Rand Paul’s recent filibuster during the U.S. Senate’s confirmation hearing for John Brennan as CIA director elevated the issue of drone attacks in domestic politics. For twelve years the Obama executive, acting as full-blown paramilitary wing of the federal government, has used military drones to kill people without legal justification in six predominantly Muslim countries to myopically destructive effect. Reports from active drone warfare zones show how virulently drone tactics such as the “double tap” (repeat strikes on respondents to initial attacks) and the “signature strike” (attacks on unnamed targets based on “patterns of life”) destroy communities and engender long-lasting hatred.
More disconcertingly, despite the thousands so far killed through the Obama administration’s drone campaign and the intense public scrutiny this has elicited, Department of Justice lawyers refuse to tell federal courts whether the CIA program even exists, arguing such disclosure might jeopardize national security. The claim is clearly specious and authoritarian. Top government officials from the President all the way down have already acknowledged the drone program’s existence, and the guise of confidentiality is a baldfaced attempt to shield it from any shred of accountability.
Paul’s filibuster — purportedly an attempt to bring some answerability back to the program — in the end was a narrowly focused act of political theater that answered few questions. The crux of Paul’s protest centered around whether the Obama executive claimed authority to kill Americans on U.S. soil, which Attorney General Eric Holder previously signaled it had. “Resolving” last week’s controversy, Holder wrote a terse letter saying: “‘Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?’ The answer to that question is no.”
Outside of the episode’s wholesale disregard for the drone program’s devastating consequences abroad, legal experts point out how little Holder’s response actually tells us given the Obama administration’s radical reinterpretation of “combat” in the post-9/11 era. As Constitutional litigator Glenn Greenwald observes:
… the whole point of the Paul filibuster was to ask whether the Obama administration believes that it has the power to target a US citizen for assassination on US soil the way it did to Anwar Awlaki in Yemen. The Awlaki assassination was justified on the ground that Awlaki was a “combatant,” that he was “engaged in combat,” even though he was killed not while making bombs or shooting at anyone but after he had left a cafe where he had breakfast… The phrase “engaged in combat” has come to mean little more than: anyone the President accuses, in secrecy and with no due process, of supporting a Terrorist group.
The manufactured resolution to last week’s Senate controversy over drones also obscures how drone warfare as a whole, not just assassinations on U.S. soil, is only the barely visible tip of the Obama administration’s ongoing “dirty wars” in the Middle East. Several developments from the past weeks showcase the U.S.’s secret abuses in the context of unconventional, asymmetrical warfare among mostly civilian populations.
Again demonstrating the foreign policy establishment’s inability to learn the most basic of historical lessons, the Guardian recently revealed how the U.S. exported leadership and tactics from its brutal dirty wars in Central America to Iraq in the mid-2000s. The programs endorsed by top military officials used “all means of torture to make the detainee confess … using electricity, hanging him upside down, pulling out their nails.” Interrogation rooms were stained with blood, report Iraqi officials; children in extreme stress positions were beaten until their bodies became discolored. These horrifying stories compound previous abominable campaigns on the part of ISOF, the Iraqi Special Operations Forces, an elite, U.S.-trained counterterrorism squadron known as the “dirty brigade,” whose summary executions, kidnapping, and harassment of civilians closely echo the efforts of the U.S.-trained death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala.
In recent weeks we also learned that the majority of Guantánamo Bay prisoners, most currently held indefinitely without charge and over 80 of whom have long since been cleared for release, have mounted a hunger strike to protest arbitrary beatings, searches, and other dehumanizing conditions. Inmates are now “coughing blood [and] losing consciousness,” with some being force-fed through their nostrils, a practice the UN Human Rights Commission considers torture.
Last month, a report by the Open Society Initiative documented how the CIA recruited 54 countries to participate in its sprawling post-9/11 torture regime. The wholesale exception of Latin America, where public opinion is staunchly opposed to U.S. interests and no countries participated, is telling. A region long abused by Washington’s “dirty wars” and military interventionism, Latin American leaders stood together to firmly refuse the CIA’s enrollment in the months after 9/11. Thanks to the U.S.’s historical legacy in Latin America, fiery anti-Americanism like Hugo Chávez’s today remains extremely popular with a majority of ordinary Latin Americans. This, if anything, should serve as the sharpest parable for how U.S. military abuses may soon unite the world in similar opposition.