Thursday, October 31, 2013

Phones and Drones

President Obama swept into power beating all odds, riding on a wave of impressive support and enthusiasm. It was mainly a reaction to a dismal performance by the previous administration that had all but shredded the constitution in the name of security. President Obama promised change. A promise to restore America's standing in the world. A return to a value when a nation and its people would be judged for being fair, transparent and respectful of all those who are mighty and not so mighty. For that he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. His early overtures were seen as historic and his nascent charismatic diplomacy was refreshing and filled many with pride. A sense of optimism filled the air. Today if one were to look back at his presidency, despite many accolades, two things stand out as controversial and contentious. The issues of Phones and Drones.

The promise that was offered to the American people, twice, was of real change. Which included an end to an indiscriminate and open ended "global war on terror". Torture as a policy would stop, and its most decisive and divisive symbol "Guantanamo Bay" would be shuttered for good. There would be transparancy and openness and George Bush's signature Patriot Act would be rolled back and America would adhere to principles of international law and human rights as the leader and police of the free world.

The ground wars have figuratively ended, but Guantanamo Bay remains open, invisible and marooned. The war on terror has taken to the skies in an ominous way, piloted by the president himself. Drone strikes in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan have escalated beyond measure. Yemen, seen as a fertile ground for terrorists has been a victim of the hi-tech executioner as well. And this week Somalia joined the club, when a car allegedly carrying "suspected Al-Shabab militants" was suddenly blown up. President Obama has earned the dubious destinction of becoming the first president to authorize more drone strikes than any before. Even his predecessor who brought drone warfare to the forefront, was allegedly weary of this technology. Drone warfare has sparked a new arms race. China and other countries are trying to manufacture or procure drones, while the rules of engagement remain ambiguous.

Early this month Human Rights Watch released a detailed report which placed America's controversial drone program front and center as missing its mark and taking an indiscriminate toll on innocent civilians in Yemen. The report found America in direct violation of the laws of war. Amnesty International has called drone strikes a "war crime". Many Yemeni's today fear Al-Qeada as much as they fear the terror of America raining down from the skies. According to the report America so far has carried out 81 targeted drone strikes inside Yemen, killing at least 473 combatants and civilians.  Jeremy Scahill's book and documentary "Dirty Wars" which came out earlier in the year, exposed the  nature of this war, that causes unspeakable horror in the name of keeping America safe. In response to the Humans Rights Watch report the White House spokesman Jay Carney said  

"We are reviewing these reports carefully. To the extent these reports claim that the US has acted contrary to international law, we would strongly disagree. The administration has repeatedly emphasized the extraordinary care that we take to make sure counter terrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable law."

The denials and debate over numbers are endless. The math of how many innocent versus "bad-guys" killed, does not absolve anyone. It might make sense politically to not have troops on the ground and kill "terrorists" with so called surgical strikes from the sky. But what the report clearly exposes is that there is no such thing as a surgical strike. And in the eyes of the law, an innocent Afghan, Yemeni or Somali life is as precious as an American one. Where you live should not decide whether you get to live or die

The American drone program is largely run by the CIA, who rely on human intelligence on the ground to identify targets to destroy. On many occasions the intelligence has been faulty and innocent people have died and the US government has acknowledged that fact in the past. For that they have a term "Collateral Damage". Collateral Damage is a war crime. If one has to kill innocent people in poor desperate nations to keep America safe, then one has to wonder if this war is worth fighting like this, or can this war be won like this. There are real dangers out there, and there are people who are motivated to cause mayhem like recently witnessed at the Westgate Mall in Kenya. But taking innocent life to secure a planet or a nation, cannot be justified by a state under any situation. But then again by definition war is the taking of innocent life in one form or another. Ongoing case in point, Syria.

While the CIA is America's premier agency tasked with keeping the nation safe by relying on human intelligence on the ground, the NSA (National Security Agency) is tasked with doing the same using technology, the technology of eavesdropping. By using a sophisticated global grid of computers, satellites, listening posts and human analysts, the NSA listens to chatter on phones and the internet. It then filters millions of intercepted emails and phone calls using complex software, to foil or warn about terrorist attacks, or simply gather information that might be useful to the nation. With Edward Snowden blowing the cover on the NSA and exposing its over reach, there is high anxiety. It is perceived that the agency has gone above and beyond the law and has lost its bearings violating constitutional rights to privacy. The fact of the matter is, with the ongoing war on terror the nation signed away the right to privacy via the Patriot Act, which President Obama reaffirmed and endorsed. The president called it a minor inconvenience in exchange for national security. The argument is, if you are not doing anything that is deemed "wrong" or "dangerous" by the state apparatus, then there is nothing to worry. This was the same logic used by the Stasi when it spied on its citizens in East Germany spreading a veil of fear that defined an entire generation. The difference being, for now I can still write this blog without fear, hoping to be protected by the first amendment enshrined in the American constitution. Now that it has been revealed that even Google and Yahoo were violated by the NSA, one wonders whats next.

This week it was revealed that it was not just US citizens who were spied on, but citizens of other countries and their heads of state were also included. Thirty five world leaders had their phones tapped and the list could be longer. As a result an uneasy and embarrassing diplomatic situation has pushed the president on the back foot. Much like he was unaware of the kinks in the roll out of his signature health care plan, he denied knowing about the extent of NSA's activities. When the NSA chiefs were ordered up to congress to explain, they all defended their program by saying it was business as usual, no one should be surprised, all nations do it, even among friends, to gain an upper hand in the doggy dog world of espionage in social, economic, political and security arenas.

The Europeans, who have lived through the cold war grip of the KGB, Stasi and its ilk, do not see it as business as usual. They see it as a grave violation of their trust and rightfully so. I am sure they acknowledge that spying does go on among friends, but the tapping of phones at the highest of levels of government is something they don't see as normal. America will have to respond to this shameful behavior decisively and forcefully otherwise risk isolation and loss of camaraderie amongst allies.

When the airplanes rammed into the twin towers in Manhattan, they caused lasting damage the effects of which are still being felt a decade later. That ghastly event psychologically turned America inward transforming it into a hawkish fortress. The most telling example in addition to the phones and drones, are the twelve hundred or so security agencies, private and public, that have mushroomed in and around Washington since 9/11. It seems the madness of keeping America safe is causing more harm while it does some good. In the 2010 book titled "Top Secret America" Dana Priest and William Arkin, raised the alarm of a state security apparatus gone out of control, whose unraveling we witness today. What is even more telling is the acknowledgement by the president of America of being out of touch with what is going on under his watch.

Reigning in America's security apparatus is a gargantuan task. Billions of dollars are at stake, and like everything else, it is economics. Its a big job creator and a money maker for lobbyists and contractors. And politically since America has not seen a serious attack on its soil since 9/11, the security expansion is seen as a success. But the fact of the matter is, if it is not reigned in, it will do irreversible damage. And freedom if it not already is, will only be an illusion.

One of the founding fathers of America, Ben Franklin, eloquently said "Those who give up their liberty for more security, neither deserve liberty nor security". That holds true even in the violent times that we live in.

It is what it is.