Secrecy Obstructs Accountability: How the Drone War Will Help Get Obama Reelected
Since September, at least 60 people have died in 14 reported CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions. The Obama administration has named only one of the dead, hailing the elimination of Janbaz Zadran, a top official in the Haqqani insurgent network, as a counterterrorism victory.
The identities of the rest remain classified, as does the existence of the drone program itself. Because the names of the dead and the threat they were believed to pose are secret, it is impossible for anyone without access to U.S. intelligence to assess whether the deaths were justified.
I would presume the estimated 60 people killed in four months is a mix of government statements and press reporting, but anyone with their wits about them understands the real number is likely to be considerably higher. The article explains that, although the government has dismissed “reports of collateral damage and the alleged killing of innocents” by claiming that drones “result in far fewer mistakes than less sophisticated weapons,” they have yet to provide any details to support those claims. John Brennan, President Obama’s counter-terrorism advisor, told the public in June that zero civilian casualties have occurred as a result of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. This was an obvious lie, but the Bureau of Investigative Journalism helped prove it by cataloguing their lengthy findings on civilian casualties in the drone war, counting hundreds of civilians by name who were killed in drone strikes, including at least 168 children. There was also Noor Behram, who had been on the ground in Pakistan tallying the dead, and estimated that “for every 10 to 15 people killed, maybe they get one militant.”
Tariq Aziz, the 16-year old Pakistani whose life was affected so much by the drone war that he became an activist against it, is an important anecdote. He started taking pictures of people killed by drone strikes and giving them to journalists and human rights lawyers. Three days after embarking on this mission, “on Oct. 31, he and his 12-year-old cousin were themselves killed by a drone missile strike in the North Waziristan region on the Afghan border.” As human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith told Reuters, “What they did to Tariq was absolutely disgusting.”
In a rather sickening reality of this modern warfare, one source who has been briefed on the secret CIA drone program said that “those selecting targets calculate how much potential collateral damage is acceptable relative to the value of the target.” That is truly the banality of evil in the classic Adrendt sense. How different would those calculations be if the potential “collateral damage” (translation: slaughter of innocents) were U.S. Marines, or a family member of the drone operator?
The Post report says that the drone war in Pakistan has resulted “in an estimated 1,350 to 2,250 deaths.” But the public simply doesn’t have a good idea of how many have been killed, because “the identities…remain classified, as does the existence of the drone program itself.” And there’s a very good reason for that: secrecy obstructs accountability. If Obama doesn’t have to tell us who he kills, he doesn’t have to face public scrutiny for how many were innocent. “When you have warfare with no political costs at all, it becomes much too easy to resort to violence,” as Clive Stafford Smith put it. An ignorant public is absolutely essential to the functioning of Obama’s foreign policy. Glenn Greenwald called it drone mentality: “that combination of pure ignorance and blind faith in government authorities that you will inevitably hear from anyone defending President Obama’s militarism.”
If the electorate lacks “pure ignorance and blind faith in government,” it won’t just mean an end to the drone war in Pakistan. It would mean an end to Obama’s presidency. Therefore, those conducting operations in the increasingly secret and expanded-powers-Executive-Branch need to impose that ignorance by keeping it classified, and drum up that blind faith in government by lying through their teeth about “zero civilians” having been killed and dangerous terrorists having been eliminated. The same ignorance and blind faith that got Obama elected will get him reelected, so long as his crimes are kept secret and dead innocents like Tariq Aziz don’t come whispering the truth from beyond the grave.