The Subtweet Heard Round The World


As of the time of this writing, my second-most-popular tweet of all time is a subtweet just barely over a day old.

I dropped my wife off at work, came home, saw something vile, sent this tweet into the void, and took our dog for a walk

And then it skyrocketed.

The broader context of the tweet is a week of anti-refugee and anti-Muslim hysteria in the United States. Inherited wealth-holder, walking toupee stand, and GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump was particularly odious in that regard, and when asked by reporters said he would support a registry and database of Muslims multiple times on Thursday. (He walked this back, to some degree, though the denials are rather unconvincing).

The Holocaust Museum has been following the crisis in Syria, as part of their mission to work against and document future crimes against humanity. Thursday night, the Holocaust museum released this statement:

WASHINGTON, DC—Acutely aware of the consequences to Jews who were unable to flee Nazism, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum looks with concern upon the current refugee crisis. While recognizing that security concerns must be fully addressed, we should not turn our backs on the thousands of legitimate refugees.

The Museum calls on public figures and citizens to avoid condemning today’s refugees as a group. It is important to remember that many are fleeing because they have been targeted by the Assad regime and ISIS for persecution and in some cases elimination on the basis of their identity.

The statement was mostly heralded as important and vital, especially given the weight of the institution behind it.

But this is the reaction to it that I saw first:

I quoted-tweeted my response, and TJ Mitch Johnson fired back with this:

So I sent the subtweet. The account, Chief of Staff TJ Mitch Johnson, purports to be (from the accounts bio) “Chief of Staff, The Honorable Rep Steven Smith, Republican Representative of Georgia’s 15th Congressional District.”

Georgia has no 15th district, which means it’s not represented by any Steven Smith, so there’s no real staff for TJ Mitch Johnson to be chief of. (There is, of course, a Twitter account for this Steven Smith).  I know this. I’ve encountered Johnson a few times before, include Thursday night, when Johnson tweeted at my employers urging them to fire me. A fake chief of staff for a fake representative from a fake district reads very clearly as a parody account, as BuzzFeed reporter Andrew Kaczynski and Washington Examiner reporter T Becket Adams both noted in replies. That’s fair. Johnson frequently attacks media figures and big online personalities, trying to draw them into internet fights.

But I think this is a different beast than, say, not knowing that the Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report is a satirical character. Johnson is adamantly pro-Trump in his tweets, once finding my account after I compared the F-35 to the Trump slogan “Make America Great Again” to tell me that Bernie Sanders was a bigger supporter of the F-35 than Trump is (weirdly, at least half-true).

Johnson’s feed is filled with counter-attacks in defense of Trump, and provocations aimed at both Trump’s presumed weaker GOP rivals and the GOP establishment itself. This is less a sarcastic portrayal of what Trump fanboys might like than a very aggressive work by an anonymous Trump partisan.

So Johnson is, without a doubt in my mind, a Trump supporter.

But I used the plural in my tweet.

After walking the dog, I searched Twitter to see if Johnson’s attack resonated with any other part of the Trump base, and I found a few, scattered tweets. Most are from accounts with less than 300 followers, which is a threshold below which I don’t think we need to always publicly shame. So there are a few supporters who think this, but not many, and I haven’t yet seen evidence that attacking the Holocaust Museum on Twitter is part of anyone but Johnson’s game plan.

As the day wore on, there were (from what I could tell) no more direct attacks on the Museum by Trump supporters. There were, however, a couple of wildly ineffective defenses of Trump, which casually invoke internment camps:

and mass murder:

I also attracted attacks from a couple Neo-Nazis and white nationalists, who I’ve subsequently blocked on Twitter and don’t really feel a strong obligation to directly quote.

Whatever political savvy there is in not directly attacking the Holocaust Museum, it clearly doesn’t extend to not advocating internment camps and mass killings. As a journalist myself, I’d be hesitant to use my tweet as the basis for any “Trump Supporters Attack Holocaust Museum” story, but I think there’s definitely stories to be written in how White Nationalists have attached themselves to Trump as their candidate.

In fact, several have. Here’s that story at the New Yorker, The National Review, Salon, Slate, NPR, and by the hate-group watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center.


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Technology And The Necessity Of Uneven Mourning


In the twenty-four hours since the attack, I stared at a glowing rectangle, looking for answers. I am a journalist by trade, and we as a profession mine tragedy for truth. This was big, we knew. This was dark, we knew, and this was not new, we knew, we knew, we knew.

My beat exists at the edge of news like this. I watch the attacks, scanning for technologies we haven’t seen before, and I will watch the aftermath, as hundred billion dollar planes search the skies for someone writing emails on the other side of a contested border. There is not, yet, a tech angle to the attacks themselves. Cell phones and computers are common, encryption is a known tactic, small arms and modest explosions are the stock trade of terrible days. It was a bomber’s vest at a check-point that alerted authorities. The bomber was late to the game, the president escaped, the attacks were bloody and many and horrific. Violence is as common and as old as dirt.

Blinking away in the glowing rectangles I saw news and rumor and sympathy and panic. People offered their same views, but with the urgency of grave effect, restated in 140 and news-pegged to tragedy. My wife is on a weekend trip to visit friends and so I spent my time watching a small apocalypse get written into the first draft of history.

When I woke this morning, I saw alerts that people in my network in Paris checked-in safe. People in Grenoble, far from Paris but identically far New Mexico, checked in that they were safe, too. There were transparent flags in my timeline, and the machine asked if I wanted one too.

I did.

I put on the flag, my face held behind the tricolor’s stylized ripples, and I decided that I would wear this symbol for four days. It was odd, to be presented with a timer on mourning, so I did the whole process again, capturing pictures of the options on my phone as I went. I picked a week, the second time around.

My flagged face joined that of others in the my feed, and there were essays, too. One friend declared that all flags are used to cover violence, and so he wouldn’t partake. Another noted that there were more tragedies than just the multiple attacks in Paris, and so he wouldn’t don the flag himself either. They were both as right as they needed to be.

I sit at the edge of how we use technology, caring about social networks mostly when they change how we watch news and when they change how we react to events. The safe check-ins for disaster is a new-ish feature, but we’ve had enough disasters since it debuted that it feels common, good. A machine can tell if you’re in a geographically-denoted area of danger, asks if you are safe, and then publishes the answer if you are.

A flag for my face was new. The platform, Facebook itself, pushed it. I’d donned other symbolic avatar alterations in the past, like a green filter and ribbon for a squashed protest in Iran, but those were third-party services, offered by people with a stake. The flag was new, and it said that Paris was burning.

There are, as a rule, many places on fire at any given time.

Beirut burned, a day before Paris. The deadliest single bombing in the city since their civil war, and they mourned. I was not offered a cedar tree, on a field of white between two bands of red, to wear on my virtual face. France got a flag. Lebanon did not.

The story, here, for the journalist mining truth in tragedy, is that Paris was chosen as the debut of the flag feature. How long was the feature ready, we will ask, and why did the attacks in Paris merit its debut? We will hear answers, and they will be varying degrees of satisfying. We will ask, the next time a tragedy occurs, why we are offered flags, or why we aren’t. The answer will matter, and the biases inherent will be revealing.

“The logical response to the necessity of uneven mourning isn’t “there should be no more mourning at all,” either”, tweeted Faine Greenwood, a fellow journalist.

We cannot, by virtue of our very finite being, mourn every tragedy, or even know every tragedy. We are compelled to mourn, and we bound to mourn unevenly.

Facebook is mourning Paris more than Beirut right now, and it provided a tool to make it easier for those who wish to join in sympathy for France. That’s a decision to pick apart, to question, to call into account. Facebook may change how it offers sympathy tools; it may even have offered flags for tragedies I don’t know about. It can change, in part, how we mourn, and the tools we have for mourning.

We cannot change that mourning will be uneven.

I am here, a day after a terror attack, writing abstractly about a place I’ve never been and the deaths of people I’ve never met. My wife is in her home state for the weekend. She is there, in part, to mourn a friend, who died much too soon. When she boarded the Amtrak at 3:15 am, she knew her weekend would already have a portion devoted to mourning. It is deeply personal: a car accident, a protege from undergrad, a loss finite in its details and unfathomable in missed potential.

As I blanket my virtual face in a transparent filter of a foreign flag, there are hundreds if not thousands of similar, personal mournings happening this weekend. Terror inflicts wounds unevenly. War inflicts wounds unevenly. And so it is. We are, in this moment as in every moment, struck by that unevenness.

Technology cannot change that the mourning is uneven. Nothing, really, can change that. It can, if driven by its better angels, do more to make sure that the tools we use to mourn aren’t unevenly distributed.


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2014 In Review

As is tradition, I start the New Year by reviewing it as though already passed. When the year ends, I’ll come back and fact-check my predictions, as voluntary pundit accountability. (My 2012 predictions and 2013 predictions can be found here).

In previous years, I’ve focused on nations, regions, and broad international problems. This year, I’ve found myself a journalist on the military technology beat, so I’m going to bend my speculation a bit more towards my expertise.

Flying Robots

The FAA drone test sites, greeted with so much hyperbole and promise in late 2013, mostly spent 2014 the site of protest. Technology testing is underway, but so far the robots are only tentatively greeted with acceptance in rural America. Even that is limited; farmers who enjoy the fast field surveys provided by an unmanned quadcopter are at odds with locals who prefer the proliferation of free skeet shooting targets.

Newspaper editorials still make Terminator references. STILL.

Ground Robots

Following Google’s acquisition in 2013 of a half-dozen robot companies, in AUgust they announced “Google Trailview,” which uses cameras mounted on Boston Dynamic’s BigDog to track the natural beauty of America’s national parks. This makes it much easier to appreciate the outdoors without leaving air conditioning.

In Nevada, where Google has for years tested driverless cars, the internet giant announced a completely automated cab service, where people can summon a robot car and then get dropped off at home. High traffic, combined with erratic customer behavior over New Years, could shutter the plan.


If 2013 was the year of spying revelations, 2014 was a clusterfuck of reform attempts. Legislation, on the state and federal level, aimed at preventing the storage and collection of metadata, but was met with fierce obstacles on every level, from government claiming a national security threat, corporations claiming financial risk, privacy advocates worried about half-measures, and internet architects unsure that a removal of metadata from everything is even possible. Multiple cases stand ready to go to the Supreme Court, but it looks like 2015 will be the year they rule on secrecy & data collection. Until then, competing and overlapping laws provide enough loopholes for data collection that the situation is more muddled than resolved.

The F-35

It exists and countries are buying it and I’m just going to have to accept that fact. The $1.5 trillion albatross of the US Defense Budget is a plane that, despite its many failings and limited capabilities, will constitute a large part of American air power for years to come. It’s a bad plane, a master of no trades and a jack of only a few, but it’s what it is. The only bright spot in its existence in 2014 was the testing of remote piloting capability. If that continues, by 2016 it could be the world’s most capable drone, and only cost $2 trillion for the airplane’s lifetime.

3-D Printed Guns

2013 saw the world’s first 3-D printed gun, and then an explosion of improvements. By the end of 2014, while countless youtube videos demonstrate the gains made by gunprinting hobbyists, none had yet to be linked to a violent crime or terrorist action. They are banned from shooting ranges, following a shoddy gun exploding on an amateur user, but otherwise they remain a quaint historical novelty.

The Year In Weapons Actually Used

Insurgencies and civil wars saw a blossoming of improvised killing technology. Crude barrel bombs, stuff with explosives and literally rolled down hills at their targets, were improved by rudimentary cheap remote control technology, adding wheels and steering to just a very deadly crude weapon.

Small arms continued to kill more people than all other weapons combined. Rockets, mortars, rifles, other cheap and deadly things fueled conflicts in South Sudan, Syria, fighting in the 35-year-long Afghan war, and elsewhere.

2014 in WMD

2014 was another year in which Iran did not acquire a nuclear weapon, though in June North Korea tested another atomic blast. Chemical weapons continued to leave Syria, in a dark bargain that took Assad’s scariest weapon away but kept him in power. The international community largely hailed this as a success.



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2013 Year In Review

In late 2011, I wrote a review of 2012 as though it had already passed. Then I reviewed my predictions against the newly-sealed historical record. Now, an exercise in the same: here is what happened in 2013.


Despite two years worth of calls for it, there was no intervention in Syria this year. While multiple videos made it out of the country attempting to prove that Assad had used chemical weapons, no government ever conceding a red line as crossed. Following Assad’s late-August ouster,* after a month of siege, the contours of a new Syria state could just be made out. Militias still clash, and the west’s long-hoped-for moderate coalition appears to have only been a pipe dream.

*”ouster” is a euphemism. “Brutal murder in the style of Qaddafi” is a more accurate description.


The world’s slowest nuclear program again failed to produce a viable weapon, and 2012’s talk of pre-emptive strikes subsided as the years-long impact of a tough sanctions regime became more widely known. The year lacked protests, and as the Ahmadinejad era came to a close, Khamenei re-asserted the public role & dominance of the Supreme Leader.

Drones, Everywhere

While Afghanistan has long faded from American popular consciousness, the drone war continued under the logic that “as long as there are dead Taliban, we can keep claiming fragile but reversible progress.” Turning points may have been reached.

In Yemen, while drones operated with impunity, the on-the-ground human intelligence that locates targets became almost impossible to obtain. A brutal campaign against the vulnerable humans that make this work has left the US blind to the situation on the ground. Rather that revising strategy away from tech solutions and air power, the United States has increased signature strikes, against what started as a small al Qaeda off-shoot but is now blossoming into a proper insurgency.

In Somalia and Mali, drones were the chosen solution to complex problems, based largely on a public that assumes drones require no deployment of Americans near the field of battle. GWOT, the unwieldy acronym that has now defined over 12 years of US foreign policy, began a full pivot to Africa.

Latin America

Despite being largely absent from the presidential election campaign that both defined and drained all the energy from 2012, there are countries south of the Rio Grande and in 2013 what happened in them mattered politically. As the DEA mostly turned a blind eye to marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington, undercut cartels accelerated their violence. Monterrey descended into chaos, while the Mexican Naval Infantry were a rare successful institution in a country beset by failings.

In Venezuela, after Assad declined his offer of asylum from his hospital bed, Hugo Chavez never managed to recover and died quietly. A frustrating political process was complicated by divisions among former Chavezistas and the lack of an organized opposition, so the military stepped in to guide a transition. This move was welcomed by exactly no one, but as 2013 winds down that is where things remain.

Southeast Asia

Tensions over the Senkaku Islands / Diaoyu Islands / Tiaoyutai Islands / Pinnacle Islands remained as ridiculous as a power struggle over uninhabitable rocks could be. The United States, professing an Asia Pivot and committed to the security of the region, sent ships to calm tensions but failed to matter in negotiations, as a refusal by the Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea excluded them from discussing the most peaceful solution possible. While no fire was exchanged, the frequent arrest of trespassing fishing vessels escalated to competing contracts for oil exploration being awarded by China and Japan. As of December 2013, no drilling had commenced, but news stories are already stuffed with “Eastern Guns of August” stories.


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Future Hindsight: My Preemptive Year in Review in Review

In late 2011, as everyone was summarizing the year just passed, I set out to concisely describe what would happen in 2012, but all past tense. In the spirit of accountable pundits, it is time to check my predictions against reality.


What I got right: “Superficial progress was noted by diplomats and bureaucrats, while the generals insisted that with indefinite time and infinite resources, progress towards total victory in Afghanistan could continue.”

But getting that is the easiest bet on Afghanistan. It’s like getting to pick “not green” in Roulette. It would be news if anything other than fragile & reversible progress was discussed.

What I got wrong: “A new militia program, despite claims modest gains in some provinces, has now widely been accepted as a means NATO to deliberately channel weapons to anti-Taliban factions, and unintentionally as a way for the Taliban to continue their successful practice of acquiring NATO equipment.”

What I missed entirely: Green on Blue was the real story out of Afghanistan this year, as a building trend hit peak. Rather than warlords & militias, which I was expecting to be this late-stage narrative, we had a Taliban strike on a Marine airbase and a running narrative that ISAF was threatened by the very security forces it was trying to establish to safeguard Afghanistan.


What I got right:”Despite this tension, aid continued to flow from US coffers to Pakistan, with all the sympathy and good intentions of a divorced couple waiting out the last two months left on the lease.”

But, again, this is an incredibly easy prediction to make. Moving on.


What I got right: “Despite a 2011 in which fears of Iranian nuclear ascension were expressed only slightly louder than calls for US military action to prevent this possibility, Iran ends 2012 without a nuclear weapon and remains technically at peace with the United States. A promised Iranian naval mission to the Caribbean fell through when the possibility of resupply at a Syrian port was derailed by the ongoing civil war there.”

What I got wrong: I optimistically predicted a Persian Summer (ugh, seasonal revolution clichés), and then grimly predicted it’s demise. Neither came to pass.


What I got right: a connection to the ongoing Syrian civil war was inevitable, and my prediction that “the American embassy has become little more than an awkwardly luxurious Alamo” foreshadows “When U.S. officials emerge from their fortresslike embassy compound, they are clearly no longer the de facto rulers of the country they once were,” though I was hyperbolic.

What I got wrong: everything else. While the US role in Iraq is far diminished following the 2011 withdrawal, it was not immediately replaced by Iran as a sponsor for a client state. While there has been a competition between the two for Maliki’s favor, involving duplicitous statements about overflights to Syria, the real story in Iraq was continued violence and political crisis. Coalition politics are always challenging, but they are much more so when vice presidents get jailed on terrorism charges and armed militias are still a presence.


What I got right: The international community and the conflict itself. Libya was clearly the template for intervention suggestions, but such moves died in the security council or were only tepidly considered by NATO. Specifically:

“too much had been set in motion for the Assad regime to calmly hold on to power, as what began as a protest movement has become a disparate resistance of militias with foreign backing.”

What I got wrong: I missed Iranian support for Assad, put a lot of emphasis on a relatively short-lived observer mission, and thought that sanctions would matter more in Assad’s calculus than SCUDs, chemical weapons, and airpower.

Spring: Arab, Russian, and Otherwise

What I got right: Yemen, Bahrain, “while successive governments in Libya have found that a dispersal of arms make overthrow easy but governance incredibly hard” is about half right – the arms make governance difficult, but there have not been successive governments.

What I got wrong:  Egypt, Russia. I expected the SCAF to entrench itself in Egypt, rather than lead to the current Morsi-ocracy, and I expected Russian protests to have a larger enough impact that they would be met with violent repression and massacres.

The Horn of Africa

I expected that the Horn would be far more important this year, but I was very much premature in calling 2012 the year we explicitly acknowledge an Africa pivot. Instead, that looks to be 2013’s honor.

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Overblown Fears and Exaggerated Capabilities

(Caveat about using “drone” instead of UAV)

When writing about drones as something new and scary, the most important thing to do is clarify how drones specifically offer something different from a piloted aircraft. That in mind, let’s begin a critique of “The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret” by Michael Hastings. He writes:

The drone that was headed toward Iran, the RQ-170 Sentinel, looks like a miniature version of the famous stealth fighter, the F-117 Nighthawk: sleek and sand-colored and vaguely ominous, with a single domed eye in place of a cockpit. With a wingspan of 65 feet, it has the ability to fly undetected by radar. Rather than blurting out its location with a constant stream of radio signals – the electronic equivalent of a trail of jet exhaust – it communicates intermittently with its home base, making it virtually impossible to detect. Once it reached its destination, 140 miles into Iranian airspace, it could hover silently in a wide radius for hours, at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet, providing an uninterrupted flow of detailed reconnaissance photos – a feat that no human pilot would be capable of pulling off.

A few things, right off the bat: the RQ-170 is an unarmed drone, so comparing it to the F-117 fighter-bomber is at the least misleading. While the stealth is new, radio silence for vessels on covert missions isn’t; that’s been a feature of war as long as there have been radios to turn off. It’s streaming back information in hard-to-detect ways makes it no more threatening than activists sending phone camera pics from a computer with TOR.  As for the actual spying capability, it’s ability to hover for hours the 10% that is new on top of the 90% of already existing capabilities. And by “already existing,” I mean “existing since the Eisenhower administration.” The U-2 spyplane, in service since 1957, can fly up to 70,000 feet and stay airborne for 12 hours. It, too, now uses modern communications systems to transmit its pictures back, so the RQ-170 is not particularly unique in that regard earlier. What this drone adds that a piloted aircraft doesn’t: a slightly longer hover time & no risk of a pilot being captured or killed if it’s shot down. That’s it. If the capability “no human pilot would be capable of” is “having an unpiloted craft,” then the point boils down to tautology. Hastings:

What we do know is that the government lied about who was responsible for the drone. Shortly after the crash on November 29th, the U.S.-led military command in Kabul put out a press release saying it had lost an “unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan.” But the drone wasn’t under the command of the military – it was operated by the CIA, as the spy agency itself was later forced to admit.

That the CIA lies about its assets should be a given; a completely open intelligence service is neither. That the CIA operates drones has been known for a long while; what’s murky about US drone policy is the Title 10/Title 50 division(pdf). While it’s a serious legal issue when it comes to armed drones & targeting, it’s more bureaucratic infighting when it comes to intelligence-gathering aircraft. Hastings:

All told, drones have been used to kill more than 3,000 people designated as terrorists, including at least four U.S. citizens. In the process, according to human rights groups, they have also claimed the lives of more than 800 civilians. Obama’s drone program, in fact, amounts to the largest unmanned aerial offensive ever conducted in military history; never have so few killed so many by remote control.

Hastings here paraphrases Churchill’s famous line about the Battle of Britain, which is an odd choice for making a point about unprecedented aerial assault, as “some 23,000 British civilians were killed between July and December 1940.” If it’s bombing civilians that is problematic, drones are much worse at it than many, many weapons platforms in history (including artillery). If it’s instead the distance of the craft from the target, then we’ve been bombing from at least 30,000 feet since WWII, and the B-52 (still in service!) can do so from 50,000. But I’m guessing the operative word here is “remote,” as the idea of a strike launched from far away is what people fear. Tomahawk cruise missiles, in service since 1983, have a striking range of 1,500 miles and use a precision guidance system, and like any explosive are just as capable of killing civilians if they miss. To bring the point back: drones don’t add a new, terrifying capacity here. In fact, as small & fragile platforms, they carry far smaller payloads than many weapons which have gone before. This doesn’t excuse the killing of civilians, but it’s worth noting that any previous era of war would have used a tool that killed far more civilians.

Also, a caveat about numbers used to assess civilian casualties, specifically in Pakistan: we don’t have good information. Where drone strikes occur, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the government of Pakistan doesn’t keep records of even have a tangible law enforcement presence. It’s largely ungoverned, in a way most reminiscent of the American wild west, if the wild west had AK-47s and multiple competing fundamentalist militias. As such, when the Pakistani press, intelligence services, or any academics trying to survey the populace go into the area, it’s easier & more socially acceptable to blame deaths on the US drones than, say, the militia down the street or a Taliban car bombing. The data out of the area is bad. Hastings:

“Drones have really become the counterterrorism weapon of choice for the Obama administration,” says Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor who helped establish a new Pentagon office devoted to legal and humanitarian policy. “What I don’t think has happened enough is taking a big step back and asking, ‘Are we creating more terrorists than we’re killing? Are we fostering militarism and extremism in the very places we’re trying to attack it?’ A great deal about the drone strikes is still shrouded in secrecy. It’s very difficult to evaluate from the outside how serious of a threat the targeted people pose.”

A-ah! Here is a policy question, which is what every drone debate should really be about. Drones are a tool in service of policy, and we have to make sure the policy is good & the aims are just if we’re going to continue to use drones the same way. I’ve written about this before, here. Hastings:

By 2000, the Pentagon was pushing for a massive expansion of the drone program, hoping to make a third of all U.S. aircraft unmanned by 2010. But it was the War on Terror that finally enabled the military to weaponize drones, giving them the capability to take out designated targets. The first major success of killer drones was a Predator strike on a convoy in 2002, which assassinated the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen. By 2006, the Pentagon had upped its goal, aiming to convert 45 percent of its “deep-strike” aircraft into drones. “Before drones, the way you went after terrorists was you sent your troops,” says Goure. “You sent your Navy, you sent your Marines, like Reagan going after Qaddafi in the Eighties. You bombed their camp. Now you have drones that can be operated by the military or the CIA from thousands of miles away.”

First, in the 1980s we used Tomahawk cruise missiles to go after Qaddafi, so that’s not exactly “Marines.” Secondly, we still bomb camps. We do so with drones, with harriers, with any myriad number of piloted craft in countries where we find al Qaeda or al Qaeda affliate camps to bomb. Afghanistan most obviously, but we also do this is Yemen a lot. Drones did not replace much of that. Secondly, one of the main alternatives to US drone strikes in FATA is the Pakistan army going in & driving militias out. When there is the rumor of that happening, refugees start to pour out, and when the army approaches the flow accelerates. How bad is it? As of 2009, 3.4 million civilians had been displaced and 40,000+ killed, in addition to over ten thousand militants killed and a few thousand Pakistani soldiers dying. That’s an active war, into which a targeted killing program from drones changes very little in the overall scheme of human suffering (That said: being born into FATA is one of the worst things that could happen to someone.) To resolve that would take tremendous effort on behalf of Pakistan, and is a conflict almost incidental to US drone policy. Hastings:

For a new generation of young guns, the experience of piloting a drone is not unlike the video games they grew up on. Unlike traditional pilots, who physically fly their payloads to a target, drone operators kill at the touch of a button, without ever leaving their base – a remove that only serves to further desensitize the taking of human life. (The military slang for a man killed by a drone strike is “bug splat,” since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.) As drone pilot Lt. Col. Matt Martin recounts in his book Predator, operating a drone is “almost like playing the computer game Civilization” – something straight out of “a sci-fi novel.” After one mission, in which he navigated a drone to target a technical college being occupied by insurgents in Iraq, Martin felt “electrified” and “adrenalized,” exulting that “we had shot the technical college full of holes, destroying large portions of it and killing only God knew how many people.”

While there were initial fears that drones were easier, PTSD-free, videogame war, the evidence doesn’t hold up. Writing in the New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller notes:

“Although pilots speak glowingly of the good days, when they can look at a video feed and warn a ground patrol in Afghanistan about an ambush ahead, the Air Force is also moving chaplains and medics just outside drone operation centers to help pilots deal with the bad days — images of a child killed in error or a close-up of a Marine shot in a raid gone wrong.”

While pilots are physically removed from combat, this is a far cry from playing Halo. Remotely piloted doesn’t remove the exposure to trauma, and our assumption that drones are either autonomous or a game ignore that this is a tool used by humans, who then witness it’s effects. Hastings:

Obama actually inherited two separate drone programs when he took office – and at the urging of Vice President Joe Biden, who has pressed hard for a greater emphasis on counterterrorism tactics, he has dramatically expanded them both. The first program, under the purview of the Pentagon, is focused primarily on providing reconnaissance and airstrikes to protect U.S. troops on the ground. “The major success of the drones is in keeping American soldiers alive,” says Goure. The Pentagon’s program, which operates more or less in the open, is based at more than a dozen military centers around the globe, from Nevada to Iraq. In one large hangar at Al Udeid Air Force Base in Qatar, three JAG lawyers are on call around the clock, ready to sign off on drone strikes. The lawyers, who are required to take a class about complying with the Geneva Conventions, follow standard operating procedures similar to those used in calling in a traditional airstrike. “There’s a set of legal checks and balances that the Air Force does each time,” says Pratap Chatterjee, an investigative reporter who sits on the board of Amnesty International. “It’s an open secret – the manual is online.”

No actual disagreements here – when drones are treated as a military weapon and the program follows Geneva, it’s not a problem. Hastings:

The CIA’s drone program, by contrast, has evolved in secrecy. Agency lawyers are required to sign off on drone strikes, but the process remains classified, and oversight is far less restrictive than that provided on the military side. To make matters even murkier, the CIA is conducting its drone strikes in places where the U.S. is not officially at war, including Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

The CIA part of the drone program is where it is most wrong. As Joshua Foust notes,

The rapid adoption of complicated technological systems happened at the same time as the shift toward the expanded counterterrorism mission. Lost in the shuffle was an equal focus on human intelligence (HUMINT) and local expertise.

Here it is from Jeremy Scahill:

Giraldi, the former senior CIA officer, expressed concern that in these circumstances, the “CIA is going to forget how to spy.” He also noted the “long-term consequence” of the militarization of the CIA: “every bureaucracy in the world is best at protecting itself. So once the CIA becomes a paramilitary organization, there’s going to be in-built pressure to keep going in that direction. Because you’ll have people at the senior levels in the organization who have come up that way and are protective of what they see as their turf,” he told me. “That’s the big danger.”

Over at Danger Room, Noah Shachtman highlights the evolution of the CIA into a paramilitary, and observes that the mission of gathering intelligence has become somewhat lost in this.

When David Petraeus got the job of CIA chief, he knew what job #1 was: find out everything he could about al-Qaida and its allies — and then assist in their removal from the land of living. Fourteen months and more than 110 drone strikes later, the breaking of al-Qaida’s core that began under Petraeus’ predecessors is almost complete. Yet a major chunk of the nation’s intelligence community remains singularly focused on terrorism.

If there is any narrative that a focus on drones-the-tech instead of targeted-killing-the-policy ignores, it’s the CIA’s singular devotion to its targeted killing program. Hastings:

Over the past year, however, the president’s increasing reliance on drones has caused a growing rift within the administration. According to sources in the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, Ambassador Cameron Munter was furious that the CIA was conducting drone strikes without consulting him over the potential diplomatic fallout. The strikes had stopped briefly in January 2011 after Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor, was taken into custody for killing two Pakistanis in broad daylight; the day after Davis was released, the CIA drone strikes began again. Munter, according to U.S. officials, complained to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senior military officials about the drone program, and his concerns were brought to the White House. At issue was a particularly deadly drone strike in March 2011 that the Americans claimed killed 21 militants, and the Pakistanis claimed killed 42 civilians.

As I noted at the time of the Munter crisis, our Ambassador to Pakistan clearly felt that continued drone strikes by the CIA were counterproductive to long-term US interests in Pakistan, but his objections were overruled and ended with him being replaced. That’s a crisis of command, and sign of a very narrowly-focused approach to our role in Pakistan. But, again, it’s not drones that are specifically the problem – it’s a CIA targeted killing program, for which drones happen to be the weapon used. If it were in-person targeted killings, it’d be as objectionable.

Hastings goes on to spend a long time examining the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda affliated radical Islamic cleric & American citizen who may have provided material aid to Nidal Hasan & who was killed by a drone strike. There are a lot of long-standing and important legal questions in his death, none of which are relevant to the platform used to kill him & many of which depend on how the laws of war are read. Rather than get into a legal debate way beyond my depth (though I highly recommend Lawfare on this topic, specifically ““War” and the Killing of Al-Awlaki” and
Al-Awlaki as an Operational Leader Located In a Place Where Capture Was Not Possible,”) I will instead turn to Dan Trombly’s discussion of a policy alternative:

Should we be capturing AQAM suspects? Perhaps, but that would likely mean a return to some form of rendition, detention, and capture programs, which would use a plethora of CIA, JSOC, and likely private proxies to snatch up suspects. Capturing, say, Anwar al-Awlaki, would mean more U.S. covert presence in Yemen, and could easily have resulted in his death, as many attempted apprehensions do in warzones and in peacetime. Or should the U.S. be working with local governments to capture AQAM suspects? The brutality of our foreign partners’ security services often make CIA and JSOC operatives look like saints. In any case, it should be clear the real legal, moral, and political problems here have far more to do with U.S. counter-terrorism policy generally, not drones in particular.

Besides the military difficulty and legal questions of re-implementing a capture program, it’s worth noting the political costs. When Obama attempted to close Guantanamo, no state was willing to take in the detainees, either out of fear that a supermax prison could have a harder time holding terror suspects than it does any of it’s existing inmates, or because the political optics of housing suspected terrorists were not great. Similar complaints were raised when trying Guantanamo detainees in civilian courts, and only recently have any trials begun. A targeted killing program is politically efficacious compared to proper legal channels or anything resembling due process.

That is the problem, but that would be a problem regardless of the means by which such a program was pursued. If Congress were to resolve the Title 10 / Title 50 disparity in drone use, that would go a long way to both formalizing the way in which these are used, and also limited their paramilitary application.  It would take courage and an opening, which perhaps the Petraeus Affair allows, but until there is a desire to change policy targeted killings will be pursued, regardless of the weapon used.

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Lay a Wreath

1. Today, October 30th, 2012 is the tenth anniversary of my grandfather Alfred Leroy (Roy) Atherton Jr’s death. I knew him for just over half of my life, but his outsized legacy has shaped most of the things I do.

2. I’m writing this while listening to a 30 minute YouTube video featuring a conversation he had in 1986. The future captures our ghosts and shares them for posterity. The video, in full.

3. Here is a selection of obituaries and remembrances. From the Washington Post:

As a Middle East peace negotiator, he was said to have been able to understand and articulate the historic grievances of Israelis and Palestinians, and to have had the trust of both sides. In 1978, President Carter named him ambassador-at-large for Middle East negotiations, and Atherton spent two years as a shuttle diplomat, traveling between Middle Eastern capitals.

From fellow former Ambassador to Egypt Hermann Frederick Eilts:

The passing of Roy Atherton on Oct. 30, 2002 deeply saddened all who were privileged to know him and to work with him. We have lost a warm friend and a stalwart colleague. The nation, too, has lost one of the unsung heroes of the long, frustrating and still elusive Arab-Israeli peace process. Roy’s innumerable contributions to that process were seminal. For three decades, he was one of the primary architects of American policy in the Middle East. As widely diverse a cast of characters as Archbishop Makarios, Shah Ali Reza, Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, King Faisal and many others kept Roy busy, so to speak. He exemplified the very best in American professional diplomacy.

From a younger version of myself:

He was late to WWII, and spent his year or so in the war as the spotter in a plane scouting for an artillery division. It’s easy to make metaphors about that – “he saw the totality of war” or “he was removed enough from combat to get the big picture”, and it is very tempting to make these part of the myth. I don’t actually think his experience as a spotter specifically influenced his life that much, but I never had the chance to ask. What I do know is this: after the war, and after finishing his degree on the GI Bill, he joined the Foreign Service, and his first deployment was in what was becoming West Germany. He became a diplomat, and spent 36 years as an agent of his country working to prevent wars.

4. I would like to thank the Foreign Affairs Oral History Project  for existing. I’m staring at a 218 page interview with Roy. It’s through this that I’ve best been able to get to know my grandfather; there is only so much I was able to connect with him on when I was 13, despite my fervent interest in international relations even then. In an attempt to let the dead speak for himself, here are a few excerpts.

On his time in Syria:

Roy describing his post at the consulate in Aleppo in 1953

Roy describing his post at the consulate in Aleppo in 1953

On Camp David:

Roy describing the process of Camp David, and the limited objectives pursued.

Roy describing the process of Camp David, and the limited objectives pursued.

On the Foreign Service, which was undergoing congressional scrutiny when the oral history was taken:

The end of Roy's oral history

A reflection on the foreign service during a period of uncertainty.

5. The only appropriate way to end this post is with a toast. Let me raise a glass:

The camaraderie of young men is a reassuring constant of life.

Roy is second from the right. Raise a glass to American Diplomacy.

6: Weather permitting, I’m off to pay my respects at the DACOR section of Rock Creek Cemetery. Thanks for indulging me in this.

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