Order the spring issue here

The assassination policy

During Obama's presidency, the war on terror went from being a conventional war fought with ground forces, to becoming a covert war fought with drones and advanced surveillance equipment.


Jeremy Scahill and the staff of the Intercept:
The Assasination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program
Simon & Schuster, 2016

The Assassination Complex is based on documents leaked by one insider, and provides a solid overview of the drone war. The book demystifies the US drone campaign and kills a number of the myths that have gained a foothold. Politicians often use the legitimate language of "surgical precision" when referring to the use of drones, but the documents clearly show that this picture is false. On the contrary, drones kill ten times more civilians than manned aircraft do, and these in turn also kill far more civilians than ground operations do. The advantage of drones is perhaps first and foremost political: As long as you do not have soldiers on the ground, it is easier to keep operations secret and the reality of war disappears from people's consciousness.

NSA's Little Boy. At least as scary as the drones themselves, is the way the target of a drone attack is chosen. First step is that one of the many state letter support agencies puts a person on a so-called Watchlist. Then the person is monitored and a profile is built up which is eventually presented to the president. President Obama himself has endorsed all such goals – people to be executed completely out of law and judgment. Finally, so-called SIGINT – electronic signals from mobile phones – is used to locate the target and drop a bomb on the person. Perhaps Norway has also contributed to the drone war. The e-service has confirmed that they have been monitoring in Afghanistan and sharing the information with the NSA. “Drones are a tool, not a policy. The policy is assassination, "Scahill states.

Executions are often carried out solely on the basis of SIGINT, especially in Yemen and Somalia where the United States has fewer resources on the ground. The problem is that this method does not identify a person, it only identifies a mobile phone. The method is thus vulnerable to manipulation and error. The source of the documents commented that those who have the capacity to monitor the communication of others are often deceived into believing that they possess a divine power. An NSA document compares the evolution of the drones' monitoring technology, named after the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh, with "Little Boy", the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. From the outside, the comparison seems to be an expression of ruthless megalomania from an agency that is powerful, but after all not ALLpowerful.

Without goals and meaning. Among the most important revelations in the book is the fact that the drone war does not work. First, there is no intelligence value in killing people. The use of drones precludes the traditional method of capturing and interrogating terrorist suspects. More importantly, it is at all difficult to say what one wants to achieve with this ongoing assassination campaign. It is constantly claimed that the goals taken are so-called high-value individuals, but very few of the people named in the material are senior leaders in Al Qaeda or other international terrorist organizations. Far more have been local Taliban leaders who have mainly dealt with armed resistance against American soldiers in their home country. US forces eventually went after ordinary thugs, a SEAL 6 special forces soldier told the New York Times. There are also several examples of the United States being manipulated into local power struggles and making powerful enemies due to almost amateurish mistakes.

Anyone who is accidentally killed in a drone attack is routinely classified as EKIA – enemy killed in action, unless there is clear evidence that they were civilians. In dubio pro reo turned upside down, in other words. This especially applies to so-called MAM – military age men. How did the world's undisputed military power end up conducting manhunt in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia? How did the United States end up considering all men between the ages of 15 and 60 in a country they themselves have invaded as enemies? It all seems beyond any sense. Such a paranoid enemy image can easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a world where everyone is an enemy until proven otherwise, one has made oneself everyone's enemy.

How did the world's undisputed military power end up conducting manhunt in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia?

Thematically divergent. The Assassination Complex is a collection of stand-alone articles based on leaked documents from the same source. The book's biggest weakness is precisely the limited source material, and that this is allowed to control the content. The material covers many aspects of the drone war, but at the same time there is a good deal of overlap between the chapters, and at times the book appears thematically divergent. Some of the chapters could have deserved their own book, such as the one about the militarization of police forces in the United States and what deals with the US expansion in Africa. Despite the fact that this is interesting and important, the themes here are somewhat on the side of the book's main theme. The document-based history would also have fared much better if it had been expanded to a greater extent with traditional journalistic methods and storytelling. Although the book contains important documentation, many unanswered questions remain. To some extent, this is also understandable; Scahill has embarked on a policy area characterized by strict secrecy. It is striking throughout the book that virtually all agencies and authorities have refused to comment.

Most of the book is also relatively weak when it comes to analyzing the big picture – what all the revelations mean. Glenn Greenwald's afterword tries to gather some of these threads. Obama's election campaign was built around criticism of the war on terror and the Bush administration's tendency to rise above the law, Greenwald points out. This would be the end of it if Obama became president. The aftermath shows that Obama, on the contrary, continued and expanded much of Bush's most controversial policies. This is how he achieved what Bush could never have achieved alone: ​​the policies that were once considered controversial and in some cases extreme are now cross-politically accepted. When the Democrats got the president, there was no longer any real opposition to the means used in the war on terror. The fact that Obama gave himself the power to decide alone who can be called a terrorist and who should die without any kind of legal process is something even Bush could not do. Towards the end of 2015, it was signaled that the drone war would apparently be escalated.


Tori Aarseth
Tori Aarseth
Aarseth is a political scientist and a regular journalist at Ny Tid.

You may also like