a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Killer sky robots — sorta like mowin your lawn

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th October 2012

“The problem with the drone is it’s like your lawn mower,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and Obama counterterrorism adviser. “You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.”
Plan for hunting terrorists signals U.S. intends to keep adding names to kill lists (Miller, WaPo, 10/23/12)

“An right now the level of torture talk has gone from ‘Torture: Bad!’ to ‘Torture: Bad, But Not As Bad As Saddam Hussein’ to ‘Torture: Bad, But What About Ticking Bombs?’ to ‘Torture: Bad, But Not Necessarily Proof That The People Who Ordered Torture Are Bad’ to ‘Torture: We Still Talkin Bout Torture?’ to ‘Torture: Bad?’ An before we get to ‘Torture: Sorta Like Mowin Your Lawn’ I think we should try as hard as we can to wake up.”
—  wake up (Fafblog!, 7/10/04)

That sure looks like a big swing and a miss for Fafblog now, doesn’t it.

The CIA is urging the White House to approve a significant expansion of the agency’s fleet of armed drones, a move that would extend the spy service’s decade-long transformation into a paramilitary force, U.S. officials said.

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Forward — to drones on their own

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 3rd October 2012

(From United States Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047, Note the
planned capabilities of the MQ-Lc, far right: “Modular, Autonomous,” “Strategic Attack,” “Global Strike.”  Similar features
are envisioned for “medium,” fighter-sized version MQ-Mc’s.


What could be better than unmanned aerial vehicles raining death on Pakistan in a ratio of three children to one terrorist leader by remote control?  Why, the same thing on autopilot, of course.  J. Michael Cole of “The Diplomat” reports:

…although the use of drones substantially increases operational effectiveness — and, in the case of targeted killings, adds to the emotional distance between perpetrator and target — they remain primarily an extension of, and are regulated by, human decisionmaking.

All that could be about to change, with reports that the U.S. military (and presumably others) have been making steady progress developing drones that operate with little, if any, human oversight. For the time being, developers in the U.S. military insist that when it comes to lethal operations, the new generation of drones will remain under human supervision. Nevertheless, unmanned vehicles will no longer be the “dumb” drones in use today; instead, they will have the ability to “reason” and will be far more autonomous, with humans acting more as supervisors than controllers.

(Via digby at “Hullabaloo”).  Sure, there are concerns and glitches, Washington Post’s Peter Finn notes:  “Some experts also worry that hostile states or terrorist organizations could hack robotic systems and redirect them. Malfunctions also are a problem: In South Africa in 2007, a semiautonomous cannon fatally shot nine friendly soldiers.” 

But the deeper concern is that a war-fighting process already on institutional and public opinion autopilot would now simply go on a computerized one.  Americans think they know what’s going on in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, but they don’t.  As the authors of Living Under Drones: Death,Injury,and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan put it,

In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling “targeted killing” of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts.  This narrative is false.

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I’ve got two words for you

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 6th May 2010

1. “Predator drones“:

As digby writes, “All presidents should probably make it a rule not to yuk it up over WMD and air attacks. It’s unnecessary.”

2. “Tase him!

(also via digby)

After all, the kid ran on to a baseball field, which jeopardized… something or other. Anyway, TASE HIM!

EDIT, 5/6: WMD link added.
UPDATE, 5/10: Credit where credit is due — the Washington Post editorial page weighs in against what happened in Philadelphia (“Police and Tasers“): “…[T]he Philadelphia police commissioner, Charles Ramsey, who reviewed video of the incident, said his officer had acted within department guidelines. That’s the problem. While Tasers have been useful in protecting officers from dangerous and out-of-control suspects, in too many police agencies the policy on using them is so loosely defined that officers can fire the weapons more or less when they feel like it.”

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Treadstone, Yamamoto, or none of the above

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th July 2009

There are a number of issues to unpack from the news that the CIA had secret plans for assassination teams that it hadn’t divulged to Congress.

First and foremost, for the time being, it’s not yet clear (to me, anyway) just how operational-but-undisclosed the programs in question* became.  Not only did Panetta cancel a secret allegedly-not-yet-ever-used program, but he also felt he ought to report the issue to Congress — perhaps out of an abundance of caution, perhaps in close adherence to statutory requirements … or perhaps for other motives.  All I can find so far about his precise June 24 testimony to Congress is in a  June 26 letter by House Intelligence Committee members and others stating that

“Recently you testified that you have determined that top CIA officials have concealed significant actions from all Members of Congress, and misled Members for a number of years from 2001 to this week.”

Despite the word “actions” in that letter, a New York Times report by Mazzetti and Shane states that the plans “remained vague and were never carried out.” On the other hand, they were apparently specific enough that Panetta actually had something to “cancel” or “scuttle” — as one might indeed expect with something under discussion since 2001.  According to the L.A. Times,

“…as recently as a year ago CIA executives discussed plans to deploy teams to test basic capabilities, including whether they could enter hostile territory and maneuver undetected, as well as gather intelligence and track high-value targets.”

So this wasn’t just idle talk around the water cooler; time and money had been spent thinking about it — and it’s hard to believe you’d just “test” tracking “high value targets.” 

Given 9/11 and the ensuing authorization of military force by Congress, what would be wrong with hit squads focused (presumably) on Al Qaeda leadership?  I imagine I’ll be learning more about U.S. law in this regard — and of course definitive law should govern Panetta’s actions and congressional response.  But rather than lying low until then, I want to try to lay out the issues as I see them now.  I hesitate to do so, because the issue arguably exposes a bit of a seam in my own thinking; I hope everyone will feel free to comment on and disagree with any of the following.

Simply wrong, simply unsupervised, or both?
The broadest concern — one I once was unwilling to entertain at all — is that it’s violence, it’s extrajudicial, and it’s simply wrong.  I suppose I still disagree with this, though it’s a much closer call for me than it once was.  With an accountable chain of decision-making, command and oversight, this is a military option in a war.  We killed Yamamoto in World War II because he was in charge of trying to kill us, and because we saw a way to do it.  This seems similar: the United States was attacked, and Congress authorized “all necessary and appropriate force” against the attackers.

To me, intentional avoidance of legitimate oversight — if that is what happened — is the more troubling issue: that invites eventual errors and worse, it invites and signals abuse.  Adopting a term from the “Bourne” movie series, I’ll call this the “Treadstone” scenario — a secret program conducting unsupervised attacks on all kinds of targets, risking or committing errors in judgment about the necessity of such attacks, the possibility of freelancing for personal gain.  Who would object?  No one would even know.

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Posted by Thomas Nephew on 5th November 2002

U.S. Strike Kills Six in Al Qaeda (Washington Post):

A missile fired by a U.S. Predator drone over Yemen Sunday killed six suspected al Qaeda terrorists in a vehicle about 100 miles east of the nation’s capital, the first time the United States has used the unmanned weapon outside Afghanistan, sources familiar with the action said yesterday.

A senior administration official said Yemeni defense officials had identified one of the men killed as Abu Ali al-Harithi, a senior al Qaeda leader and one of the terrorist network’s top figures in Yemen. Al-Harithi is one of the suspected planners of the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors in the Yemeni harbor of Aden, and has been linked to the Oct. 7 bombing of a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen.

There’s a great AP photo of some guy poking through the rubble. Great photos need great captions, leave yours as a comment if you like. “Asses to ashes”? The group was probably not on a coffee-and-doughnuts run. As ABC News reports:

Yemeni government sources have confirmed that traces of explosives and communications equipment were found in the car traveling in the oil-producing Marib province, about 100 miles east of the capital, San’a on Sunday.

…making me even less concerned about some Swedish foreign minister’s concerns (“summary execution”) than I already thought possible.

It’s a quibble, but we might have left this and the next two or three attacks “unexplained” for a while. On the other hand, this may slow down the operations these guys were planning, make their buddies rethink their travel plans, and allow more time to prevent terror attacks. In the meantime: are there any Predators flying over the “Empty Quarter“?

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