drones

Building Trust Takes Resources, Not Drones

Image via /Shutterstock.com

Glancing upward at one of the six U.S.-manufactured aerostat blimps performing constant surveillance over Kabul, I wonder if the expensive, high-tech, giant’s-eye view encourages a primitive notion that the best way to solve a problem here is to target a “bad guy” and then kill him. If the bad guys appear to be scurrying dots on the ground below, stomp them out. But crushing only the right dots has proven very difficult for a U.S. drone warfare program documented to have killed many civilians.

The Crosshairs of a Dilemma

Helen Mirren in Eye in the Sky

STANLEY KUBRICK’S Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was released in 1964, and it was echoed later that year by a film on a similar topic, Fail-Safe. Directed by Sidney Lumet, Fail-Safe imagined the idea of a nuclear explosion being unpreventable by the people supposed to be in charge of it. Strangelove is hilarious but chilling satire; Fail-Safe is just chilling. The central notion, that ethics can’t be trusted to machines, lingers today: George Clooney produced a live television version of Fail-Safe as recently as 2000.

A current version of the dilemma is brilliantly portrayed in Eye in the Sky. Cutting between four main locations (a British government committee room, a military control center in the English countryside, a Nevada drone piloting bunker, and the Kenyan house from where a suicide bomb attack may be launched), it’s like a relentless tennis match in which the crisscrossing ball is a matter of life and death.

Who decides who can be killed? If blowing up the house will prevent an attack that might kill 80 people, how much does it matter that a little girl selling bread nearby will probably die too? What is legal? Does “legal” mean “right”? Such questions have rarely been handled with such compelling dexterity in a movie. Eye in the Sky deserves comparison with Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe because it doesn’t offer easy answers, only difficult questions, and its seamless movement between locations fully immerses the audience inside the debate. But it transcends those earlier films because of the way it treats the characters that might be seen as “other.”

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Weekly Wrap 4.22.16: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Mourning Prince and David Bowie, Who Showed There’s No Right Way to Be a Man

“… We’ve lost two men who had an expansive, almost luxuriant vision of what it meant to be a man and lived out that vision through decades when it was much less safe to do so.”

2. On Earth Day, a Look at How Americans View Environmental Issues

Should the country do whatever it takes to protect the environment? The number of Republicans who say “yes” has decreased in the past 12 years.

3. Wage Gap Alarm Clock Rings After 79% of the Work Day Is Done So Women Can Go Home

Brilliant.

Air Force Whistleblowers to Obama: 'Drone Strikes Fuel Terrorism'

Image via  / Shutterstock.com

The joint statement — from the group who have experience of operating drones over Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflict zones — represents a public outcry from what is understood to be the largest collection of drone whistleblowers in the history of the program. Three of the letter writers were sensor operators who controlled the powerful visual equipment on U.S. Predator drones that guide Hellfire missiles to their targets.

…The four are represented legally by Jesselyn Radack, director of national security and human rights at the nonprofit ExposeFacts. “This is the first time we’ve had so many people speaking out together about the drone program,” she said, pointing out that the men were fully aware that they faced possible prosecution for speaking out.

14 Years of the Patriot Act

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Today (Oct. 26) marks the fourteenth anniversary of the passage of the Patriot Act, an initiative designed to strengthen the U.S. government’s ability to monitor and deter potential terrorist threats.

Though key provisions of the Patriot Act expired earlier this year, many of them were restored by the Senate via passage of the USA Freedom Act, and will be effective through 2019. At the same time, the Senate also voted overwhelmingly to end the NSA’s unmonitored mass surveillance and data collection of phone and email records, formerly justified under the language of the Patriot Act. 

Everything Must Change: On Baltimore, Drones, and Resurrection

Tunnel, Annette Shaff / Shutterstock.com
Tunnel, Annette Shaff / Shutterstock.com

Everything must change.

Injustices around the world and here at home are coming to light despite a long, willful blindness. Half a world away, the long-muted voices of the victims of American military policy were allowed to break through the wall of propaganda and infotainment used to keep them hushed. A recent New York Times report reveals one of the worst-kept (actually un-kept, but vastly underreported) secrets of our government: that we often do not know who we are killing with drones.

And at home, in Baltimore, the death of Freddie Gray in police custody has caused long-simmering tensions – born of institutionalized segregation, nearly inescapable poverty, and a scourge of police brutality – to erupt in an uprising of passionate resistance, with destruction punctuating otherwise peaceful marches. Media coverage has given far more attention to the “riots” than to the systemic violence that has kept so many African Americans, not only in Baltimore but throughout the country, living in poverty and insecurity.

Weekly Wrap 4.24.15: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Drone Strikes Reveal Uncomfortable Truth: U.S. Is Often Unsure About Who Will Die
Following the president’s admission this week that two Western hostages were killed in a drone strike in Pakistan, protestations against the veiled drone program have re-escalated. “Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. Gradually, it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess.

2. Infertility and the Role of the Church
This week is Infertility Awareness Week. Writer Rachel Marie Stone dives into some of the attitudes about infertility and reproductive technologies in the church.

3. Meet Your New Attorney General
After postponing a vote for more than five months to fight along party lines over abortion language in a human trafficking bill, the Senate voted Thursday to approve the nomination of Loretta Lynch, 55, making her the first black woman to head up the Justice Department.

4. Those Countries at the Top of the World Happiness Report Also Have Great Press Freedom Rankings
See what country falls where and read more about the correlation.

Bugsplat

Drone preparing for takeoff. Image courtesy Digital Storm/shutterstock.com
Drone preparing for takeoff. Image courtesy Digital Storm/shutterstock.com

Bugsplat is software used to calculate and reduce the death of innocent people in drone strikes. It's also how Predator drone operators talk about the people whom the American military kills in these missions. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that the U.S. is responsible for 2,500 deaths in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia since 2001, including dozens of children. This figure doesn¹t even count Iraq and Afghanistan. But we don't know for sure how many innocents die because most Americans, including too many of our political and military leaders, do not even know when drone strikes happen, whom exactly they target and why, and whether they are successful in achieving their objectives. 

Drone attacks require the president's review and approval. And it is the military's responsibility to execute plans so that no innocent lives are lost. But our democracy is a work in progress, and it will only function well if American citizens stay involved. Given President Obama's request last fall for Congress to approve strikes in Syria, we should call on elected officials to fully debate the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force — which has often served as a blanket legal justification for drone strikes, going far beyond its original purpose to take action against those responsible for the September 11 attacks. Repealing the act will help reinstate the checks and balances that are hallmarks of democracy. Our leaders must be more transparent.

The Front Page Rule

Still courtesy C-SPAN
Still courtesy C-SPAN

After a week here in FMC Lexington Satellite camp, a federal prison in Kentucky, I started catching up on national and international news via back issues of USA Today available in the prison library. An "In Brief" item, on p. 2A of the Jan. 30 weekend edition, caught my eye. It briefly described a protest in Washington, D.C., in which members of the antiwar group "Code Pink" interrupted a U.S. Senate Armed Services budget hearing chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The protesters approached a witness table where Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, and George Schulz were seated. One of their signs called Henry Kissinger a war criminal. "McCain," the article continued, "blurted out, 'Get out of here, you low-life scum.'"

At mail call, a week ago, I received Richard Clarke's novel, The Sting of the Drone, about characters involved in developing and launching drone attacks. I'm in prison for protesting drone warfare, so a kind friend ordered it for me. The author, a former "National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism," worked for 30 years inside the U.S. government but seems to have greater respect than some within government for concerned people outside of it. He seems also to feel some respect for people outside our borders.

He develops, I think, a fair-minded approach toward evaluating drone warfare given his acceptance that wars and assassinations are sometimes necessary. (I don't share that premise). Several characters in the novel, including members of a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, criticize drone warfare, noting that in spite of high level, expensive reconnaissance, drone attacks still kill civilians, alienating people the U.S. ostensibly wants to turn away from terrorism.

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