husband Greg, depicted him as a drunk and alcoholic and she recalled him as threatening, screaming, crazily angry and out of control, even suggesting he could access emails and phone calls. Greg lost his income, his company and his reputation. Betsy Andreu said that, when she would not keep silent about the in 2007 admission she had overheard from Lance Armstrong to doctors that he had taken five PEDs, Armstrong went into character assassination mode and depicted her as a neurotic psychopathic who was bitter, jealous and vindictive. However, the personal damage was not only psychological. Almost surely as a result of the doping culture in world cycling, just in the 13 months leading up to the 2004 cycling season, seven competitive cyclists died of heart attacks. (Hamilton and Coyle 2012)

Travis Tygart, CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), who had built the overwhelming case that Armstrong had been doping for years by using the banned blood booster miniature doses of EPO that were undetectable, blood transfusions, oral testosterone (only detectable for a few hours), corticosteroids like THG that was undetectable, masking agents, trafficking and for administering those drugs to other riders , received death threats when he investigated Lance Armstrong. Armstrong denied in his second interview with Oprah that he once offered USADA a donation of $250,000 though Travis Tygart confirmed that such an offer had been made in 2004.

Even in the Oprah interviews, Armstrong continued to lie and denied that he had bullied other riders to dope; he insisted that he rode clean in 2009 and 2010 contrary to the evidence. As Anderson contended, the really big crime is not doping (or plagiarism or even sexual assault) but “the crime against human decency, against the truth”. In his Oprah interviews, Armstrong presented himself as going along with an existing culture rather than as the strong and bullying proponent of the culture that he actually was. Though trying to blend the confessions with other lies may be part of the strategy of attempted recovery, not only is the recovery unlikely, but Armstrong and the others will not only have their careers ruined but, in the case of Armstrong, he is likely to lose much if not all of his reputed $125 million fortune as various parties sue him, such as the insurance company who paid him a $12.5 million bonus for his 2002 Tour de France win and The Sunday Times which erroneously settled a defamation suit for $1.5 million. The higher they have risen the further they have to fall.

Chris Spence, when initially exposed for plagiarism about one op-ed piece , apologized, offered an excuse and pledged to take an ethics course in journalism. When revealed as a serial plagiarist, he resigned as Director of Education and pledged “to restore my reputation, and to uphold academic integrity I consider to be so important. But most certainly, to make amends for what I have done.” How is that possible? How can you return and uphold academic integrity when you have spent your whole life undermining an essential principle? Anyone can inadvertently plagiarize. But in Spence’s case, the pattern demonstrated continuous and outright borrowing from other people’s work. How do you make up to the numerous staunch supporters over the years and those deceived into awarding accolades?

Why do they really own up? First, they find themselves totally entrapped by their fraud. Lance Armstrong said he could not look his 13-year old son in the face who he overheard defending him. He also claimed to not want to compromise the charity he had set up though Anderson in his interview claimed that Armstrong had set up the charity as a sham, a cover up and disliked spending participating in its public events. Chris Spence said that he did want to be a further distraction to the Board of Education. George Doodnaught has not yet confessed to anything and still insists on his innocence even though over 20 women have given statements that they were sexually assaulted. What does he say to his children?

Why are the families closest to these fallen heroes last to know and most profoundly hurt? Why are the institutions around these men initially in such a state of disbelief and incredulity when accusations are first made that it may take years before any real investigation is undertaken and then, when the situation is uncovered, express such shock and dismay?

A search through the literature on sociopaths provides most of the answers. Sociopathology was once referred to as moral insanity but in the language of the antiseptic present it is called an antisocial personality disorder characteristic of those who suffer from a lack of respect for the moral and legal order. Sociopathology begins with a person’s sense of self and sense of the Other, a magnified sense of themselves and a diminished sense of the Other, the magnitude of the view of themselves and the diminution of the Other providing the measure of their degree of sociopathology. So when you ask yourself how could they believe they never would be caught, remember that they regard themselves as omniscient and omnipotent and entitled to full self-realization without taking into account their impact on others

That is why Lance Armstrong of the three cases seems to be a leading sociopath. That is why sociopathology is so closely linked with narcissism. As Martin Buber pointed out in I and Thou, the other is treated as an object and not a self-determining agent with his or her own rights while sociopaths regard themselves as “entitled” to their rights, including a ‘right’ to return to the field where they caused so much destruction and from which they have been banned. In fact the one thing they cannot tolerate is banishment from living on the edge. That is also why they seem so incapable of any deep love so that when Armstrong seems to show empathy and compassion for his own son, it is difficult for others to know whether it is feigned and sincere since, in the past, such expressions were only tools to serve an ulterior motive. Why only when he was totally uncovered did he not understand the horrible situation into which he had put his children in conscripting them into the business of being a serial liar?

Where they demonstrate genuine passion is the outrage they feel when their own sense of self is damaged or threatened and why that outrage is accompanied by verbal outbursts, rage, abuse and efforts to mete out punishment on those perceived as out to hurt them. That is why their efforts are insatiable and that is why, when they are caught, they profess to want to make amends and seem to express some empathy perhaps for the first time, but show so little understanding of the depth of pain they caused others and what genuine atonement would really require – that is, directly and publicly recognizing and apologizing to those harmed, taking full responsibility for th harm caused and making amends in full and paying compensation.
That damage was mostly caused to others who thought they were their friends. Those friends, when their use as accomplices was over, were humiliated, punished and victimized. Sociopaths never truly recognize how they wrecked the lives of others; they only express a superficial sympathy for those others for being run over by a depersonalized truck. Sociopaths are no more responsible or reliable when they express contrition than when they built their edifice of double dealing for they never recognize that they are deeply sick, only that they were caught up and carried along in a systemic process for which the only responsibility they bore was not resisting its powerful effects.
All sociopaths are serial liars but not all serial liars are sociopaths. Though Chris Spence developed a habit of failing to credit others and hence of misrepresentation, his repeated lying and deceit did not seem to be undertaken for personal profit or pleasure but seemed to have been indulged in repeatedly in a way that increased the risk of discovery. Nor did he leave his route to success strewn with victims. Once caught he quickly assumed responsibility for his misdeeds, resigned and did not resort to trying to talk his way into redemption. Though a habitual deceiver, Chris Spence recognized he was engaged in an unacceptable practice. There seems no evidence of a record of vindictive behaviour. The irony is that, while the serial liar who is a sociopath will try to redeem himself in the eyes of others, the non-sociopathic serial liar will want to disappear into the woodwork. But serial liars who are not sociopaths are redeemable; genuine sociopaths do not seem to be.

Kant and Morality

Kant and Morality – Howard Adelman 26.01.2013

1. Is Block’s interpretation of Kant’s categorical imperative correct, namely that there are propositions universal in their application to all humans absolutely?

Kant’s categorical imperatives are universal a priori propositions. That means they are not drawn from experience and are universal whether or not they apply in experience. Further, for Kant, they are a priori necessary conditions for having any moral sense whatsoever and that is what makes them universal moral propositions. If the first formulation of the categorical imperative is that one must act according to the maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will (my italics) that the imperative become a universal law, how can you will what is already a given universal moral law in nature? Categorical moral propositions are imperatives of reason, in the case of morality, of pure practical reason, that is, of a reason which legislates and prescribes rather than describes what is. That is why, for Kant, freedom and a self-conscious willing autonomous individual are transcendental a priori conditions inherent to having categorical imperatives and, hence, morality. If that is the case, then morality logically demands that every other human must be treated as a free self-conscious individual, in his formulation, as an end in itself and never as a means only. Further, given that each individual is an autonomous free and rational agent and given that each rational agent must treat every other human as a free and rational agent, then everyone must treat every other one according to a universal law as an end and never merely a means.

My depiction of Kant’s categorical imperative differs from Block’s in the following ways:

a) Though the categorical imperative inheres in all humans, all humans are not necessarily expressions of the categorical imperative even in a minimal sense. If humans are to be considered moral, they must treat every other human as an end, but if another human does not act on the basis of being a self-legislating being, but is a sociopath or a psychopath with absolutely no empathy for the other but just uses people, must that person who “appears” human be treated as a human? (I will have to answer this last query in a subsequent blog.)

b) Kant avoids linking the moral sense to natural proclivities versus Block who depicts the moral senses as akin to innate abilities and instincts, that is, empirical (and, hence, a posteriori) characteristics, for, in Block, respect for one another and a sense of justice” were imparted to humankind to enable “man to form societies and live together”. Quite aside from contradiction of introducing a consequentialist argument into a deontological account, this is an empirical account of moral sensibility as “basic emotions in man” that are innate rather than an a priori account that results from pure reasoning. Block writes: “I believe there is something innate about these feelings, such that we find it quite natural (my italics) to have them.”

c) For Kant, the good will which is the only thing good without qualification is a pure will, that is a will independent of and logically prior to any actual act of willing. Block writes that what, “one means by a good person is at least a person about whom one would say that it is unthinkable that this person could act unjustly or cruelly.” Not according to Kant. What one means by a good person is what he writes: a good person is one who can will that his actions be governed by universal moral principles and that that person treats every other human on the same basis. The judgement whether an actual individual is good is an empirical question about observing how the imperatives are made operational and not about the meta-ethics of imperatives themselves.

d) Block says that “there are no excuses for lying” for prudentially it would mean that no one would have anything to do with a liar. Quite aside from the contradiction of introducing yet another consequentialist argument in an anti-consequentialist deontological theory, and whether it is empirically valid to say that no one would have anything to do with a known liar – a proposition I believe could be easily falsified – let us simply look at Kant’s reasoning. The imperative not to lie is a perfect duty that follows from the categorical imperative because if lying were permissible, then anything anyone said could not be trusted and this would undercut the possibility of morality altogether. But what if Eichmann asked a woman whether she had a child hidden under her dress as he was ordering children onto a cattle car headed for Auschwitz, would she be permitted to lie i) to save her own life for if she told the truth she would be treating herself as a means only and not an end, a means to fulfill Nazi fantasies of extermination of the Jews; ii) to save the life of her child for if she revealed the location of the child, that child would be shipped to a death camp and exterminated? Block says that lying is never permitted. I say that what appears to be a lie is permitted in this case, possibly even for a Kantian because, as an imperative consistent with the categorical imperative, there is not only permission to tell what appears as a lie but a duty to deceive Eichmann if it means saving a human life. What one said would not be a lie in terms of the categorical imperative because it would not be a statement addressed to a person who endorsed the principle of the autonomy and freedom of every human individual. For Block, there are no excuses for not telling the truth, However, the categorical imperative itself provides the excuse, for an untruth in this case is not a contradiction to the categorical imperative but an expression of it; what would be said or left unsaid is not a lie per se in the meta-ethical sense of the injunction not to tell lies.

e) Goodness, for Kant, is not something concealed beneath a dark shell hidden in the soul but that which is readily visible to the pure light of reason when reason shines upon it. Nothing need be removed; the empirical realm only needs to be bracketed and the pure light of reason thrown on how moral reasoning takes place.

f) Is the categorical character of a proposition that which makes the judgement moral?
For Kant, definitely! For consequentialists, teleological moralists or Darwinian emergent or natural moralists (the moral sense is empirically innate), no. Kant, though still avoiding any empirical contamination to a pure a priori proposition of pure practical reason, does slip into teleology with his concept of a “Kingdom of Ends”. Block, on the other hand, confuses universal empirical and general empirical propositions with categorical ones. For him, goodness is a nascent ability that needs to be developed rather than a condition identified by pure practical reason as a condition of any morality whatsoever. A good will is a logical and purely rational precondition and not an empirical element that merely needs nurturing.

2. Are the core ideas of morality compassion and justice, and are compassion and justice basic moral senses? What is a basic moral sense – the fact that all humans are born with them, that is, moral qualities G-d gave man when he created the world? If someone is generally morally good does that mean that it is unthinkable or unimaginable that he would act unjustly, that he lacked compassion and/or a sense of justice?

When Adam was created, he demonstrated no sense of either compassion or justice. He did not even come close to compassion even for himself for he did not even recognize he was lonely. G-d had to tell him. And he did not recognize even his own body and his urges or that the erect phallus was part of himself for which he should take responsibility; the phallus was something other. He saw himself as made in the image of G-d creating things and bringing them into being by the sole act of naming them, therefore never even understanding the role of self-consciousness in naming and what Wittgenstein made clear, that the meaning of names of things are revealed by the role those names play in language as well as by the objects to which they refer. However, Adam not only failed to take responsibility for himself as an embodied creature and for his emotions (that is, as a moral being) and not only lacked any adequate insight into how language connected him with the world (that is, as a scientific being), but lacked any sense of the other. For though man is born of woman, Adam in his fantasy life and dreams saw Eve simply as a physical extension of himself rather than another autonomous being responsible for herself. So when they have sex, Eve acknowledges she allowed herself to be seduced. Adam, in typical male fashion, could only protest his innocence or ignorance. Only once thrown into the world of labour could and did man learn to become a moral being.

The knowledge of good and evil does not come from recognizing the good but by beginning to suffer the consequences of not taking responsibility for oneself, not understanding the other and not understanding that complaining that ‘its not fair’ starts from the opposite end of justice. So we do not begin with a nascent compassion and sense of justice but with a stubborn unwillingness to take responsibility for oneself, for being as anti what it should be to be a moral being as possible, and demonstrating both a lack of compassion and even recognition let alone lack of understanding for the other and an almost total lack of a sense of what justice means, for at that stage what is unjust is simply when anything bad occurs to you whether or not you deserved it. Rather than it being unthinkable or unimaginable that a moral being would act unjustly, that he lacked compassion and/or a sense of justice, the understanding of morality begins precisely by imagining what it is to be irresponsible, to lack compassion and to have virtually no sense of justice. And the core of immorality is the failure to take responsibility for oneself and one’s actions in the world. What happens when some humans remain frozen in that stage and thereby become sociopaths? I will discuss that in a future blog.

Obama 17. Drones, Decisions, Deaths and Politics 24.02.13

This analysis is divided into two sections, a short section briefly describing the historical background to the drone program, what drones are and what they can do. The second section goes into the decision process about their use, including the objectives of the program, the strategy and tactics for their deployment and the process of implementation.
In the next Obama blog (I may write on the Academy Awards being presented tonight), I will explore what the drone program has accomplished in terms of the ratio of militant/civilian deaths, the military and political results. On the following day, I will discuss the normative debate. If I seem to be droning on about drones for far too long, my explanation is that the program offers a unique window into understanding Barack Obama. Further, the drone program is a game changer in the way wars will be fought in the future and the nature of warfare.

A. Empirical Background

1. The Equipment

A drone is an unmanned (not unwomanned) aerial vehicle (UAV). It along with the whole system — the ground control and links — is called an unmanned aircraft system (UAS); the vehicle itself is popularly called a drone. A drone is classed as an aircraft and not a rocket because, though lacking a pilot aboard, it can be flown remotely by a pilot based in the United States over Somalia or Yemen, Afghanistan or Pakistan and perhaps soon over Nigeria targeting Boko Haram. Evidently, autonomous control is even replacing the pilots based in the United States.

Contrary to those who believe drones are a new invention that will revolutionize war, their employment dates back a century to almost the same period that piloted aircraft have been used in warfare. But the big impetus to the development of UAV took place when Gary Power’s secret U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 though Israel developed the first modern UAVs for combat as well as surveillance and decoys after the Yom Kippur War. Israel successfully deployed them to neutralize the Syrian air defence system in the 1982 Lebanese War. By the end of the eighties, Israel had developed drones with stealth capability and three dimensional jet steering controls.

America has 1271 government agencies and 1,931 private companies working on counter-terrorism. The most common drones used for attack purposes by the USA, specifically to kill enemy `terrorists`, are predators equipped with Hellfire or Tomahawk missiles that have been employed since 2001. If they are shot down, there is no captured pilot that can be used to embarrass the USA as in the case of Gary Powers. They are used in countries that are supposedly friendly and usually without permission such as Pakistan, or in countries deemed unfriendly and in which there is no declared state of war such as Yemen or Somalia.

Since piloted aircraft have been used for all the above purposes, why have drones attracted such a raucous debate about the ethics and legality of their use? The main issue has been what is normally called collateral damage or the number of civilians killed as bystanders. Since drones are piloted remotely and the pilots on the ground in the United Sates can probably see the targets even better than in manned aircraft, it is difficult to understand why questions of law or ethics differ whether the vehicle is piloted or not. When we get to these normative issues we will have to raise questions of whether there is a distinction that affects the ethical debate, but it seems very evident that the ethical and legal issues have not been nearly as raucous over piloted attacks compared to when unmanned aircraft are used.

It reminds me of the fury aroused when spontaneous refugee claimants arrive by sea on Canadian shores. Such an incident occurred twice in one year. On the second occasion, a special session of Parliament was convened in the summer for the second time since Confederation to debate the issue. Yet the same numbers arriving weekly at Pearson airport warrant little notice or comment. I suggest that the fury over the ethical, legal and efficacy issues concerning drones is akin to that debate, aroused more by how drones are perceived rather than what they actually are and do.

I think two factors are in play. There is the sense that since drones do not have pilots on board, they are less perceptive and discriminatory. Second, there is a sense of unfairness. Though terrorists rarely have access to piloted aircraft unless they hijack one, and therefore the battlefield is asymmetrical, that is not the unfairness considered. It is the risk factor. The battle seems to challenge the very basic picture of warfare when the laws and ethics with respect to the conduct of war began to be developed. The mediaeval period presumed each side risked its military soldiers in combat and the rules of risk to combatants and non-combatants were developed in that context. Many of these questions were first raised over Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, most recently and most extensively over the last Gaza War. The analysis was then extended to the analysis of America`s use of drones in Pakistan.

The decibel rate over the issue has been raised significantly since Obama was first elected. Certainly, Obama has made the use of drones a priority. Three days after his first inauguration he authorized drone strikes against targets in both South and North Waziristan and elevated the number and frequency of strikes afterwards.

At least three factors may explain the rise in the decibel rate of voices opposed to drone strikes. First, Obama`s election in 2008 followed a July 2007 release by the joint council of the 16 American intelligence agencies of the National Intelligence Estimate which concluded that al Qaeda had undergone a resurgence, and, further, that its ability to attack the American heartland had also grown since they enjoyed a safe haven in Pakistan`s Tribal Areas. The terrorists who perpetrated the 7 July 2005 attacks in London, as portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty, had been trained there. So had the plotters who planned to use liquid explosives to bring down seven American and Canadian passenger jets flying out of Heathrow Airport. The planned bombing of a US air force base in Ramstein, Germany had been undertaken by three militants trained in the Tribal areas. However, not only had planned attacks in Europe increased, but so had the use of the Tribal areas in fighting the war in Afghanistan. Increasingly, attacks were also aimed at cities in Pakistan.

Second, when the Bush administration decided to respond with a raid by Navy Seals in September 2008, the infiltration was a public relations disaster. The vast majority of those killed were women and children, not militants. Pakistan objected vehemently to the infringement on its sovereignty. Third, Obama fought his first election on a foreign policy that the good war, Afghanistan, had been neglected to fight the bad war, Iraq. Fourth, Obama came into office determined to fight the Afghanistan war harder and smarter, and to use drones in a more effective manner.

2. Use

In addition to civilian uses for such purposes as surveillance and rescue operations, there are a wide variety of military drones classified according to their function: as targets and decoys for military practice; for spying and reconnaissance; for combat; and for logistics. (The drone considered for use in the bin Laden mission was neither a rocket or missile – often confused and called a drone – or one designed to drop a bomb, but a logistics drone intended to deliver an explosive device to bin Laden’s garden where he walked off his rooms in the compound on the third floor.) Drones are pilotless aircraft that fly using aerodynamic lift and can be recoverable or expendable. Missiles and rockets use a different propulsion system, are the weapons themselves and are not recoverable.

3. Reach

Drones vary in size, the height at which they fly, their speed, range and their carrying capacity. A small hand-held drone usually flies at a height of up to 2000ft. with a 2 km. range. Tactical drones fly at just under 20,000 ft. with about a 100 mile range. Other drones fly at over 30,000 feet and can fly anywhere at speeds which can exceed Mach 5. They come in a wide number of varieties and combinations. They also have a wide variety of names, some technical – RQ-3 and RQ -4 and MQ 1C – and others more colloquial – Wasp, Gnat, Hawk, Reaper, Predator Sentinel, Shadow, Dark Star, Dragon Eye, Raven, and various kinds of Eagles.

B. The Decision Frame

John Brennan, former Deputy Director of the CIA, President Obama`s policy adviser on counter terrorism during the last administration, and current Director of the CIA, went on a public campaign in 2011 and 2012 to defend Obama`s strategy and tactics in the use of drones. On 29 June, 2011 he gave an account of the “Obama Administration Counterterrorism Strategy” at Johns Hopkins University`s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. On 30 April 2012, he gave a presentation on “The Efficacy and Ethics of U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy” at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington. There were numerous other talks before, between and after. After wading through the various talks, the messages seem to be consistent.
After Bennan’s Woodrow Wilson Center talk, Leanne Erdberg of the State Department asked Brennan about the appropriate standards and processes used in making decisions. In asking the question, two separate frames were interwoven, the decisions to ensure that a drone attack would be efficacious and the standards for so deciding, and the decision frame for ensuring that the appropriate normative standards were followed. The second dimension of her question begged the question for it presumed that in making the decision to assassinate militants, the decision-makers were acting as prosecutors, judges and juries.
John Brennan addressed the presumption of the second dimension in her question. “We’re not carrying out these actions to retaliate for past transgressions. We are not a court, we’re not trying to determine guilt or innocence, and then carry out a strike in retaliation.” The decision makers were not a judge and jury assessing past activities. That is accurate. But they were required to apply normative standards to their analysis. I will deal with the extent to which they did so in a subsequent blog – probably on Wednesday. Brennan concentrated on the primary self-defence objective. “We’re trying to do is prevent the loss of lives through terrorist attacks.”
“We see a threat developing, we follow it very carefully, we identify the individuals who are responsible for allowing that plot and that plan to go forward, and then we make a determination about whether or not we have the solid intelligence base.” The standards are about the quality of the evidence and the efficaciousness of any plan in accomplishing its goals. In the process, Brennan also stated that they examine various options, not only in terms of efficaciousness and the solid quality of evidence, but in terms of the normative principle of “last resort” and “discrimination”. “We only decide to take that action if there is no other option available, if there is not the option of capture, if the local government will not take action, if we cannot do something that will prevent that attack from taking place, and the only available option is taking that individual off of the battlefield, and we’re going to do it in a way that gives us the confidence that we are not going to, in fact, inflict collateral damage.” In a subsequent blog on norms, I will suggest that the principle of last resort has not played a significant part in the decision-making and will examine the extent to which the principle of discrimination has. Today I will simply concentrate on the issues of efficaciousness that will be completed in my next blog that discusses results.
1. Objectives

In August 2007, when running for president, Obama articulated his Afghan “good war” versus Iraq War as “bad war” overview. The war in Iraq was to be brought to a responsible end. Efforts would be refocused on “the war that has to be won,” the war against al-Qaeda, particularly in the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Note that this was but one dimension of the Afghan War. What about the aim of leaving behind in Afghanistan a functioning democratic state that protected the human rights of all its citizens? By omission, that goal had been abandoned. Fine, if it could be accomplished. But the goal of the Afghan War was to defeat al Qaeda.

2. Strategy

How was that to be accomplished? As described by CIA Director Michael Hayden on 13 November 2008, through a drone program intended to make “a safe haven feel less safe, to keep the leadership guessing and preoccupied with defense and survival rather than offensive planning and to sew doubts about allies, methods, plans and effectiveness, Who were the spies who gave away their locations.”

As Luiza Savage summed it up in her article, “Obama the hawk” in Macleans Magazine (8 November 2011), Obama “is not waterboarding enemy prisoners who have been removed from the battlefield; he is killing them where they stand.”…”The last decade was dominated by the Bush administration’s ‘shock and awe’ display of U.S. military might, a swagger that descended into a ‘long war’ of occupation and nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq that left thousands of Americans dead and wounded, and cost upward of a trillion dollars. But cold, calculating and nimble, Obama has turned a new page on the projection of American power. His emphasis on technology, intelligence, and leaning on allies is leaving a smaller and less costly U.S. military footprint on the globe, but one that is proving to be just as lethal to its adversaries.” The policy is open and unequivocal. In Brennan’s words, “The United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.”

Is the goal killing rather than capturing enemies or killing only if capture is unfeasible? Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter had signed executive orders banning assassinations of political leaders. Yet Obama did precisely that with bin Laden. Yet there was virtually no debate about that outcome. The focus of discussion over Zero Dark Thirty was on the torture issue. I only ran across the rare article that raised a question about whether the killing was intended and whether alternatives were considered. Ronald Reagan had set a precedent when he resurrected targeted killing of enemies when he attacked Gaddafi`s residence in 1986 after the Libyans bombed a German bar frequented by US military personnel. After Clinton learned of the agents behind the 1998 attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, he ordered a cruise missile attack against an al Qaeda base.

However, John Brennan insisted that “one of the considerations that we go through is the feasibility of capture. We would prefer to get these individuals so that they can be captured. Working with local governments, what we like to be able to do is provide them the intelligence that they can get the individuals, so it doesn’t have to be U.S. forces that are going on the ground in certain areas. But if it’s not feasible, either because it’s too risky from the standpoint of forces or the government doesn’t have the will or the ability to do it, then we make a determination whether or not the significance of the threat that the person poses requires us to take action, so that we’re able to mitigate the threat that they pose. I mean, these are individuals that could be involved in a very active plot, and if it is allowed to continue, you know, it could result in attacks either in Yemen against the U.S. embassy, or here in the homeland that could kill, you know, dozens if not hundreds of people. So what we always want to do, though, is look at whether or not there is an option to get this person and bring them to justice somehow for intelligence collection purposes, as well as to try them for their crimes.” (Woodrow Wilson talk)

I was incredulous. Did they really weigh whether capture was feasible first? Even when they sent in the Seal Team to get bin Laden, there was no suggestion that the possibility of capture had been considered and instructions along that line were given. Leon Panetta, the CIA Director, had been directed by President Obama to have a detailed operational plan for locating and capturing (not killing) bin Laden. But when Michael Morrell, the CIA director, commented on the film, he never corrected the film makers on this score. In reading various accounts of the decision-making process, I never had the impression that capture was considered as a serious option.

Further, the discussion of capture seemed to be contingent on trusting local regimes and presuming they were leak-proof. Quite aside from the leakage, I did not get the impression that Obama seriously considered working with allies, namely Pakistan over using drones. Obama had made it clear that he did not trust Pakistan and was unwilling to cooperate with them. If Obama “had actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets, including in Pakistan, he would act to protect the American people” and he did so by killing them not by trying to capture them. So to say that they deliberate on whether capture is feasible or not seems to me equivalent to saying that they deliberate on whether there might be divine intervention so they do not have to send out a kill order. Finally, when Brennan says that we consider the option of bringing them to justice, this contradicted his other assertion that the whole drone program was defensive and engaged in stopping future attacks, not punishing for past activities.

Brennan described the process at the Woodrow Wilson Center: “We review the most up-to-date intelligence, drawing on the full range of our intelligence capabilities. And we do what sound intelligence demands, we challenge it, we question it, including any assumptions on which it might be based. If we want to know more, we may ask the intelligence community to go back and collect additional intelligence or refine its analysis so that a more informed decision can be made. We listen to departments and agencies across our national security team. We don’t just hear out differing views, we ask for them and encourage them. We discuss. We debate. We disagree. We consider the advantages and disadvantages of taking action. We also carefully consider the costs of inaction and whether a decision not to carry out a strike could allow a terrorist attack to proceed and potentially kill scores of innocents. Nor do we limit ourselves narrowly to counterterrorism considerations. We consider the broader strategic implications of any action, including what effect, if any, an action might have on our relationships with other countries. And we don’t simply make a decision and never revisit it again. Quite the opposite. Over time, we refresh the intelligence and continue to consider whether lethal force is still warranted.”

Where is the mention of a normative analysis? This is a risk analysis of various options including an assessment of the strength of the evidence behind each. As Savage put it in her Macleans article, Obama’s signature approach was “a specific target, a small U.S. military force, and reliance on American technology and expertise to enhance the capabilities of foreign local and allied forces.” No longer Bush’s ‘shock and awe’ or Colin Powell’s use of overwhelming force, but “precise and principled” targeting! That is how Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress depicted the national security strategy.

David Rothkopf of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace placed Obama’s “orthoscopic” approach of using intelligence, unmanned aircraft, special forces, and teaming with others to achieve very narrowly defined but critical goals as part of a much larger “Cool War” strategy. (Op-ed, Foreign Policy, 20 February 2013) “This new war is “cool” rather than “cold” for two reasons. On the one hand, it is a little warmer than cold because it seems likely to involve almost constant offensive measures that, while falling short of actual warfare, regularly seek to damage or weaken rivals or gain an edge through violations of sovereignty and penetration of defenses. And on the other, it takes on the other definition of ‘cool,’ in that it involves the latest cutting-edge technologies in ways that are changing the paradigm of conflict to a much greater degree than any of those employed during the Cold War—which was, after all, about old-fashioned geopolitical jockeying for advantage in anticipation of potential old-school total warfare. The Cool War is largely different not only because of the participants or the nature of the conflict, but also because it can be conducted indefinitely—permanently, even—without triggering a shooting war. At least that is the theory.”

But there is more to it than that. Peter Bergen, director of the national security studies program at the New America Foundation, is the author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden: From 9/11 to Abbottabad. In that book he suggests that in the deliberation between using Navy Seals versus bombing the place to smithereens, was the issue of identification. Since Obama’s presence in Abbattobad had not been positively confirmed, forty highly trained “canaries” had to be risked to confirm whether or not bin Laden was there. The navy Seals may have shot an unarmed man fleeing across a hallway, but they were able to confirm who they shot. This was the key issue.

The choice of John Brennan as CIA Director and Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary in his new cabinet simply confirms that this strategy will continue in Obama’s second term. After all, Brennan has been the innovator who helped shape America’s drone strategy.

3. Tactics

As interesting as understanding the strategy is, it is perhaps more fascinating to learn that Barak Obama personally authorizes the targets. “Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical.” (Jo Becker and Scott Shane “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” The New York Times 29 May 2012) As James Russell wrote, “If ever there was an example of tactics in search of a strategy, this is it.” (“Drone Wars: Tactics in Search of a Strategy,” Foreign Policy, Lobe Log, 12 February 2012) Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann iterated the same sentiment in the first year of Obama’s presidency.

4. Implementation

There have been virtually no problems in implementing the program, either by creating divisiveness within the administration, in producing tensions with Congress or with the Courts, or, for that matter, in becoming an election issue that endangered Barack Obama’s re-election. I wrote “virtually no” problems. But there were some. I will discuss one problem that emerged in the executive branch with related problems with Congress and the problem of an emerging public critique of the drone program from his own hard core liberal supporters.

The only high level member of the Obama administrative team who resigned or was forced to quit was Dennis Blair. The Drone Program, though not the reason for his firing, was at the centre of his departure. Dennis Blair is a retired admiral who was appointed as Director of National Intelligence after Barack Obama became president. As a retired four-star admiral he filled the requirements of the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Protection Act of 2004 that set up the Office of National Intelligence to coordinate the work of the various intelligence agencies in the United States. The Act required that Obama appoint a commissioned officer as either Director or Deputy Director so that at least one of the lead officials would come from the military and be acquainted with military intelligence.

After just sixteen months in that role, Obama asked for Blair’s resignation which became effective on 28 May 2010. Blair has subsequently been a vocal critic of the Drone Program. On 14 August 2011, in a New York Times op-ed, “Drones Alone Are Not The Answer,” he criticized the single-minded focus of the drone program for undercutting the program for hearts and minds in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, for neglecting the diplomatic pressure needed to produce needed social, economic and diplomatic reforms in those countries, for being ineffective in undercutting al Qaeda’s terrorist activities or its capacity to conduct such activities. “Qaeda officials who are killed by drones will be replaced. The group’s structure will survive and it will still be able to inspire, finance and train individuals and teams to kill Americans. Drone strikes hinder Qaeda fighters while they move and hide, but they can endure the attacks and continue to function.”

The criticism appeared to be contradictory when Blair supported a joint Pakistani-American drone program operated under mutual agreement since it was not all clear how such a program would either reduce the number of civilians killed, the public backlash or counter his own charges that drone attacks were ineffective against al Qaeda. Further, they ran directly contrary to Obama’s well-known deep distrust of the Pakistan government and its military’s role and ties to the Taliban.

The dispute over policy, however, cannot be disentangled from the customary Washington turf wars, this one perhaps more telling than most about Obama and his administration. Very early in the life of the administration, The Washington Times published a piece, “Panetta, Blair reportedly in turf battle”. (28 May 2009) For half a century, the CIA Director, in this case Leon Panetta, appointed the CIA chiefs in the American embassies in each country who manage the coordination of intelligence with the national intelligence services of the countries in which the embassy is located and, therefore, through which military intelligence coordination must flow.

To improve intelligence coordination, Dennis Blair tried to pre-empt those appointments, initially where the CIA did not have boots on the ground and intelligence originated from air surveillance and other means. Leon Panetta fought back and even instructed his subordinates to ignore any communications from Dennis Blair. The attempt to extend the coordination function of the National Intelligence office that operated by persuasion to a command role failed and ended up weakening Blair after only four months in office. In particular, it indicated that Blair had little sensitivity and understanding of how the executive branch worked for he failed to clear his effort to take over an area from another presidential appointee with his boss, Barack Obama, before he made his move. For an intelligence chief he revealed a remarkably blindmindedness in intelligence not only about the way the executive office functioned, but how it especially functioned under Obama. He seemed to be either ignorant or blissfully dismissive of Obama’s criticisms of Pakistan and of inefficiencies in the military.

Blair’s rocky start at offence was not helped when he could not even successfully fight a defensive war against CIA counter thrusts to cut down the size and power of the national intelligence director’s staff of 1500. These internal administrative battles for power and control were just what the National Intelligence office was designed to overcome; it had now become the biggest trigger to non-cooperation. Behind it all was Blair’s efforts to limit the CIA’s covert activities because he feared the political backlash. He so obviously had not done his homework on Barack Obama.

Barack Obama was not inclined to fire those who disagreed with him; he welcomed dissent. Even a turf battle was insufficient to get Blair fired, though Obama could not have been impressed with the way Blair fought that battle. However, the coup de grace came when tensions arose between Obama’s intelligence and the Congressional oversight committees. On Christmas Day in 2009, a young Nigerian man almost detonated a bomb on a Northwest Airlines trans-Atlantic flight 253 flying from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to Detroit Airport. The famous underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had concealed plastic explosives in his underwear, but bungled setting those explosives off, although admittedly the trigger mechanism was not very well developed and the 80 grams of PETM were probably just sufficient to kill himself and insufficient to down the aircraft. On 28 December, al Qaeda openly took credit for the failed attempt.

At first questions originally arose over the handling of the interrogation of Abdulmutallab when the plane landed and he was arrested by FBI officials. On 21 January 2010, in hearings before the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, it emerged that neither Panetta nor Blair had been consulted after the arrest of the underwear bomber. Blair in his testimony insisted that the suspect should have been detained as a terror rather than a criminal suspect — even though the arrest had taken place on American soil. Blair was most concerned with intelligence they could have gained from the underwear bomber rather than either his rights or the order of command established by the White House or for that matter, the issue of his innocence or guilt. (Cf. Jim Kouri, “Was ‘Underwear Bomber’ Case Mishandled by White House?” Family Security Matters, 22 January 2010) The White House had already decided that turf war and accepted Attorney General Eric Holder’s earlier recommendation that interrogations on domestic soil were the responsibility of the FBI, a move that had been applauded by virtually all the human rights organizations, many of which would later embrace Blair as their key expert on drones.

Blair’s virtual mutiny from decisions that had already been determined by the White House backfired. The Senate Intelligence Committee in its report on the underwear bomber affair was particularly critical of Blair and laid specific blame on the National Counterterrorism Center that Blair supervised. As ABC News reported, “US Intel Agencies Could’ve Stopped the ‘Underwear Bomber.’ New Senate Report Says.” (Rhonda Schwartz, Matthew Cole and Jason Ryan, 18 May 2010) “US intelligence agencies had enough information to detect and prevent a 23-year-old al Qaeda would-be suicide bomber from obtaining a US Visa and boarding a NW flight on Christmas Day with explosives hidden in his underwear, but the agencies failed to connect the dots in time, according to a new report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee.”

It was not that the NCTC just made a mistake; it just had not assumed the unique responsibility assigned to it for putting various pieces of intel together. But there were also plenty of mistakes – from even spelling Abdulmutallab’s name improperly so the State Department could not have picked up his name to deny him a visa. Databases of the various agencies had not been integrated, intelligence had not been shared and the bureaucratic hurdles for adding a name to a watch list guaranteed that any postings would be stale-dated. Even the data available had not been properly searched. Blair’s biggest mistake was a statement he subsequently withdrew; he insisted that the new high level interrogation unit should have been deployed to question the underwear bomber, a statement which simply revealed that he was ignorant of the fact that the high level interrogation unit was in the process of being planned and had not yet been set up.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the “Unclassified Executive Summary of the Committee Report on the Attempted Terrorist Attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253” dated 18 May 2010 could not have been blunter: “The NCTC was not organized adequately to fulfill its missions. Following 9/11, Congress created the NCTC and charged it with serving as ‘the primary (my italics) organization in the United States Government for analyzing and integrating all intelligence possessed or acquired by the United States Government pertaining to terrorism and counterterrorism…’ In practice, however, the Committee found that no one agency saw itself as being responsible for tracking and identifying all terrorism threats. In addition, technology across the IC is not adequate to provide search enhancing tools for analysts, which contributed to the failure of the IC to identify Abdulmutallab as a potential threat.” The Report went on to identify fourteen specific points of failure, two of which were specifically aimed at the NCTC and three of which targeted the NSA. If Blair had already not proven himself insensitive to how the executive branch worked, if he had not already showed himself to be contemptuous of priorities and decisions Obama had already made, if he had not already made enemies as he tried to extend his power, his inability to even run the relatively small corps under his command doomed him. He was not a scapegoat asked to fall on his sword but a senior bureaucrat who had committed suicide many times over.

There were all sorts of other problems I have not gone into that emerged in the days between the Senate Report and his firing. Items in the Report of a blue-ribbon panel handed to President Obama just weeks before the Senate Report were leaked would have fatally damned him if the Senate Report had not. That report concluded: “The DNI should be charged with ensuring that the ODNI is as small as possible so that it is focused on strategic priorities and not distracted from its core missions.” (See Josh Gerstein “Panel found ‘distracted’ DNI”, iPolitico, 2 June, 2010) Blair was not only at odds with virtually every other non-military intelligence chief, especially Leon Panetta, but his relationship with John Brennan, Obama’s key advisor on counter-terrorism, had been toxic. And he now been condemned by Obama’s specially selected panel.

Obama fired Blair for his incompetence and his inability to share intelligence in a tight, coherent and timely way, his primary mandate, and not for differences over the drone program. His subsequent efforts at rehabilitation by trying to shift the focus to policy differences were undercut by questions about his astuteness, his self-contradictory approach to the use of drones, which seemed to be more about who controlled them than about the wisdom of their use, and the repeated evidence of his inability in analysis of the issue and a preference for wide sweeping conclusions that were supposed to be true because of his authoritative judgement though without the evidence to back his conclusions up.

John Meuller in Terrorism Case 33: The Underwear Bomber (12 July 2011 http://politicalscience.osu.edu/faculty/jmueller/33UDWR7.pdf) argued that the two other cases of uninterrupted terrorist attempts got Dennis Blair fired. “Dennis Blair’s tenure as Director of National Intelligence included not only this attempt, but the equally unsuccessful Times Square terrorist effort of May 2010 (Case 34) as well as the shooting rampage at Fort Hood by a deranged psychiatrist (Case 32). The case of Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-born immigrant who had just recently become a citizen before he tried to set off a bomb on 1 May 2010, was particularly pertinent because his unsuccessful attempt and capture two days later in the same month Blair was fired. Many interpreted that Blair was made the scapegoat for this failure. Certainly that was too much for President Barack Obama. Blair was fired on May 20, 2010. However, I have suggested that the Fort Hood case on 5 November 2009 and the Times Square bomber were merely candles on an explosive cake that blew up in Blair’s face and forced Obama’s hand.

In sum, Obama’s style of administration indicates a very loose approach to dissent, a tolerance even of differences over policy and power struggles, but a dislike of those not on side once decisions are made and a determination to fully air differences and different perspectives but to make decisions in deliverable, acute and timely fashion. Finally, on the tough decisions, he is willing to stand holding the ultimate responsibility and will not tolerate others who do not.

Public Criticism of the Drone Program

One does not have to probe very deeply into the drone issue to find that a considerable and articulate number of critics of the drone program can be located on the left of the American political spectrum, critics who form part of Obama’s hard-core base. The numbers of critics increase significantly when you talk to academics and read members of the chattering classes abroad. My Norwegian colleague, Astri Suhrke, whose analyses I have generally admired and respected and usually shared, has been inquiring about my views of the program and urged me to write about it. Knowing her well, I presume she expects a critical appraisal. I will await and communicate her response.

Obama’s snipers targeting him on the drone program are critical of the lack of transparency in the program, the absence of accountability, the clear impression that the program was one aimed at killing individuals suspected of belonging to al Qaeda without adequate means to verify their identity or any real efforts to capture suspects, the killing of American citizens without bringing them to trial, the inability to adequately discriminate to protect civilians. Critics charged that the program was counter-productive in that every missile dropped ended up recruiting more new militants than it killed while, at the same time, alienating both the public and the politicians in countries like Pakistan, but also in Somalia and Yemen, whose support America needed. The use of drones is criticized as another way of fighting the Afghan War while reducing the risk to American soldiers when Obama was supposed to be reducing and withdrawing America’s imperial footprint from these overseas adventures but not substituting a fingerprint and signature in its place.

The latter seemed particularly true when the body count revealed far more Taliban leaders than al Qaeda high level operatives killed (the next blog on drones). Finally, they feared that the Drone program was setting a precedent for other countries to follow to “take out” their own enemies once the technology becomes more widespread. This view was aired by Peter Bergen in an interview with Jennifer Rowland on CNN, “A dangerous new world of drones” on 4 October 2012. Peter Bergen claims that seventy countries already possess drones and that their use by the United States is fundamentally changing warfare and has set off a new arms race. Peter Bergen can hardly be called a member of the left liberal claque in America indicating that hard-core security wonks also are critical of the program. As an aside, in his book, he also says that the key CIA figure obsessed with finding bin Laden was not even female but an individual named John.

However, the main concern has been about the legal and ethical just war issues that I will discuss tomorrow, not because the war against al Qaeda is unjust and not because many charge the administration with intentionally killing civilians when al Quaeda militants are killed, though some abroad have charged America with following up initial missile attacks from drones with further attacks against rescuers who swarm onto the sight of the attack afterwards. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has made such claims in its Report that I will discuss in the next blog, but that is not a charge believed by many Americans. The critics have largely focused on problems of identification and insufficient attention to the issue of collateral damage. Referring to a YouTube Forum, President Obama was quoted in Scott Shane’s piece In The Globe and Mail (5 February 2012) denying significant numbers of civilian casualties. “I want to make sure that people understand: actually, drones have not (my italics) caused a huge number of civilian casualties. For the most part they have been very precise precision strikes against Al Qaeda and their affiliates.”

I thought of Obama’s defence and all these criticisms when our former Governor-General gave a short speech on Friday evening at Massey College at an awards dinner honouring David Malone, who currently heads the Canadian International Development Agency, for his extensive contributions to foreign policy, and to Clifton van der Linden, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, already with a long list of public service contributions beginning with his involvement in programs for the integration of immigrant and refugee youth and, perhaps the most important, his leadership of a team that created an IT program that allows voters to check whether and how their values and views align with those of the candidates running for office, a program that was actually used by three million Canadians in the last federal election. Although the Clarkson Laureates in Public Service Awards were for precisely that purpose and although the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson had been the first recipient, that was not what made me think of the drone program. Two other items did: a student at Massey who sat opposite me at dinner disconcerted me by provocatively and possibly facetiously insisting she believed in dictatorship rather than democracy, and by a short aside Adrienne made in the introduction to her speech about taking two days this past week to watch all the episodes of Homeland.

I have not seen the television series, but I did recall that Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review had written an op-ed after the elections crediting Homeland with keeping the discussion of the Drone program out of the 2012 presidential election campaign. It was not sufficient that in the 22 October 2012 Presidential debate that Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, explicitly and effusively praised the program. Evidently, the series is about an al Qaeda sleeper agent who, implausibly, has gotten himself elected to Congress. All my friends who watch the show – and there are many – find it addictive. Is the popular program responsible for inculcating a fear of an al Qaeda fifth column such that the American public is willing to bend just war norms and tolerate a loose approach to civilian casualties?

I will try to answer that question in a subsequent blog. But my next blog will show that a number of American critics of the Drone program are not primarily worried about enemy sleeper cells but about the efficaciousness of the program and a deep concern with following proper normative guidelines in the conduct of even an asymmetrical war.

Next Obama Blog Obama 18. The Results of the Drone Program [Tomorrow unless I decide to write about the academy awards that are given out tonight]

[Category Politics]
[Tags Obama, Drone Program, Blair, Brenner, Decision-making]

The Oscars

The Oscars 2013


Howard Adelman

I am writing my reflections on the academy awards, not to comment on the vote or to suggest why another film should have been awarded the Oscar for best score or best costuming or best director or why one actor was better than another. Rather I want to use the academy awards as a set of indicators to try to sense the zeitgeist of America today. This is particularly appropriate this year since so many of the films that have been nominated in the various categories are reflections of sentiments and predispositions in the land of the free and the home of the brave. What is the fashion of the moment, not in the sense of a fad, but as a phenomenological window into the shifting character of America? As Georg Wilhelm Hegel wrote, "No man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of a time is also his own spirit." And the representatives of our age who specialize in representation offer an ideal window into that spirit.

Of course it is a great conceit to suggest that Academy members do not cast their votes based on the skills and creativity of its members in the various categories, but those skills were so much in evidence in almost all the films nominated that it is not too far fetched to suggest that in at least some of the categories underlying collective beliefs could have served as tipping the voting scales in one direction or another. Underlying assumptions that permeate an age may even influence us to ignore prudence and fall in love with flying and with romantic love itself, the real secular religion of our age.

Notice the total and absolute absence of any film set in business. There are no Greed is Good films. The only movie set in the business world is Paperman, that won an Oscar for best animated short film, and it was about a bored and unhappy office employee who ignores his boss and runs off to seek romantic happiness. Paperman was based on John Kahrs’ using a traditional animation style in a unique way by marrying it to modern technology for the purposes of inversion to convert 3D into 2d pencil drawings.

The romantic story is also an inversion for it begins as a romance when a lonely young office worker falls for a beautiful girl on his morning commute to the office when one of the papers that is blown away by the wind into his face belongs to a beautiful woman and then one of his papers blows into her face and is marked by the lipstick on her lips. He retrieves the paper and is mesmerized by the iconic red lip marks so that he misses the train with the woman on it. The love of his life is presumably lost forever. He magically re-discovers that she works in a skyscraper opposite his own office. In a comic series of reversals he tries to get her attention by making paper airplanes and trying to reach her and when he runs out of paper he uses the lipstick-marked one only to see that presumably fail too. He ignores his boss, flies down to the street only to be covered in an alley with the paper planes he already flew. But in the magic of movies, the lipstick-marked paper airplane pursues the girl, catches her and in the end unites them both. It is a romantic innovative delight and obeisance to the virtues of perseverance, the magic of romance and the delight of the chase.

America stands torn between opposing squadrons of economic liberals and conservatives, community conservatives and individualistic liberals so that individualists per se are on both sides of the divide but in opposite camps, while those liberals who believe in caring and sharing are at odds with those with whom they share a sense of community because the conservative communitarians are guided more by a sense of respect for authority, tradition and values centred in the traditional family to which they have pledged their fealty. Through it all we want to tease out the cunning of reason.

Does the cunning of reason get expressed as community conservative values favouring tradition, loyalty and authority rooted in solid middle class families or are the virtues celebrated caring and sharing in a large communal sense as in Beasts of the Southern Wild or in the offbeat comedy, Silver Linings Playbook which won an Oscar for best supporting actress for Jennifer Lawrence playing the role of a sex-addicted and blunt talking and quirky widow, hardly the consummate virtues as a model for community conservatism? But she is not an acquisitive individual but an idiosyncratic one who falls in love with a bi-polar former teacher (Bradley Cooper) who has just been released from a psychiatric hospital.

David Russell’s adapted script (and direction) of Silver Lining Playbook that was tops in the Spirit Awards did not win an Oscar for best film or best direction or best adapted screenplay. The film is a reflection of the central character, Pat’s, refrain who keeps repeating that all you have to do is get in the right frame of mind and anything’s possible and we cannot get caught up in the poison of negativity. It is the same message as the equally engaging, warm and funny drama, Beasts of the Southern Wild, but Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy and not a dark comedy seen through the fantasy of a child’s eyes. It was not the illusion of love viewed through rose clouded glasses that wins out but love that is the product of struggle, conflict and tension and rooted in a mixture of madness and reality. But it is love nevertheless.

In the category of original screenplays, in contention were Amour, Django Unchained, Flight, Moonrise Kingdom and Zero Dark Thirty. Though I saw Flight and appreciated John Gatins excellent script, as well as Denzel Washington’s acting, and although the script was also authentic and reflective of Gatin’s own struggles with drugs and alcohol, I did not believe authenticity reflected our age or America’s sense of either its ideals or what it was prepared to do.

Django Unchained was hailed as leading in a tight three way race and was expected to win over Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty and Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola’s Moonrise Kingdom. My film-mad son, Gabriel, was rooting for Tarantino’s script to win. I did think that its theme about a freed black slave (Jamie Foxx) who by sheer grit self-discipline, a good tutor, Dr. King Schultz played by Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, and unflagging determination, who transforms himself into a bounty hunter, did somehow mirror the quest to kill terrorists by using navy Seals and was not too far fetched an analogy. Drango delivers revenge on Calvin Candle played so brilliantly by Leonardo DiCaprio, and rescues his beloved, Broomhilda played by Kerry Washington who speaks fluent German.

It is a film of love and redemption, revenge on evil-doers and triumph of the good through disciplined and targeted violence. The dentist, played by Christoph Waltz as a replay with variations of the character he played in his Oscar award winning smirking Nazi SS-Satndartenfährer Hans Landa in Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglorious Basterds. Unlike Lincoln, he is an authentic German (Austrian) anti-racist who offers brilliant comic relief while, at the same, serving as the Greek chorus and telling Django the original German legend of Broomhilda.

The dialogue has its usual brisk crisp punctuation that also delights and entertains, but I questioned whether the marriage of the comic and sombre revenge drama, however entertaining, reflected our time. The parallels were too direct and overdrawn without any of the subtle twists and inversions of the original Norse sage or even Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen with its deeper tale of fratricide and betrayal. But the Academy did choose Django Unchained for best original screenplay. It told me that revenge for 9/11 was still on the American mind and that their president, who was not himself descended from slaves, but identified with the majority of Americans who were, was the perfect leader to deliver that revenge. I thought that Michelle Obama presenting the introduction to the selection of best picture could not have been more appropriate.

Why did Lincoln win Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar? It was simply a case of the best man lead actor winning though the fact that Lincoln is Barack Obama’s favourite president may have helped. Lincoln, whichalso won for production design, was a film of sacrifice, of Lincoln’s life, of the 600,000 soldiers, 1 of 4 Confederates and 1 of 19 Yankees, who died not counting the hundreds of thousands who were maimed for life, of the suffering of the Blacks that stand in the background of the film. Lincoln not only sacrifices his life but his principles as he wallows in the muck of politics and payoffs to pass the 13th Emancipation amendment that made slavery unconstitutional and would free the slaves before the confederate states surrendered and rejoined the union, a principle that Lincoln thought was just and ripe even though he personally did not subscribe to the equality of Negroes, only their right to be treated equally before the law. As his law partner William Henderson wrote, Lincoln was "humble, tender, forbearing, sympathetic to suffering, kind, sensitive, tolerant; broadening, deepening and widening his whole nature; making him the noblest and loveliest character since Jesus Christ…I believe that Lincoln was God’s chosen one.” Lincoln is played as a Christ figure with many human failings as described by the priest in Life of Pi. Of course, Stephen Spielberg has a long record of making movies based on the core Christian myth. But this was more historically accurate than the portrait of Oscar Schindler in Schindler’s List.

That is how Daniel Day Lewis portrayed him – as cantankerous and surly but humble and affable, stooped with the weight of all those dead soldiers on his back but stooping even further into buying votes to ensure the Thirteenth Constitutional Amendment on outlawing slavery is past. Lincoln is full of homey and long-winded boring stories but is always tolerant and kind. That Lincoln was nominated for twelve academy awards but only won two while Argo won the Oscar for best picture, best director for Ang Lee, best editing and best adapted screenplay based on the Chris Terrio script adaptation of Joshua Bearman’s magazine article, "The Great Escape" which, instead of a Canadian caper, took the incidental use of a film crew to tell a CIA spy drama of escape from Iran.

Argo is a great juxtaposition to Zero Dark Thirty which is also a CIA story but of revenge against a terrorist escapee rather than a humiliating tale of American hostages escaping from Khomeini’s tyrannical terrorist fanatical Iran regime. While the killing of bin Laden was a high point in Obama’s presidency, the hostage crisis was the final nail in the coffin of the Carter presidency and was probably the lowest point in the sense of American confidence since WWII. So instead of Canadians appearing as the heroes hiding the hostages and getting them out with Canadian passports, the hero is Tony Mendez, a Vietnam vet and an expert on graphics, identity transformation with a record of helping friendly assets escape danger undetected. Though Bearman does mention that the group of non-hostages was split between John Sheardon’s personal residence and the Canadian embassy represented by Ambassador, Ken Taylor, the Canadians are relegated to the background and the fore story is a CIA/Hollywood marriage of individual risk and daring-do based on identity transformation, including the transformation of the historical narrative into a fictional tale of a spirit renewed and recovered. It is your archetypal Hollywood narcissistic tale of self-love in the service of a liberal cause of rescue but not revenge or prevention.

The cover tale, of course, was ironic, a fictional Irish-Hollywood crew planning an epic film that might appeal to the Iranian regime in desperate need of hard dollars and in the story he had to develop an air tight exfiltration mission. Mendez with two Hollywood costume specialists created a fake Hollywood production company with fake business cards and identities for a location-scouting party and even a Hollywood address for their invented studios in the old China Syndrome set. So Hollywood is enlisted to create a fake story to create a fake story about a great escape. How Hollywood! The schlockmeister feelies of fantasy partner with ingeniously clever and wheelies of the CIA to save the world, or, at least six Americans

If Moonrise Kingdom had won then so would subtlety, nuance, gentle satire and the childhood vision (also captured in Beasts of the Southern Wild). Recall the opening when the ten-year old Lionel on a rainy day ascends the steps of a very dated house with old pictures of sailboats and battleships to put an old fashioned record on a turntable and listen with his siblings as Benjamin Britten teaches Lionel, his two younger brothers, Murray and Rudy, and his older sister, Suzy, how an orchestral composition is brought together and integrated, though Suzy sets herself apart and immerses herself a book, Shelly and the Secret Universe. We quickly enter a Peter Pan universe.

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonrise is narrated, but not by a five year old butt by a fifty year old long-haired surveyor whom we first meet wearing boots and a parka to shield himself from the wind and rain. He introduces us to the island of New Penzance and we immediately think of the comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance, which was subtitled, "The Slave of Duty" and is the story of a boy, Frederic, slightly older than Lionel, who was apprenticed to bleeding heart pirates and, when released by the pirates, meets beautiful women for the first time and falls in love with Mabel. We can then expect a similar love story and a parallel rescue as Major-General Stanley, Mabel’s father, rescues Frederic and Mabel. The names of the characters – dimwitted Captain Sharp, Scout Master Ward, who is the worst warden of any troop imaginable, and Sam’s foster father, Chesterfield Billingsley who is unwilling to take the escaped Sam back, as well as Lazy-Eye and Snoopy. The film is a cross between Cinderella and the Seven Dwarfs and neither it nor Beasts of the Southern Wild won a single Oscar. This simply indicated that Hollywood is still married to the traditional fables of America captured by Argo rather than the humorous satirical takes on the American fable or the down and dirty Bathtub of America reaching up to metaphysical and metaphorical heights. America wanted its fables clean and traditional and uncontaminated by either dirt or satire.

Penzance, we are told, has no roads but is a bucolic place of old growth forest but about to be hit three days hence by a powerful storm. So Django Unchained is a comic western adaptation of a Norse fable via an opera which wins two Oscars for best adapted screenplay and best supporting actor while Moonrise Kingdom is a fairy tale adaptation of a comic opera set in the pastel gentle and innocent colours of the sixties rather than the jangled screaming colours of the tie-dye generation of Haight-Ashbury. It is a period of scouts and honour codes, of boy bonding and innocent pursuits disrupted, but some of those innocent pursuits. such as building rockets, are very ominous. It is a brilliant twist to replace soft-hearted pirates with an inept scout troop trying to find the escaped Sam Shakusky and is a delightful and light-hearted send-up of conservative communitarians in America but not a film ready to win an Oscar.

I’ve already written about Amour and Zero Dark Thirty and was surprised to see the latter lose out in the editing category to Argo though it won for its sound editing. Amour is so realistic and finely tuned and deservedly won the Oscar for best foreign film, while Zero Dark Thirty has all the impressions and cleverness of reality while essentially telling a gangster revenge film in a spy motif. So Academy members had a real choice: the dark critical comic book drama (Django Unchained); the light gentle satire (Moonrise Kingdom), harsh self-destructive realism and the inevitable destructiveness of death wearing down an unforgettable tale of love (Amour); and a mythological version of the reality that is the most dominant political narrative of our age (Argo).

Only Lincolncould have challenged Argo. Les Miserables, Life of Pi and Zero Dark Thirty never had a chance for best picture though he categories in which they won were very revealing.

Beasts of the Southern Wild has a script by the young director, Benh Zeitlin written with Lucy Aliba, a close friend since the two were twelve years old. The film script is an adaptation of her play Juicy and Delicious which was an autobiographical look at her own troubled relationship with her own father who was seriously ill but "broke sh’t" when he was angry. The film, though its very authentic harsh and simple language was easily the most poetic script of all the choices, including Life of Pi which was adapted by David Magee from Saskatoon’s Yann Martel’s novel that has already sold nine million copies. Further, it had the most metaphysical message about the interconnectedness of all of nature and even the extinct animals from the past that haunt the film and makes sense of Hush Puppie’s wish for cohesiveness. The portrait by Quvenzhané Wallis was simply amazing and evidently the language used by the father was a direct replication of the words used by Lucy Alibar’s father. It is a film about becoming unmoored in a radically more profound way than the American escapees in Iran, unmoored by a drunken and sick father and unmoored by nature.

Life of Pi won Oscars for visual effects (Vancouver-based Gaillaume Rocheron), cinematography (Claudio Miranda), best score (Michael Miranda) and best director, Ang Lee. It is an adventure fable and not a projection from life into a metaphysical realm. But it is also a film about unmooring, for instead of being located in Bathtub outside the levees of New Orleans, it is a story of a character stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger. The film begins in a magical fairy tale world of the widest imaginable cluster of animals in contrast to the extinct aurochs that haunt Beasts of the Southern Wild and the wild carnivorous devouring of shell fish and animals. In the Life of Pi the fiercest cat in the animal kingdom is a kitten. While the latter looks at the world through the fantasy imaginings of a young child, Life of Pi turns a fable into a zoo story that starts with animals in captivity but is also awash in water. Water, the symbol for constant change, is always about to overwhelm, the struggle for survival. Diving in a pool in Life of Pi is but an adumbration of Pi’s underwater life journey. Pi is not named after the famous abstract mathematical formula representing the ratio of the diameter of any circle to its circumference that is an irrational number which has no end, but after the most beautiful swimming pool in the world, Piscine Molitor and later the most defined and smallest world of all, a life raft. If Beasts of the Southern Wild has a collection of the ugly leftovers, misfits and discards of the beautiful world, the Piscine Molitor swimming pool in its sparkling magnificence is an idealized picture of the beautiful society. It is not hard to understand why Hollywood loved the film and favoured it over its dystopic closest and more profound and psychologically authentic closest rival.

If Beasts of the Southern Wild is about community and connectedness, Life of Pi is about the purification of the individual soul. If Beasts of the Southern Wild always portray a community of those with virtually nothing engaged in continuing mutual support with the dictum to never cry and feel pity, Life of Pi shifts quickly to bullying and humiliating Pi in Montreal. Both films are narrated, Beasts of the Southern Wild by a five year old child telling her current story and the adult Pi telling a retrospective story. Beasts of the Southern Wild is infused with a Spinozist pantheistic metaphysics while Life of Pi has a Christian frame. Early in the film Pi asks the priest why God would send his own son to suffer for the sins of ordinary people and the priest smiles down at Pi that it was because God transformed himself into a human to be more approachable and accessible. Pi is puzzled. Why would the innocent be sacrificed to atone for the sins of the guilty? That could be asked of any of the movies. But as I wrote above, only Lincolnand, as we shall see, Les Misérables picks up on the Christian theme though Christoph Waltz sacrifices himself for Django but without any allusion to Christianity.

We find sacrifice but without resurrection. Not entirely. In the documentary category, two wonderful documentaries about the absence of resurrection were ignored. Rabbi Dow Marmur wrote that, "Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters received an unexpected gift from Hollywood: neither of the two Israeli documentaries [Broken Camera and The Gatekeepers]got an Oscar. Both are highly critical of Israeli government policies." Marmur continued and added, "the films testify to the country’s commitment to democracy that allows such open and explicit criticism of its government to be exposed to international scrutiny." But Hollywood ignored them in favour of a feel good film, Searching for Sugar Man, about a musician who, unbeknownst to himself, became a famous star in boycotted apartheid South Africa, and the process of his resurrection from obscurity.

The evening was dedicated to musicals, but only Les Misérables was nominated in the musical category. Anne Hathaway, as expected, won for her portrayal of Fantine, the prostitute whose daughter, Cosette, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) adopts. The film won for cinematography, make up and hairstyling, and sound mixing though I was surprised Anna Karenina beat it for costume design. I have not read Hugo’s classic since high school over sixty years ago but its Christian theme from below in contrast to Stephen Spielberg’s preference for Christians who come from the top down or even from outer space, did not seem to be its primary appeal. Hollywood, though, always loves a noble and beautiful whore. But the real Christian is Jean Valjean, a hard working stevadore arrested for a stolen piece of bread and pursued for the rest of his life by the determined and unremitting Javert played by Russell Crowe even though, after being born again through the efforts of the saintly Bishop Myriel, he lives the rest of his life as the suffering Christ figure until he dies as a sacrificial lamb in the revolution. In this case, persistence and determination are villainous rather than heroic as when Maya in Zero Dark Thirty shares those same characteristics. Both characters are bent on revenge and their own deep sense of justice and upholding the rule of law, at least as they see it. Les Misérables is an uplifting sentimental tearjerker that is just so beautifully produced but it is still a story of class warfare and that rarely plays well with Americans.

If Les Misérables is about class warfare, the Bond series in its fiftieth year has always been about class in a stylistic more than a social or economic sense. Daniel Craig plays Bond when he is ready to retire in Skyfall, has lost his panache and daring-do and, like Denzel Washington in Flight, has retreated from taking risks and seeks obscurity only to be drawn back by M (no longer played by Judi Dench but by Ralph Fiennes) to deal with horrific terrorists led by a rogue agent played by Javier Barden as Raoul Silva who was once abandoned by M to be broken physically and psychologically. The film won for the most original score and tied with Zero Dark Thirty for sound editing. Adele Adkins sings "Skyfall" that she wrote with Paul Epworth and it won an Oscar. The lyrics are worth reprinting:

This is the end
Hold your breath and count to ten
Feel the earth move and then
Hear my heart burst again

For this is the end
I’ve drowned and dreamt this moment
So overdue I owe them
Swept away, I’m stolen

Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall
Face it all together

Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall
Face it all together
At skyfall
That skyfall

Skyfall is where we start
A thousand miles and poles apart
Where worlds collide and days are dark
You may have my number, you can take my name
But you’ll never have my heart

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together
At skyfall

(Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall)

Where you go I go
What you see I see
I know I’d never be me
Without the security
Of your loving arms
Keeping me from harm
Put your hand in my hand
And we’ll stand

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together
At skyfall

Let the sky fall
We will stand tall
At skyfall

The lyrics were as appropriate for to Beasts of the Southern Wild with the words: drowned, the sky is falling, the end is coming, and swept away, where worlds collide and days are dark and skyfall itself suggesting the end of the world. These terms are counterpoised to standing tall at skyfall where we stand together, stand tall and face it all — together.

Curfew written and directed by Shawn Christensen that won the Oscar best Live Action short film is about Richie (Christansen) who, when we first meet him, is in a real bathtub not the Bathtub of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Unlike the latter, which urges everyone never to give up, Ritchie is slicing his wrists in that bathtub. Ritchie is asked by his estranged sister, Maggie (Kim Allen) to look after her daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek) for a few hours. Unlike Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hush Puppy is unable to save her father but Sophia as an energetic and boisterous ball of energy who is quick witted, a vital spirit and metaphysical observer of chaos who connects with Richie, turns him around. But both Beasts of the Southern Wild and Curfew are about sharing and caring as is Silver Linings Playbook.

Sean Fine and Andrea Nix, who were nominated before for an Oscar for their 2007 film War/Dance about child soldiers in Uganda, made the Oscar award winning coming of age documentary short Inocente about the indominatable determination of this fifteen year old artist who rejoices in colour rather than her dark past. Like many of the films from Argo to Life of Pi to Beasts of the Southern Wild, it is a film of homelessness, of a child this time but like Silver Linings Playbook see technicolour and not just silver linings in life’s little joyful moments.

Brave won for best animated feature and is about an indefatigable determined young girl, Princess Merida, who is a skilled archer and refuses to follow the rules of the male dominated system and marry the chosen son in accordance with clan system. It is precisely the same theme as Zero Dark Thirty. Both have to undo a spell that clouds the society and keeps putting up obstacles.

So what can we read of the American zeitgeist through the pictures American and the world watch, most of which are reflections of how America sees it self these days and projects that self on the screen? Review the themes. Though romantic love remains the secular religion of modernity, it is a theme in only a few of the movies: Les Misérables, Django Unchained, Paperman, Silver Linings Playbook, rather surprising for Hollywood. In fact sharing and caring are more frequent themes than romantic love and that is even true of the romantic comedy, Silver Linings Playbook. This is characteristic of the love portrayed in Amour, Les Misérables (who misled us in describing the French as the epitome of lovers), and the daughter-father relationship in Beauty of the Southern Wild, the uncle-niece relationship in Brave as well as the love relationship between Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) and Sally Fields (Lincoln’s wife), and between Tommy Lee Jones (The radical abolitionist, Thadeus Stevens) and his black wife or mistress.

Traditional Christian themes remain a strong suit but in some very unusual and non-traditional contexts. It is certainly a theme in Les Misérables, but in a leftist class context, in Lincoln but in sacrificing himself for a large historical transformation, emancipating the slaves, rather than for saving individual souls, in Life of Pi but in a context which has more to do with the purification of the soul in Hinduism than traditional Christianity. Sacrifice detached from Christianity is more common: Amour, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Beauty of the Southern Wild, Les Misérables and Django Unchained. Except for the most famous adventure comic of all time, the Bond movies, redemption itself is rare. One quarter of Americans may be evangelical Christians but you would never know that from what Hollywood produces and distributes.

Two motifs do stand out: the creative importance of the imagination and fantasy, and unmooring, though an older theme of identity transformation is used as a superficial cover-up in Argo. Unmooring is the flavour of the day in: Life of Pi, Skyfall, Flight, Sikver Lining Playbook, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Inocente, Fantasy and the imagination are critical tools of salvation in Life of Pi, Moonrise Kingdom and Beauty of the Southern Wild. And if you want to celebrate certain virtues, Hollywood seems to have placed a huge value of perseverance: Paperman, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Beauty of the Southern Wild, Les Misérables, Django Unchained and Brave. Optimism was the other principle virtue I noticed: Beauty of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained.

It was a wonderful year to see Hollywood reflecting itself in all its reflected glory.

Academy Awards.2013.doc

Deuteronomy 25:17-19.Dignity versus Humiliation.22.02.13

Deuteronomy 25:17-19 Dignity versus Humiliation 22.02.13

Parashah Ki Teitzei


Howard Adelman

This week Rabbi Dow Marmur wrote a blog on two meta-narratives of Jews. One is remembering Amalek, the arch-enemy of Jews and the epitome of enemies of Jews in all ages. For Netenyahu, Iran is a contemporary Amalek. In the second meta-narrative, Jews are commanded not to forget they were strangers in the land of Israel. Jews are obligated to treat strangers in their midst – Palestinian Israelis — with respect and dignity. Rabbi Marmur was hopeful that the new government of Israel, whenever it is formed, will both remember Amalek when dealing with Iran and not forget we were once strangers in Israel in fulfilling our obligations to Arab Israelis. (The blog is included at the end of my blog.)

Leaving aside the implications for the Israeli government, I accept Rabbi Marmur’s interpretation and want to go on and show how the two processes are interconnected.

The relevant passages are as follows:

17 Remember what Amelek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt —

18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

19 Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut. 25:17-19)

Before the paradoxical command both to remember Amalek and to blot out his memory, before these verses 17-19 in chapter 25 of Deuteronomy, we read instructions about how to remember Amalek and blot out his memory. The lessons are taught in the way we should respond to four different iconic types of situations.

If we go backwards from the verses referring to Amalek, the fourth instruction is not to cheat when using weights and measures (25: 13-15). If one employs perfect and just weights, then your days in Israel will be long. This is a section Rabbi Marmur could also have cited with respect to the obligations to treat Palestinian Israelis fairly.

13 Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. 14 Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small. 15 You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. 16 For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.

What has this to do with Amalek? As I read the four ways to respond, we have to begin with ourselves. If we remember that it is we who make Amalek possible, then we must start with our own behaviour and ensure that we are honest, transparent and fair. This will mean that in the external world, under the heavens, Amalek’s memory will be blotted out and we will not have to deal with him.

The third section is a tale about two men engaged in combat. A wife of one of the combatants, to help her husband in battle, seizes his opponent `by the secrets`.

11 If two men get into a fight with each other, and the wife of one comes up to save her husband from his antagonist and puts out her hand and seizes him by his genitals, 12 you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.

As a consequence, the community is instructed to have no pity and cut off her hand. Why cut off her hand? She was just helping her husband out. There are three reasons. She upset the fairness of the battle. Second, she did so by grabbing the opponent and presumably temporarily disabling him. Third, and most important, she did so in a way that brought shame on him and humiliated him in public by grabbing his genitals.

The second and longest section deals with the obligation of one brother to marry his brother`s wife if his brother dies and leaves his wife without a child in what is called a “levirate marriage”; the brother is obligated to co-habit with her so that she can bear a child and so that his brother`s name can be preserved in Israel. If the surviving brother refuses, the sister-in-law, in the presence of the elders, removes his shoe, spits in his face and humiliates him so that his house is thereafter remembered as “the house of him that had his shoe loosed” (v. 10). The loss of shoes denotes a loss of dignity, hence ‘The House of Loose Shoes.’

While in the fourth and third cases discussed above (examples 1 & 2), one is to guard against being humiliated and to be punished if you unfairly humiliate another, in this case, you are instructed to humiliate another in public because that other failed in his sacred duties to his brother. If you use unfair weights, the future of your family will be marked by humiliation. If you do not fulfill the duties owed to your barren widowed sister-in-law, your family also will bear the mark of shame when they are known as the "House of Loose Shoes".

The first section deals with the punishment to be meted out to the wicked in proportion to the degree of wickedness by beating him on the back, but no more than 40 stripes “lest being flogged further, to excess, your brother be degraded before your eyes” (v. 2).

1.When people have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty. 2 If the guilty person deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make them lie down and have them flogged in his presence with the number of lashes the crime deserves, 3 but the judge must not impose more than forty lashes. If the guilty party is flogged more than that, your fellow Israelite will be degraded in your eyes.

Then verse four follows which seems to have nothing to do with the verses that precede or follow. Verse 4 reads: "For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope." He who reaps is entitled to the rewards of his work, including a salary, rest days and vacation pay. And that includes those who witness to the faith.

That seems to have nothing to do with dignity and humiliation. What could an instruction about not muzzling an ox while it is threshing have to do with a brother avoiding his duty to his barren widowed sister-in-law and suffering the humiliation for that failure? What does it have to do with avoiding humiliating a person being punished by ensuring that the punishment is proportionate to the crime and not excessive? All the other example cases are about rights, duties and distributive justice.

I think the explanation is the following. The instruction can be about treating oxen fairly or about respecting the owner of the ox which you have borrowed or not working the ox to death, but it is unlikely to be about the duty to pay your church or synagogue ministers or missionaries. The plain reading of the text essentially says that you should not put a muzzle on a hardworking animal pulling the thresher. The ox is doing the work and should be entitled to eat. This may certainly be a humane gesture and/or a contractual one. But it is mainly a message that even a yoked animal needs to be respected and, as such, is a postscript to the first section.

The four examples offered can be summarized as follows:

Crime or Duty Punishment Rationale 1. -ve Wickedness Up to 39 lashes Proportionality Limits 2. +ve Impregnate brother`s widow If failure, loosen shoe, spit in face & diachronic penalty = House of Loose Shoes Humiliation in perpetuity No limit 3. -ve Wife humiliating her husband’s opponent Cut off the hand No pity Limit 4. +ve Fair weights and measure Long life in the land of promise Rewards No Limit

All four examples have to do with “brothers”, sometimes fraternal at other times "brother used in a metaphorical sense to express loyalty. There are limits to punishing the wicked lest you forget to treat him as your brother, i.e. lest you humiliate him and treat him as even less than an animal for even an animal needs to be treated with respect. The second tale has to do with two brothers who live together and are very close and, therefore, a surviving brother assumes obligations to the other brother`s widow if the latter dies without progeny. In the third case, two men are fighting; they may be the iconic Cain and Abel. However, under no circumstances is the wife entitled to interfere to try to disable the opponent of her husband and certainly not by grabbing her husband’s opponents by his balls. That would not just be an improper practice but a humiliating one as well. The fourth is a commandment of fairness and to regard all others as brothers.

The four cases can be represented as follows:

Brothers vs Enemies 1. Wicked are brothers – limits to punishment 3. Sworn enemies cannot be treated as brothers by the wife of one. Particular and Universal Brotherhood 2. Blood Brothers 4. All men brothers

The respective punishment and reward with respect to humiliation can be represented as follows:

1. Physical punishment of wicked (lashes) but no humiliation.

2. Obligation not to humiliate widowed sister-in-law, and if you do, she can humiliate you and your progeny and brand your family as The House of Loose Shoes.

3. Obligation not to humiliate oneself (and one`s family name) by interfering in a battle between your husband and an opponent by humiliating the opponent.

4. Obligation to maintain honour for one`s family name in perpetuity.

We have two positive duties: impregnating your childless widowed sister-in-law and using fair weights and measures. We have two prohibitions: not engaging in wickedness and, directed at women, not humiliating your husband’s opponent.

What is the relationship between this quadratic structured first part of the chapter and the duty not to forget Amalek? Recollect the three verses 17-19. You are first obligated to remember Amalek`s deeds. He killed three groups of fleeing Israelites who were in the rear: those who were slow; those who were enfeebled or handicapped, and those who were weary and faint. He killed the straggler, the frightened, and the weak and weary. You cannot allow Amalek to humiliate the weakest of your tribe and attack Israel at its soft spot. The message is clear; face your enemies with pride and strength and don`t forget Amalek so that Amalek will not earn favour with heaven.

The text is ambiguous whether Amalek was not God-fearing or whether the Israelites were lo yarei elohim, not God-fearing but I believe the whole text suggests the latter. First, if Amalek was not God-fearing, why would he attack Israel at its weakest point and in so cowardly a way. Second, the whole chapter is primarily about the Israelites disciplining themselves without engaging in disreputable practices and thereby incorporating Amalek within themselves. The latter is the real danger.

The injunction not to humiliate the other is not done just for the respect one must show the other. It is necessary for the respect one owes oneself. Douglas Cubbison in an abridged version of his book, The American Northern Theater Army in 1776: The Ruin and Reconstruction of the Continental Force, described how General Gates transformed a demoralized and undisciplined force, by applying the rule of 39 stripes to laggards, disobedient and undisciplined soldiers, literally whipping them into shape as a fighting force. The lesson to remember Amalek is to remember to engage in certain practices so one would not have to face Amalek and fear defeat. A healthy society does not humiliate its own by leaving the weak behind. A healthy and strong society is disciplined and respectful.

The common theme is humiliation as well as discipline and maintaining your physical strength and fighting capability. You must always respect the dignity of the other and maintain respect for your own dignity. In the Mishna (Avot 3:11) we are told that if you embarrass another person publicly, you lose your share in the world-to-come.The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b) notes: “Whoever shames his fellow-man in public is considered as if he shed blood.” At another point, the Babylonian Talmud advises, “It is better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to embarrass a fellow human being in public.” (Babylonian Talmud, Kethubot 67b). (Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 3:1) (Cf. Hershey Friedman `Human Dignity in Jewish Law`

academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/economic/…/HumanDignityJewish.htm) This entails not torturing your captives though they must be punished in proportion to each crime with a maximum penalty. Do not appease your enemy either. Treat the strangers who are not your co-nationals with respect and fairness.

Remembering Amalek is not obsessing with the evil other but preparing yourself through these general precepts so that Amalek can be forgotten. In Plato`s Laws, the Athenian stranger says that enemy combatants are not protected by the law. If that enemy insults your god and robs your temples, engrave his deeds on his face and hands so that he can bear these as a permanent mark of shame. And beat the enemy without limits. The treatment is the very opposite of the injunction against torture in the Torah or ensuring that punishments are proportionate to the crime committed. Always remember he is a brother. The punishment must not only be proportionate to the crime but proportionate to the person. The person must know always that you do own him and that your respect him as another human being. Never punish in anger. And never humiliate him.

Rabbi Dow Marmur`s blog follows.


In addition to the weekly portion, a second text will be read in synagogues this Shabbat. It’s about remembering Amalek, the arch-enemy of our Israelite ancestors and the epitome of all our enemies through the ages. The implication is that though the Biblical Amalekites lived a long time ago, their heirs are still here to harm us.

The message is particularly poignant in Israel today. It’s often articulated by the prime minister when he insists that the Iranian regime is today’s Amalek and that unless Israel deals with it resolutely, it and its Jewish citizens will be in mortal danger. The Holocaust is often invoked in this context, more for effect than accuracy.

But several potential coalition partners in the government Netanyahu is now trying to form don’t seem to want to deal only with the Iranian threat. They also pay attention to the social issues and seem to suggest that right values are as essential for Israel’s survival as military prowess. These include the reduction of the growing inequality in Israeli society and peace with the Palestinians. Their primary proof text wouldn’t be “Remember Amalek” but, rather, “Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” which obligates us to treat all human beings as God’s creatures.

The Amalek reference sees Israel as being in a state of crisis; the reference to remembering the stranger points to what theologians call covenant, the eternal bond between God and God’s people with the obligations this entails and a life style to match.

Yossi Klein Halevi, the gifted journalist and speaker, drew attention to these opposing texts and their implications at a conference last Tuesday at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem of which he’s a Fellow. The conference was aptly called, “From Crisis to Covenant: Rethinking a Narrative for Israel.” Whereas the political Right is prone to cite the Amalek passage of crisis and the Left the covenantal references to having been strangers, Halevi believes that both are equally essential for Israel’s future.

Those who live by one text instead of both are under suspicion. Thus though nobody is in a position to challenge the analysis that Iran constitutes an existential threat to Israel, the almost exclusive stress on it may also be a convenient way of ignoring the many serious internal problems the country is facing. Similarly, to speak primarily about the price of cottage cheese and the non-payment of taxes by the rich, important though it is, may be a way of closing one’s eyes to even more urgent issues.

There’re indications that, despite his own apparent fixation with Iran, Netanyahu would like to form a government that reflects both texts. That’s probably why the first coalition agreement to be signed is with Tzipi Livni, who has put the so-called two-state solution in the centre of her platform. Netanyahu’s apparent wish to include Sheli Yachimovitch and her Labour Party’s social agenda may be of the same ilk.

That’s a positive development. It’s tempting to be cynical and say that as it’s much easier to point to a crisis than to seek to work out what it means to live up to our covenant with God by heeding Jewish teachings about the dignity of all humans and the primacy of peace and coexistence. However, cynicism, though often unavoidable, can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hence the need for balance and proportion.

It makes for hope that, even at times of crisis, those elected to govern the Jewish state won’t abandon Jewish values by making Amalek the only defining text.

Jerusalem 20.2.13 Dow Marmur

[Tag Deuteronomy 25, torture, humiliation, Amalek, dignity]

Parashat T`tzavveh.Deuteronomy.Torture.Humiliation 25.17.19 (RA’s comments).doc



Yesterday’s blog was late because I had another turn spending overnight at a sleep clinic. Monitoring my circadian rhythms threw me off the rhythm of my everyday life. My daily biological clock and my writing performance went out of synch.

The most frequent response to my blog has not been about the content. I have not received a note that goes along the following line: "That`s terribly boring deep shit; shouldn`t you get treated for logorrhoea?" I have received a number of encouraging positive responses. But the most frequent one has been about the frequency itself, and the quantity of words. "Don’t you ever sleep? How do you get so much done?"

Today, I offer a brief answer. I have a type of sleep phase disorder.

The condition presents itself as follows:

a) I sleep a shorter numbers of hours during the night (currently an average of 4.5 hours);

b) I get sleepy during the day, particularly around noon and 4:00 p.m. A brief 10 minute nap at those times solves the problem of sleepiness;

c) I can fall asleep at odd times. I was elected Chair of the Senate at York University years ago, and one of the reasons given for nominating me was that if I was chair, I could no longer fall asleep in the back row — as I was wont to do;

d) Sometimes it is embarrassing when I am introduced to someone new at a bad time for my sleep rhythm and the person introducing me does not know I have the disorder. I fall asleep in front of the person to whom I am being introduced. My host is far more embarrassed than I am since I am accustomed to my condition; the person to whom I am being introduced becomes either angry or bemused;

e) If someone gets angry at me to my face, a chemical reaction is set off and I go to sleep. If they were angry before, can you imagine the reaction when I go to sleep?

f) When I wake up, I am instantly wide awake and am usually working at my desk within a few minutes;

g) I very rarely dream before I wake up since my sleep rhythm shows I go from a very deep sleep to a wide awake state in a very short time;

h) When I lie down, I am usually asleep in a minute or two and quite often in 10-15 seconds.

i) I absolutely hate being woken up; if that happens, my normal easy going nature disappears;

j) I have apnea; this means I stop breathing 1-3 times per minute for a second or two, though at some exceptional times it can occur more frequently in one minute. This occurs both when I am awake and when asleep, but it occurs more frequently when I am asleep;

i) My apnea, which can be bothersome at first to others, is not even noticed when people get used to me;

j) Though the condition has been with me for as long as I can remember, I never became conscious of it until I was in my mid-thirties;

k) I have always considered that I have been blessed by this disorder, but in the last few years I have been informed that there are negative consequences;

l) For one, as you get older, you develop high blood pressure as a result of the shortage of oxygen as a result of the apnea;

m) As a consequence, I now sleep with a breathing machine and mask, a treatment which I resisted for the longest time. My doctors persuaded me to try it and, by golly, after six weeks of use, I am willing to go on one of those late night television ads, jump up and down and affirm that it works. I do get a better sleep;

n) There are sleep phase disorders, more formally circadian rhythm sleep disorders (CRSDs)

Obama 16. Drones and Assassinations.20.02.13. Part I

Obama 16 Drones and Assassinations 20.02.13

Part I: Background


Howard Adelman

I will first set the debate over drones and targeted assassinations within the larger context of the overarching meta-narrative of the way America deals with the wicked, and specifically its foes, of which the movie, Zero Dark Thirty was an example. I will then sum up the historical residue of the first historical instance of American intervention overseas against non-state actors, the Barbary pirates at the beginning of the nineteenth century. I want to then connect this discussion with the movie, Zero Dark Thirty with respectto the decision process, the alternative modes of implementation and the factors considered. Then I will return to the issue of the after debate focus on torture versus an examination of the legal and ethical factors in the decision.

Tomorrow, in Part II, I will discuss the debate over the use of drones and targeted assassinations.

We are not living in the antebellum America of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, of Thoreau and the conversational popular poetry of Walt Whitman. Emerson deposited the core myth of American culture in its literature and defined American exceptionalism and indifference to the old and the rest of the world. Americans are different. Americans have had a different experience and have endured their own unique traumas. The American environment is different. It has a frontier (and when it crosses that frontier, it will always need another).

Contemporary Americans are heirs to the pre-Iraq War literature of Toni Morrison and Ralph Waldo Ellison though always haunted by pre Civil War shadows of Ahab’s fight with Moby Dick, except in the unusual parallel to hunting for Usama bin Laden. Further, Americans have the sense that to live a normal bourgeois life is to choose mere survival (as depicted in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending)rather than the adrenaline rush of true living. Americans, and perhaps many other peoples, love an adrenaline rush.

America’s role as leader of the world is not over. It is about to be reborn and resurrected, not in the stupid and self-destructive ways of George W. Bush and bully boy Dick Cheney who a year ago (12 March 2012) thought Toronto was too dangerous and cancelled a speaking engagement. America is now being reborn and resurrected in terms of the vision of Barack Obama. America will describe the world as Americans see it and remake the world in terms of that image. I am trying to get a handle on that new image and the analysis of domestic policy was the propaedeutic. The vision becomes clearest in the articulation of Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

To inspire Americans with a new vision, the president has to embody a set of norms that most Americans will buy into. The only other alternative was to envision secession as the New England states did prior to the Civil War, and as the poet James Russell Lowell advocated in the Atlantic Monthly in the 1850s to free New Englanders from the taint of slavery. Lowell’s sense of an ending was articulated in his essay, "Where Will It End? Except for small groups of Americans, that vision of secession has certainly not been possible after Lincoln. Since the Civil War, Americans have to deke it out (excuse the Canadian hockey metaphor but it is appropriate), though no longer domestically using military means, until there is only one vision of America left as pre-eminent.

Walt Whitman claimed he was the poet that could embrace and speak for all Americans and articulate what it was like to live and experience both the chaos and the grandeur of such a dynamic country. He did not succeed. Instead America got Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War that taught most Americans not to kill each other, at least in a civil war, but also the desirability and necessity of fighting it out politically and symbolically. Barack Obama as a true heir to Whitman is busy selling America on itself in terms of his vision.

One hundred and fifty years later, the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 9/11 was the symbolic equivalent to the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861. The reality, horrific enough, is not nearly as important as its symbolism and its resonance with the iconography of American historiography.


Very soon after its birth, America became an interventionist power thrusting whatever might it had into situations of violence overseas. Michael Oren, the current Israeli ambassador of Israel to the United States and a well-renowned scholar, wrote an influential essay based on his bestselling 2007 book, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. The article appeared in the journal, Politics (22 November 2008) "How To Deal With Pirates," in which he argued that the historical lesson was clear: respond aggressively.

At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, pirates, backed by the North African city-states of Morocco, Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli, were attacking merchant ships in the Mediterranean. The pirates demanded protection money so the ships of the respective nation would not be attacked. Alternatively , and after the fact, they demanded ransom money for the sailors, ships and cargoes that they did capture. The rationale offered was not greed but the Islamic injunction in the Koran that Muslims had a "right and duty to make war upon whomever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise." In London in 1795 they offered John Adams and Thomas Jefferson assurance that American ships would not be attacked if America paid $1 million, then 10% of the national budget. 20% of American overseas trade went through the Mediterranean. In opposition to John Adams, Jefferson was adamantly opposed to paying protection money. In 1785, Americans paid a ransom of $60,000 to get two ships released, but the costs for protection rose astronomically over the ensuing decade. Ten years later, the USA paid almost $1 million to get back the dey of Algiers and 115 sailors.

Lacking an overseas navy and no longer enjoying the protection of either the British navy or the French navy under their 1778 alliance, the Americans were cornered. Jefferson tried to create a coalition to fight the pirates but failed since most European states found it more expeditious to pay protection money than engage in another war. Initially, so did the USA which, for example, paid a tribute of $80,000 in 1784 but against the advice of Thomas Jefferson. "The object of the convention shall be to compel the piratical States to perpetual peace." (Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson) In the new century he was president.

In 1801, when he refused to pay $225,000 and $25,000 per annum, the pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States. Contrary to Jefferson’s previous resistance to a standing army or navy, he sent a small squadron of frigates to the Mediterranean. Americans were humiliated with the loss of the frigate, Philadelphia, and the capture of her crew in 1803. By 1805, after a spectacular raid that blew up the captured ship and caused extensive damage to Tripoli, and by sending additional ships and land forces, America largely freed itself from the scourge of pirates and paying annual tributes, a process that took ten further years to complete with naval victories by Commodores William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur.

For a short version of this narrative, see Gerald W. Gawalt who is the manuscript specialist for early American history in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, "America and the Barbary Pirates: An International Battle Against an Unconventional War"; it is available online. For fuller versions see the following: Joseph Wheelan (2003) Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror 1801–1805;Frank Lambert (2005) The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World; and Joshua E. London (2005) Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation. For a very livelier, short and more contentious account as indicated by the title, see Christopher Hitchens, "Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates" also available online. It is subtitled: "America’s first confrontation with the Islamic world helped forge a new nation’s character." Hitchens mentions that in Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, later excised, he included a condemnation of “the Christian King of Great Britain” for engaging in “this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers.” The war served as a critical factor in the states agreeing to a stronger and more centralized federal system, especially for defence. Further, the culture created by those actions and their rhetorical embellishments inculcated into future generations the Marine Corps anthem with which most of us are familiar, at least with the opening line, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”

Honour versus humiliation, self-defence and revenge, freedom of the seas versus ‘surrender’ to terrorism were all in play. Hitchens, Gewalt and others cite Kipling’s poem "Dane-Geld", especially the final two lines explicating why one should never surrender to depradation:

"For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!”

The Decision Process and Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty makes clear that a decision had been made to close down the operation tasked with finding bin Laden, a task that far pre-dated 9/11. The film suggests several of the possible reasons – the belief that he was either dead or so holed up in a cave in the Tribal Areas of Afghanistan as to be ineffective, the shift in priority to home security, the need to execute two major wars, the lack of any solid intelligence on his location.

A formal announcement that the operation to find bin Laden, code-named Alec Station, had actually been abandoned was made by the CIA on 3 July 2006 and published in The New York Times the next day in a story entitled, "CIA Closes Unit Focused on Capture of bin Laden" even though George W. Bush had vowed after 9/11 in his usual propensity for over-statement that, "The most important thing is for us to find bin Laden," and reaffirmed that, "It is our No. 1 priority and we will not rest until we find him." ("Transcript of Bush press conference," CNN, 13 March 2002 http://archives.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/03/13/bush.transcript/.) Note that the emphasis had been on his capture. I believe that this was not just for public relations purposes.

However, the issue getting bin Laden was resurrected in the 2008 presidential campaign with Obama replaying the Kennedy democratic tact of showing that a democratic candidate was more militant than the Republican one. In the second McCain-Obama presidential debate on 7 October 2008, mostly spent on domestic economic, education and health policy, one of the questions posed to the candidates on foreign affairs was the following one from Katie Hamm: "Should the United States respect Pakistani sovereignty and not pursue al Qaeda terrorists who maintain bases there, or should we ignore their borders and pursue our enemies like we did in Cambodia during the Vietnam War?" The question was about using Pakistan as a safe place to retreat by Afghani terrorists and whether the candidates favoured hot pursuit.

McCain responded first suggesting he was a metaphorical Canadian in the ilk of Paul Heinbecker and Don Hubert in support of prudent humanitarian intervention, an answer that had nothing to do with a question about hot pursuit and everything to do with McCain trying to counter an image of him as an uncontrollable hawk and to display his experience and cool prudence in contrast to that of Barack Obama. In citing the Canadians, I am here referring to the work on cooperative security undertaken in the last decades of the nineteenth century and its successor, the Canadian doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect that was articulated by Canada under the leadership of Canada’s then Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy and key civil servants such as Don Hubert and Paul Heinbecker, and academics such as Fen Hampson at The Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. (Cf. Rob McRae and Don Hubert (eds.) (2001) Human Security and the New Diplomacy: protecting people, promoting peace, Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, and Fen Hampson (2002) Madness in the Multitude: Human Security and World Disorder, OUP).

By the middle of the first decade, the doctrine had received unanimous support by the United Nations and then virtually no implementable activities in spite of the strenuous efforts to ensure that the doctrine remained narrow and actionable. Libya could be interpreted as the rare exception. (Cf. Fen Hampson (2011) "Libya’s bigger lesson? There are no lessons," iPolitics INSIGHT, 29 August) I believe that civilian protection was offered as one reason for the air protection provided by the West, but I do not believe civilian protection was the main motivation. In any case, as Fen Hampson concluded, it was unlikely to be imitated. The twenty-first century continued as an American century and Canadian cosmopolitanism slipped into the background.

In the presidential debate, Obama responded to the question Katie Hamm raised that was similar to McCain’s only in that he too ignored the query. Instead of discussing hot pursuit, he said, "I don’t understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us." He pushed his refrain that Iraq was a bad war and Afghanistan is a just war because integrally related to the War on Terror. After inserting an aside on American humiliation in the past and that America should not be coddling Pakistan as McCain was suggesting, he added: "if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden (my italics); we will crush Al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority." Not capture, not capture or kill, just kill. And he reiterated the point in a follow-up.

On 2 June 2009, seven months after he was elected, President Obama resurrected the hunt for bin Laden. There was no suggestion that this was a result of a lowly CIA gent uncovering new information. Obama directed Leon Panetta, the CIA Director, to have a detailed operational plan for locating and capturing (not killing) bin Laden. When bin Laden’s suspected compound was located in January of 2011, that it was bib Laden’s was far more overwhelming that suggested in the movie. In the film, the evidence is limited to the following:

– Abbottabad was an excellent communications hub

– the compound was .8 miles fro the Pakistan Military Academy implying this would inhibit an American raid, not that the Pakistani military would come to bin Laden’s aid

– the third floor balcony had a 7′ high privacy wall, sufficient to keep the 6’4" bin Laden from being seen

– the compound had no internet or landline telephone.

What was left out, presumably to help the plot and pacing, were the following:

– the compound was at the end of a dirt road

– it was built after 2001 but before 2005

– the compound was huge, eight times larger than the luxurious compounds nearby

– the surrounding wall was extra thick and extra high (12-18′)

– no garbage was ever set out for collection (someone correct me if my memory is incorrect on this one).

The delay in making the decision was not because of heavy doubts about whether the compound belonged to bin Laden but because of the time needed for preparation to ensure the best means were used with the least risk to the troops and America’s reputation. The preparation process had to provide for:

– the time it takes to establish a safe house

– the time to build the replica of the compound and practice (in taking the shortcut of failing to build the wall and only using a chain link fence in the model, the Americans failed to understand the effect of the wall on the downdraft of the helicopter rotors)

– the time to prepare the back up rescue team, in turn requiring a detailed understanding of roads, routes and traffic patterns

Evidence that the compound belonged to Obama was presented with three different options to attack it at a meeting of the National Security Council:

a) bomb the compound using B-2 stealth bombers;

b) send a smaller drone;

c) send in a tactical team by helicopter.

The first option was eventually ruled out for two reasons. A bomb large enough to destroy a possible or suspected underground bunker would blow up at least one adjacent Pakistani house and at least a dozen Pakistani civilians would be killed in addition to the civilians in the compound. Further, Pakistani cooperation would be required for that type of raid and the Americans, especially President Obama, did not trust the Pakistanis with information on a secret mission. Initially, however, Obama was on side with Maya in the film. He favoured the bombing option. Given the implications, at the meeting of the NSC on 29 March, that option was bracketed. The helicopter raid became the option of choice.

Why wasn’t the option of using a drone-fired tactical munition considered further since it was initially favoured by Robert Gates, then Defence Secretary? Because it depended on bin Laden’s habits and they were too irregular to guarantee certainty. At the end of March, orders were given to develop the implementation phase of the raid but without the final go ahead order. Note that all along there is no evidence that consideration was given to civilian deaths of women and children within the compound as a key factor in making the decision. The key factor was the safety of the tactical team and ensuring they got out. On 19 April when Obama gave the ok to the helicopter raid, he qualified the raid by insisting that the team be well enough equipped to fight their way out because he did not trust the plan to obtain Pakistani cooperation once the raid was underway if the military were alerted and initiated action. The final ok came on 29 April.

Yet none of the factors in this deliberation and planning were portrayed in the movie. It was just Maya’s will versus the cats in charge who did not seem to have her gumption. For a very detailed account of the deliberations over options and implementation, see http://medlibrary.org/medwiki/Operation_Neptune_Spear#Planning_and_final_decision. Also read Mike Allen (2011) "Getting Osama bin Laden: How the Mission went down," Politico, 2 May.

As I wrote yesterday, in the movie Maya wanted to send drones or drop a bomb to blow up Usama bin Laden’s compound. The only references to why this option was taken is a reference to risk, risk to America’s reputation since a drone attack was far less risky to American troops than landing Navy Seals within Pakistan with a Pakistan military base less than a mile away. The presumption is that the women and children in the compound mattered, not because if they were killed, it might be offensive to legal and ethical principles under just law norms, but because America would have to deal with the negative fallout from the bad public relations that would follow. Further, a daring-do raid would have the opposite effect.

We never hear anything approaching a rational decisions process that would consider the conditions, the consequential expectations, the norms (these are not even mentioned), whether bin Laden should or should not be captured alive, etc. All we get are hints at such a debate and the implication that any rational process would have squashed an attack on the compound altogether. In the film, it was not Barack Obama’s or his advisors rational considerations that determined the outcome but Maya’s indomitable will and determination. The film did not really get into the difficulties in making the decision or the various factors that weighed on them. But neither did the discussion after the movie. Is a raid to kill bin Laden less reprehensible that if done with a drone?

Why did the film not think the issue of civilian protection in the compound was relevant? Further, why did the chattering classes spend all that word copy on the issue of torture and not debate killing Obama when there was no evidence he offered armed resistance? Why is a raid by Navy Seals on a compound in another country to kill residents therein a matter of enormous curiousity but not a matter of a normative debate when, within weeks of the release of the film, a raucous debate rose up over the use of drones and targeted killings? Yet the killing of bin Laden was the most sensational targeted assassination of any of them. Is it alright to kill the unique albino Moby Dick while enormous energies are spent on determining whether it is right or not to kill various other types of Islamist toothed whales — sperm, narwhal, pilot and beluga whales — and what degree of collateral damage can be tolerated for baleen whales whether they be blues, grays, bowhead, fin, humpback, minke or right whales?

Tomorrow Obama 17 Drones and Assassinations 21.02.13

Part II: Circumstances, Objectives, Anticipated Results and Norms


[Tag Obama, bin
Laden, Barbary Pirates, Zero Dark Thirty, Targeted Assassination]

Obama16.Drones and Assassinations.20.02.13.doc

Obama15.Zero Dark Thirty.Deciding to Kill bin Laden

WARNING: If you have not seen Zero Dark Thirty and do not like the plot revealed, do not read past the first six to eight paragraphs. The essay is also attached.

Obama 15. Zero Dark Thirty – Deciding to Kill bin Laden 19.02.13


Howard Adelman

There has been an enormous amount of paper spent on the ethical question of torture as portrayed in Kathryn Bigelow (director) and Mark Boal’s (the screenwriter) movie, Zero Dark Thirty. Some questions were raised about whether the torture scenes should have been portrayed with such realism, whether the claims to journalistic or historical accuracy should have been made in a fictional film that was a slender selection from historical events (the movie opens with the undeniable assertion that the film is based on firsthand accounts of actual events), about how the filmmakers obtained access to all the information and whether the release of the film was initially scheduled to boost Obama’s chances of re-election, especially since both John McCain and Mitt Romney had opposed the hunt for bin Laden.

I am lucky that the distributor decided to postpone the release until after the November election or there would have been a lot more material for me to read. In any case, none of the above questions yielded the quantity of copy, even when put all together, as the question of whether the film said that torture revealed crucial information that enabled the Americans to hunt down Usama bin Laden (UBL in CIA tradecraft). Did the movie take a neutral stand on torture or did the movie condemn torture or promote it?

Those are not my questions. I was fascinated by a very different question. In all my reading I did not see one reference to the issue of my concern – and I really looked, so if you have seen any, please send them to me. But before I discuss that issue, I offer an overview of the torture debate if only to prove I did my homework as well as offering an opportunity to summarize the first quarter of the film, thereby providing necessary background for my question. If you, dear reader, have not seen the film, if, further, you detest commentators who reveal the plot, I offer a fair WARNING; this is an essay using the film as fodder for the issues discussed. It is not a review written with the clear norm in mind that a reviewer should not spoil a movie by giving away the plot. On the other hand, if you are a lover of films, in particular, if you are a lover of gangster movies and know that you can watch The Godfather over and over because the plot itself in a gangster movie is as irrelevant as the details of that plot, then enjoy. The plot is standard with enough novel innovations to make it fascinating. That is why the events could be borrowed so easily from actuality to make the movie. In any case, virtually everyone knows in general what happened. The pleasure is in the details of how what happened is executed. I will, of course, ignore all the copy on how the movie’s chance of winning Oscars dropped precipitously as a result of the controversy and political backlash over the torture topic. And I will not prophesy how the film will do at the Oscar ceremonies this Sunday.

Some of the comments on the torture issue were outlandish – like Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth) calling Bigelow America’s Leni Riefenstahl and suggesting she too would go down in history as being a handmaiden to torture. Naomi Wolf published an open letter in The Guardian on 4 January 2013 asserting that the film was an apology for torture. "By peddling the lie that CIA detentions led to Bin Laden’s killing, you have become a Leni Riefenstahl-like propagandist… now you will be remembered forever as torture’s handmaiden."

Your film Zero Dark Thirty is a huge hit here. But in falsely justifying, in scene after scene, the torture of detainees in ‘the global war on terror’, Zero Dark Thirty is a gorgeously-shot, two-hour ad for keeping intelligence agents who committed crimes against Guantánamo prisoners out of jail. It makes heroes and heroines out of people who committed violent crimes against other people based on their race – something that has historical precedent. Your film claims, in many scenes, that CIA torture was redeemed by the ‘information’ it ‘secured’, information that, according to your script, led to Bin Laden’s capture. This narrative is a form of manufacture of innocence to mask a great crime: what your script blithely calls ‘the detainee program’.


Naomi Wolf went on to speculate and suggest that, in order to get the cooperation of the military – necessary Naomi believed to get the shots of the high tech secretive stealth helicopter program – in turn necessary to get financing, Bigelow had to offer a pro-military message. Then Bigelow compounded her crime, according to Wolf, by claiming the film, though not a documentary because it interspersed fiction with reality, was akin to one. But it was not, according to Naomi Wolf. There are no sources to be corroborated. There is no evidence that the regime of torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib got the information that led to bin Laden as the film claimed. And then Wolf went into a long screed about what she witnessed in visiting these torture sites. It is a wonder she did not see a plot against herself since Wolf is the name of the Head of the Counter-terrorism unit in the CIA in the movie.

Admittedly, Wolf’s take on the torture issue was one of the more extreme interpretations, but it led me to my own speculations. Was this the equivalent of watching women’s mud wrestling among the chattering classes? Does it enchant because of the pleasure of seeing the beautiful Naomi Wolf throwing mud balls at the equally beautiful tall and willowy Kathryn Bigelow? On a deeper level of suspicion, was Naomi’s screed an attempt at revenge against Kathryn Bigelow for undermining the founder of third-wave feminism’s thesis that images of female beauty have become crueller and even heavier weights as women crash through barriers erected by the male dominated establishment? After all, when Maya breaks through the ramparts of the last and strongest holdout of male superiority in Langley, Virginia, and feels great rather than lousy about herself (though, in the last shot, clearly very lonely) and, even more importantly, gets the viewer to feel terrific about what she has done, even if it is only to become the de facto kingpin of one mafia group knocking off the leader of the rival syndicate, was this just Naomi Wolf’s way of showing she could direct a drone missile at Kathryn Bigelow whereas Kathryn’s hero in the movie never achieved the top prize?

There were many others who attacked the film for its portrait of torture and declared the film to, at the very least, misrepresent the contribution of torture to capturing terrorists and, at worst, prescriptively suggest that the use of torture was both useful and ok. Some even suggested a boycott. Martin Sheen and Ed Asner were reported as backing David Clennon’s appeal along those lines, but Martin Sheen later backed off his endorsement of Clennon’s stand and Clennon himself subsequently also insisted he did not mean that people should not see the film, only that Bigelow should have been more forthright in condemning torture. Michael Moore then praised the film as fantastically well made, defended Bigleow and said the film will make you hate torture. And so it went on from a myriad of commentators.

Get serious, fellas! This is a gangster movie. It is a movie, not historiography. It uses historical events, but part of the hysteria and mania in America is about the misuse of history and the narrative that 9/11 was so searing that it radically changed America forever. 3000 were killed, not all of them Americans. 1 in 100,000 died! I do not want to diminish the importance and pain of any who died in the World Trade Centre or in the Pentagon, but how can we view this event as equivalent in historical importance to 1 in 10 Yankees dying and 1 in 4 Confederate males dying in the American Civil War. More than 600,000 Americans died in that conflict, not 3000. Six million did not die! That is the equivalent number that would have had to have died if 9/11 is to be compared in historical importance. And recall that in the American Civil War, many, many more were maimed. Admittedly, the Civil War was different. Americans were killing one another. In 9/11 a small group of bearded religious fanatics who were not Americans had killed Americans, and perpetrated the crime on American soil. Some symbols are far more powerful than actual number counts reveal.

Kathryn Bigelow’s film recognizes that fact. The film opens with a black screen as we listen to a collage of actual telephone calls after the World Trade Centre was attacked by two hijacked planes. We do not have to see those iconic pictures of the hits and the collapse of one tower after another. The voice of the panicked woman screaming and asking for help as the she feels the increasing heat sends chills down one’s spine. This is going to be a very personal story of the hunt for bin Laden and not the suggested quasi-documentary that might have been expected by the opening credits. And we are emotionally held in detention before we even see the first visual.

Ammar (played brilliantly by the French actor, Reda Kateb), an alleged al-Qaeda is in an interrogation room at a Black Site where he initially is just beat up, though for some initially unexplained reason, one of the smaller hooded CIA men does not join in on the beating. Though there are subsidiary scenes, in the main protracted scene of torture Daniel Stanton is the chief CIA operative in Islamabad played by the Australian actor Jason Clarke (he was the cop in Rabbit-Proof Fence) as a mixture of a PhD psychological expert and hip American dude with an impeccable accent and tattoos; he switches from mean physical and psychological abuse to humour and empathy in an instant.

His hooded partner, the smaller one who did not participate in the beating, leaves the interrogation room with him. After the ski mask is removed, we see that the presumed ‘he’ is a somewhat squeamish she, Maya (Jessica Chastain), the CIA agent who carries the film and takes some time to adjust to the use of torture under Daniel’s tutelage, but adjust she does as she turns into a taut, determined and singularly focused agent on her first assignment that will unexpectedly last years. The mask or towel is put on Ahmed to "waterboard" him as if paying homage to Oscar Wilde’s quip: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” ("The Critic as Artist,” in The Artist as Critic, ed. Richard Ellman, 389. I have borrowed this quote from a new book that my daughter Rachel is writing.)

We are introduced to torture as a matter of using a variety of techniques in addition to waterboarding, but all geared to humiliating the other. Initially Ammar verbally fights back and calls Daniel "a garbage man in a corporation" and Daniel calls him just "a money man, a paperboy". In Pakistan, Daniel pulls Ammar’s pants down as he is strung up and exposes what he calls Ammar’s "junk" and then guffahs as he observes that Ammar has shit in his pants. Daniel puts Ammar in a dog collar and walks him around as his dog. The symmetry has very quickly become asymmetrical and, subsequently, Ammar is hung up, put into a small wooden box, sleep deprived but when repeatedly questioned about the sate and place of a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia by Daniel Stanton as the CIA’s man in Islamabad, Ammar says nothing. And then the attack in Saudi Arabia takes place. A bearded man enters an apartment tower and shoots two westerners (it is not clear whether they were targeted), then in the pattern of a serial killer, walks down the hall killing others. Endorsing torture because it yields results!!!

Contrast that story line with the one in Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden, the much lower budget rival to Zero Dark Thirty released about the same time but completely obscured by the fog over Beigelow’s film. In Seal Team Six, the same female agent goes directly for a torture session to the chase for the Usama bin Laden’s courier. The message in that film is unequivocal. The clue to the big break came from enhanced interrogation techniques.

In Zero Dark Thirty, the torture scenes shift into the background as we are given a ten minute college 101 introduction to intelligence gathering from various sources – other countries such as Jordan, satellite feeds, human informers, intercepts — and still the bombings take place, in London in the tube and on the buses, the Marriott Hotel where Maya is almost killed. Against this background we watch how intelligence is gathered and collated and interpreted at enormous effort, brain-power and expense. Still the bombs get through. In praise of the value of intelligence let alone torture – hardly!!! Naomi Wolf must have seen a different film than the one I watched. But she never described the film so we will not know. She focused only on denunciation.

Then the key little bit of information comes out, the only intelligence retrieved from someone tortured, and it comes out not by using torture, though the past torture ambiguously may have played a part. The information is obtained by using empathy, playing on the fallibility of memory and Ammar’s inability to know what he had said and what he did not. Through these psychological methods helped by trickery and a lie, Maya and Daniel learn something – the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who is bin Laden’s courier.

The scenes shifts to military interrogations through questioning, Turkish interrogators with a hint but only a hint that they are even more ruthless torturers, then Maya in a black wig visiting a black site on a rusty old ship in a Baltic port where she meets Hakim, a very valuable asset who adds to the corroboration that Abu Ahmed is indeed a high level courier. So perhaps torture was critical to putting the story together. We are not told that, but it allows the viewer to easily draw that conclusion.

Should torture have been used? I believe it is not justified even if it is proven to be effective and there are a plethora of studies about its ineffectiveness. Does the film have anything to add to that debate? No. It does help portray what we are debating but not how the debate could or should resolve itself or even how it affects those who participate in its use or as its victims. But this film is not about torture. And the question about the utility and ethics of using torture belong in another context.

What matters in the story is that torture was used and then was prohibited. It’s Obama’s prohibition that is important. In a brief scene Obama is being interviewed on 60 Minutes on 16 November 2008, and he asserts unequivocally, "I have said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture." We are told very clearly that many CIA operatives believe that they now have to work with one hand tied behind their back. Worse yet, they may be exposed for whatever they do before a political inquiry. The shut down has made them all über cautious. That is the point other than that torture was used and the ambiguity about the degree that torture contributed to that result. When an almost broken Daniel has decided to go back to Washington to take a desk job and is grieving over his pet monkeys because his superiors believed that they could possibly escape – "Can you believe that?" – Daniel warns Maya, "you gotta be really careful with detainees now. The politics are changing and you don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar with the oversight committee."

This is why that background is so important, for the key part of the film is the third section after using CIA assets to track and find the courier in the second section. The core of the film is the decision to attack the compound where Maya alleges Usama bin Laden is holed up, though the only evidence she has is all indirect – a high level courier for bin Laden lives there, it had no TV, cable, satellite or telephone access. One inhabitant never appears and is assumed to be there because there are three wives and only two husbands. The third man is never even seen by satellite imagery. The evidence is all circumstantial.

How can I perversely claim, against all other accounts of the movie that I have read, that the key is the decision to attack the compound not the torture issue. First, because how technically some key information was obtained is interesting, but it is not the core of the drama unless the characters themselves wrestled with the question of whether torture was or was not effective or ethical. They do not. It is just a given. The ‘how’ – in this case, how information is obtained and used – is very critical to a chase movie or a heist movie, but is not the centre of focus of a high drama. And the real drama comes with the question of whether to attack or not.

The second argument is a structural one. If torture was the central issue – though it clearly has been interpreted to be so by the media coverage – why does it take place in the first half hour and why is the issue then dropped? Third, look at the structure of the drama. The film follows a conventional plot line leading from the background on the initial cause, presumably known by everyone so that it needed only 15 seconds, then the effort to get to the starting gate, then the crisis – to go or not to go – and then the implementation.

I would also cite as an authority, Acting Director Michael Morrell of the CIA who, in an unprecedented gesture, issued a press release on the film on 21 December 2013 to insist the film was a work of art and not a documentary as suggested and certainly not historically accurate. Maya did not do it; a huge team worked on the issue and it was a big team effort. Secondly, he too believed that the film suggested that "the former detention and interrogation program were the keys to finding bin Laden". "That impression is false," he insisted.

Morrell did not recognize the ambiguity of that assertion. We know he was referring to the issue of whether torture yielded the results, but he seemed totally unaware that the assertion that the impression is false could have referred to his impression and interpretation of the film. His interpretation that the film gave the message that enhanced interrogation techniques yielded the key evidence could have been false. Ironically, he admitted to using "enhanced interrogation techniques", asserted that they contributed key evidence, but insisted that that multiple streams of intelligence were used.

I keep thinking I have seen a different film than anyone else. For the film I saw, even though it spent an inordinate amount of time on torture for what I suggested were very different reasons – did attribute the conclusion to multiple intelligence sources and did not unambiguously suggest that the key information was obtained as a result of torture. Morrell also wanted to defend the memories of his colleagues – one thinks primarily of character of Jessica in the movie – against the fictional portrayal, though I suspect, given the influence of film, those memories will be deformed and reformed as a result of the movie.

I wanted to read his objections because I expected him to take issue with the way the decision process in the CIA was portrayed. He did not. So I presume that it was a reasonably accurate portrayal. Silence says so much.

However, my main argument — that the core of the film is the CIA decision process and not the first quarter torture scenes — is the artistic, political and theoretical concerns and priorities of Kathryn Bigelow as the film director. I have only viewed two of her other movies even though she has been making movies since the late seventies. Everyone knows about Hurt Locker because Bigelow won two Oscars for the film and was the first female director ever to win and Oscar. I also saw one of her films about twenty years ago called Point Break. I still remember it though I never knew she had directed it until I recently read her bio.

Point Break is a film that merges the genre of a serf movie with that of a crime movie when an FBI agent, played by Keanu Reeves, goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of surfers led by Patrick Swayze in Los Angeles who rob banks to finance their life style wearing the masks of presidents – Nixon, etc. In the process, the FBI begins to identify with them and, as we watch, we are left in suspended animation curious whether he will join with his new "friends" and subscribe to their code or maintain his code as a police officer. On one level, the plot is sustained by the events. But at a deeper level it is sustained by the self transformation in consciousness of the FBI agent and the titillating prospect of its disastrous consequences. The muscular beauty and luscious sheer physicality of the movie married to a gang film was both a comment on a life style as well as upon the presidents whose masks they wore both to disguise and reveal themselves was brilliant, as was the pacing and the suspense.

Bigelow has made at least a dozen other movies and I was determined to watch at least a few of them before writing this piece – but I did not. In any case, in Zero Dark Thirty the sense of tension is not maintained by whether Maya will or will not sell out and adopt the male code, but whether, in doing so, she will succeed in her mission to kill bin Laden. On that message the film is unequivocally clear: she converted and became more testerone- driven than any of the other honchos in the CIA. Further, that was the only reason she, and therefore the CIA and America, managed to kill Usama bin Laden.

Review again how Zero Dark Thirty starts; the initial collage of 9/11 that revs up shock and fear and anger, even rage; then the code of a muscular gangster film of men beating up someone in accordance with the fixed rules of a Hollywood scene of pausing and giving the victim a chance before dealing another vicious blow. It is literally gut wrenching and Nancy and I both cringed for we respond viscerally to physical violence in films, especially when so realistically portrayed. (Nancy whispered at the time, "So this is where you take me on Valentine’s Day!)

The film no sooner captures our attention at the gut level than it touches our hearts again already wide open by the cri de coeur of the woman in the burning and collapsing Trade Center Tower. Maya is as squeamish about violence as we are. So we are with her throughout her Odyssey as she is made over and shaped and inducted into the code of a torturer at one level and the CIA masculine code of what makes a successful case officer. She learns to torture – without wearing a ski mask. She learns to push her way among a crop of vacillating and week-kneed frightened CIA senior heads. So we learn as she learns the codes, the language, the slang, the acronyms. We in the audience hear the following lines, but I bet there was not one person in the theatre who could decipher them. George at one point says, "I run the Af-Pak division of CTC, and I’m primary on this for the agency. This is a title fifty operation."

What is the Af-Pak division? What is CTC? What status is a primary? That one we can guess. What’s a title fifty operation? In one line of text we are wallowing in CIA bafflegab for a lay audience. But that is unimportant. It’s the use of code language that counts. Our ignorance tells us it is a code language. We have been introduced to the private language that the CIA used as part of their bonding.

There is one other key female CIA agent to whom we are introduced in the film. Jessica is sure she has a lead on an informer, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor who she insists is really motivated. He supposedly has been turned by the Jordanians and is also motivated by money ($25 m is on the table). When Maya turns off the 60 Minutes program with Obama insisting that America doesn’t torture, Jessica informs Maya that the doctor will not come to Islamabad to meet them because he fears for his own security. The irony is distinctly there. We know what is coming even if that knowledge is not allowed to creep into consciousness. Jessica should fear for her security. They agree to meet in Camp Chapman in Afghanistan to which the next scene shifts.

After a long wait and way after the meeting time, just as the CIA team, which includes another young female CIA officer, Lauren, a Jordanian intelligence officer, and the base’s CIA security head, John, after last minute instructions on how the interrogation will be handled, the team is now on the verge of giving up. We feel the tension, the expectation, the disappointment, the anxiety, the renewed eagerness when a car is seen approaching from the distance. It stops outside the barriers by gate guards. Jessica panics and fears that her informant will be spooked. Jessica urges John to wave the gate guards off. But security only works, he says ominously, if we stick to the rules and the game plan, if we are constant. Make an exception, she urges. I can’t he replies. I’m responsible for everyone’s safety, not just yours. Then, in the one totally unconvincing scene in the film, he surrenders to her will and determination. He orders the guards to stand down We in the audience sit pinned to our seat waiting for the car bomb that will massacre them all. Only it is not a car bomb. The Islamist is wearing a body bomb which the doctor (?) blows up when he gets out of the car and they order him to take his hand out of his pocket.

There are no surprises in the general plot of a heist movie, a gangster movie, a spy movie, an action movie, except in the manner of implementation of the next step. In the best of such films, it is not the external drama of events that propel the film but the personal psychological transformation of the central protagonist.

See what can happen when we bend the male security codes for women driven by their feelings and their instincts! That is the message! It is the backdrop to Maya’s pressure on her CIA superiors to give the ok to attack the compound. But before that Maya will have her own setbacks. Just after she has witnessed via satellite feed the death of her closest friend and her team, she is handed a disc that shows that the Abu Ahmed, who she has been chasing now for years, is dead. She watches the video and refuses to believe it. When asked what she will do she replies that she will smoke everybody in this op, and then I’m going to kill bin Laden. Not capture him! Not interrogate him! Kill him! Maya has become an unstoppable force, ruthless and dedicated, willing to suppress emotion and wreck revenge on bin Laden personally. He’s mine, all mine, she lets us know, echoing Daniel’s statements as he tortures Amman in the opening scenes. She is the vengeful force of wrath. And unlike the typical gangster, she is a superwoman and cannot be killed riding shotgun or at the wheel of the car in the reverse attempted revenge by al Quaeda against her personally.

Further, as in a typical gangster movie, your real enemies are not the other gang, but your colleagues. As the line goes in Goodfellas, "Your murderers always come with smiles on their faces." Will her desk jockeys in Washington manage to kill her project before she gets to kill bin Laden? On her side, the central issue is betrayal. The dispatch of the other side automatically follows, even if it requires great technical ingenuity, managing to survive and prevent being betrayed. The murder of bin Laden is straight forward. The subtle efforts to undermine Maya when she is least suspecting and most vulnerable are at the core of the film. Recall Maya’s dirty look at Daniel when he votes for a soft 60% that the compound hold bin Laden.

But this is a gangster film of the twenty-first century when the real gangsters have gone international, but it mirrors the old gangster movies of the sixties and seventies when all gangsters got their just desserts rather than the gangster films of the eighties and nineties when the good guys and the gangsters each betray their own side and kill one another. In Zero Black Thirty we are back to an age of innocence in gangster movies but now on an international stage. The bad guys get their come-uppance. The good guys cheer even if they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the murder scene.

Maya toils for years with no results until Debbie, a new recruit who is as perky as Maya was when she first arrived, walks up to her desk and tells Maya that she came to Pakistan inspired by tales she heard about Maya. Debbie hands Maya a file that seems to indicate that it was not Abu Ahmed who died but his brother. Why had Maya not been told before? "Things got lost in the shuffle. Human error." Caprice! History takes a turn because of chance and chance was needed to offset human error. Habeeb, Abu Ahmed’s older brother, who looked just like him, was the one who died. How does she know? By inference. If someone as important as Abu Ahmed had died, the chat rooms all over would be flashing

Daniel in Washington goes to bat for her. In an interchange with Wolf, the Muslim head of the counter-terrorism unit in CIA headquarters, Daniel offers to be the fall guy, the body, the scapegoat, that the Inquisitors for the government will be looking for to punish for Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. He does so as a noble knight in service to Maya’s obsession and in return for a couple of hundred thousand dollars needed to find the phone number of Abu Ahmed’s family. Daniel goes out into the field again and offers a prince in Kuwait a V10 Lamborghini in exchange for the phone number. No torture now. Just payola.

One after another Maya bends other male reluctant officers to her will in spite of their initial reluctance. She convinces Larry to help on the slim evidence that the guy who phones home from many different places and lied to his mother shows clear signs of tradecraft. Until she runs into Bradley at the American Embassy! Bradley tells her that he can’t understand her obsession with getting surveillance on some guy who a facilitator once said might have been bin Laden’s courier. In any case, Bradley doesn’t give a fuck abut bin Laden. What matters is preventing attacks in America. He threatened to send her home to work on American al Quaeda cells.

Maya doesn’t budge an inch. If you want to stop attacks on the homeland, get bin Laden; he keeps ordering them she yells back. Bradley barks back, "no one has talked to bin Laden in four years. He’s out of the game. He’s dead. You’re chasing a ghost." Maya responds even more strongly, but with a very personal attack on Bradley for being a no-nothing and just wanting to tick a box that you got another low-level operative. Then she raises the stakes beyond the weapons of verbal humiliation used in sparring and blackmails him. "Either give me the team I need to follow the lead, or the other thing you’re gonna have on your resume is the first Station Chief to be called before a congressional committee for subverting the efforts to capture or kill bin Laden. Bradley responds, "You’re fucking out of your mind." We cheer Maya for winning what to date seems her most important cock fight for we have been well socialized in the code of gangster movies. As worshippers of the image on the cave wall, we understand the laws of revenge. We have all caught scopophilia, the predominant male gaze of Hollywood cinema. Only instead of women portrayed as simply objects, we watch them mutate into male protagonists. We go to the movies desiring "to watch and identify with what you’re watching" so women, half the audience for movies, can now be mesmerized by gangster films.

The code is simple. If someone tries to subvert you, you have to retaliate with a harder blow than the one he threw. Otherwise you’re a wimp. Maya proved she was no wimp and had learned the rules of the war of all against all that prevails in the Hobbesian state of nature. No compassion. No backing down. No saying you are sorry No bowing down before superior formal authority. It is the law of gangs. It is the law of prisons. It is the law of the jungle. It is the laws that Daniel articulated at the beginning of the film. Formal authority be damned! The issue is always who the lord and master is and who the bondsman.

So it goes. As you sit in the audience you cheer her on and despair at the number of wishy-washy bosses she has to beat up. Then we get on what seems a side track. Bradley is being pulled out of Pakistan because he has been named publicly in a lawsuit by the family of the victim of a U.S. drone attack. The issue isn’t Bradley’s departure. That’s the feint. The issue is that drone attacks create their own media relations nightmares and a different kind of security problem. Maya wanted to nuke the compound but indirectly we are told that she had to draw back; accept killing bin Laden and give up on the fast and certain but with indeterminate political consequences. Maya has been socialized to become a sociopath standing out and challenging the system in terms of its own real rules and using any means she can to get her way. And we in the audience love every bit of it. The law of the jungle is bulldoze your way through and use whatever norms there are against the system itself to get your way. Compassion for the kids in the compound! Does Maya express one bit of concern about the kids who would be killed? Not a whit! A bleeding heart she ain’t. Up with rugged individualism!

We now have the answer why Maya did not completely get her way. She wanted to blow bin Laden’s compound with a drone rather than using Navy Seals. Pakistan gets a new CIA head. Maya says she needs people to track Abu Ahmed. The new head folds rather than argue with her. Her reputation has preceded his taking the job. He knows who really runs the show. But the hunter has become the hunted. An assassination gang tries to get her, shooting up her car. But she gets away. She has become one tough and resourceful broad.

Now the peak to which everything has been building — getting an affirmative decision to attack the compound. Days pass. Weeks. Months. Maya takes to writing in lipstick on the glass wall her boss’s office how many days they have waited for a go-ahead.

What are the considerations? The scenes are fast paced and tumble one on top of the other even though they take place over four months and obviously take much more time than we see. We view a hall at the White House outside the office of the President’s National Security Adviser (NSA). George approaches as the team files out and says to the NSA, "I just don’t get the rhythms of politics." The NSA replies, "You think this is political? If this was political we’d be having this conversation in October when there’s an election bump. This is pure risk. Based on deductive reasoning, inference, supposition and the only human reporting you have is six years old, from detainees who are questioned under duress. The political move is to tell you to go fuck yourself, and remind you that I was in the room when your old boss pitched WMD in Iraq…at least there you guys brought photographs." The memory of Iraq haunts the whole bureaucracy just as the Mogadishu syndrome haunted the Clinton presidency when the Rwanda genocide broke out. But Maya is so determined and wilful that she can not only resurrect zombies but can even dissolve the ghost of the Iraq War.

We learn that the issue is a calculation of risk and not politics. Given the evidence, it’s a no-brainer – go fuck yourself. George pops back: But how do you weigh the risk of bin Laden getting way? He is far more subtle that Maya in his use of blackmail. The NSA now suggests that the problem is no longer whether to attack but how. "Give us options."

But we are not given the options. We are not explicitly told why they chose to use Navy Seals rather than drones. Was it because of the women and children in the compound? Was it because they wanted concrete proof that they had bin Laden? Was it because they wanted to capture documents? Was it because they feared bad public relations?

We never know. Had the film already gone on too long? Was it over budget? We are not given any information on the options and why one was chosen over the other. The climax focuses on the decision on whether to implement one option or not. We move to Nevada and an Air Force base and we meet the Navy Seal team and view two high tech stealth Blackhawks that have never been tested with people or in an actual operation. There will be all kinds of risks in employing them. But we never see any real calculation of that risk. We are never introduced to any sense that the decision is really about rational deduction and inference. It is about will and only about will with a supporting cast of reasons playing minor roles.

And we are back to the decision? A Navy Seal asks Maya in an incredulous tone, ‘You mean you have no intel on the ground?" But even these tough soldiers, Maya wins over. She is truly an unstoppable force. She is truly a superwoman. But on route to their conversion from sceptics to followers if not believers, she tells them her preference: "Quite Frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and your Velcro and all your gear bullshit. I wanted to drop a bomb but people didn’t believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb, so they’re using you guys as canaries on the theory that if bin Laden isn’t there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser… But bin Laden is there – you’re going to kill him for me." Vivian who plays the same agent in Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden insists on the same: "We should bomb the fuck out of it." Since the two different filmmakers did not share notes, it seems that the character of Maya/Vivian was based on a real person.

The tough and best way was to use a drone. But the politicos are too worried about the hell that would break lose if they had the wrong target or for killing women and children. We do not know if this was part of the reasoning. It is part of showing Maya as tougher than any of the men she has dealt with and certainly tougher than the politicians. America has found its Margaret Thatcher.

But then she comes up against the CIA Director played by James Gandolfini of Sopranos fame with Wolf, the Deputy Director, Daniel and others in attendance. Yes or no the CIA Director asks. 60% two of them answer, including Wolf. 80% says George. Daniel suggests a soft 60% for bin Laden but high probability for a high level target. Then the CIA Director turns to Maya, but is interrupted by his deputy who insists they have taken her opinion into account in their assessments of the probability. But Maya says her piece anyway. "100%, he’s there – okay, fine, ninety-five percent because I know certainty freaks you guys out – but it’s a hundred!"

She beat them all at their own game. She did not get her drones but she got the next best thing. Bigelow has directed a brilliant film in which she surrendered her belief as youth drawn from conceptual art that the aesthetic should always be in service to the idea and instead made a movie in which the idea and the aesthetic work in a remarkable tension as she continues her explorations of the coded language of the masculine herd, in this case, one in which a female has become the winning prize fighter. Her movie is a remarkable visceral journey involving gut, heart and eventually head. The rest of the movie is the climatic action film of the implementation of the decision and strictly about the code of masculinity in a state of nature that is all about power and violence. That ending, however, that muscular he-man stuff is, however, anti-climactic to the psychological thriller that just ended.

In the end Maya flies alone to where we do not know.

Tomorrow: Obama 16. Drones and Assassinations 20.02.13

[Tags Obama, Zero Dark Thirty, revenge, rational decisions,