Drone Warfare: Killing By Remote Control
By Medea Benjamin
Terminator Planet : The First History Of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050
By Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt
Kill Or Capture: The War On Terror And The Soul Of The Obama Presidency
By Daniel Klaidman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reviews by Mike Reizman
The mechanization of warfare has been going on for a long time, even if “…by crank, pivot, and screw,” as Herman Melville described the Civil War battle of the Monitor and the Virginia (formally, the USS Merrimack). In A Utilitarian View Of The Monitor’s Fight, he noted how mechanization changed the role of combatants:
War yet shall be, but warriors
Are now but operatives…
Our 21st Century operatives—drone operators—have become emblematic of the current wars. Tom Engelhardt writes, “In a sense, our wars abroad could be thought of as the equivalent of so many drones. We send our troops off, then go home for dinner and put them out of our mind.” Engelhardt is the co-author, with Nick Turse, of Terminator Planet: The First History Of Drone Warfare, which is a compilation of articles from the website run by Engelhardt, TomDispatch.
In a dispatch from 2010, Engelhardt noted that “what started as a 24/7 assassination campaign against al-Qaeda’s top leadership” has “…morphed into the first full-scale drone war (and, as in all wars from the air, civilians are dying in unknown numbers).”
According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll (February, 2012), “83 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s drone policy.” No questions were asked about civilian deaths from drone strikes. Those polled may not have heard of Malik Gulistan Khan, who, along with four of his family members, were the first innocent victims of Obama’s drone policy—killed by the president’s first drone strike three days after his inauguration. Khan, a Pakistani citizen, tribal elder and member of a local pro-government peace committee, was not a “bad guy.” No Taliban or al Qaeda terrorists were killed in the strike on his house.
In Kill or Capture, The War On Terror And The Soul Of The Obama Presidency, Daniel Klaidman reports that Obama was disturbed by those innocent deaths. He insisted on a full accounting, first learning of the CIA’s two types of drone targeting—“signature” strikes (also called “crowd killing”) and “personality” strikes. A form of profiling, signature strikes are based on the surveillance of groups of men that fit “defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity,” but aren’t positively identified as terrorists. Personality strikes are centered on “high value” terrorists who are positively identified before a drone operator remotely launches missiles.
The president was “uncomfortable” with signature strikes, but he didn’t end the drone program. Klaidman writes, “Obama’s willingness to back the program represented an early inflection point in his war on terror. Over time, the program grew exponentially, far beyond anything that had been envisioned by the Bush administration.”
Depending on the source, there were 45 (New America Foundation) or 52 (Bureau of Investigative Journalism) drone strikes in Pakistan under Bush. In about three and a half years under Obama, there have been 292 strikes.
Obama didn’t publicly acknowledge the “secret” drone program in Pakistan until this year. Yet, three months into his term, after the little known deaths of the Khan family, the civilian toll did make the news—a horrifying 50:1 ratio of innocent victims to targeted enemies (combined estimate for both the Bush and Obama administrations). David Kilcullen, a former adviser to General David Petraeus, testified in April 2009 before the House Armed Services Committee: “Since 2006, we’ve killed 14 senior Al Qaeda leaders using drone strikes; in the same time period, we’ve killed 700 Pakistani civilians in the same area [Western Pakistan].”
Kilcullen was described as “no soft-headed peacenik” in an LA Times article (U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan “backfiring,” Congress told). His recommendation to the Committee was to “to call off the drones,” to attack the Al Qaeda leadership in “other ways.” The strikes, he thought, gave “rise to a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around the extremists and leads to spikes of extremism” and, he added, “using robots from the air…looks both cowardly and weak.”
About two and one-half weeks after his testimony, CBS’s “60 Minutes” aired “a remarkably one-sided report” on drone strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the media watchdog group, FAIR, which noted, “Though the drones have been criticized for killing civilians in both countries, CBS viewers heard from no critics of the weapons.”
That type of reporting probably is one reason the American public has never seemed to be particularly aware or concerned about civilian deaths from drone strikes. As Medea Benjamin writes in Drone Warfare, Killing by Remote Control, drone warfare is “repeatedly and consistently presented as the cost-free magic wand that can eliminate terror.”
In her well-researched book, Benjamin makes a point of focusing on drone warfare’s cost in innocent lives. She dedicates her book to Roya, a 13-year-old Afghan refugee she met in Peshawar, and “all the innocent victims of drone warfare.” Roya’s mother and two brothers were mistakenly blown to bits in a remote-controlled strike, probably because their home was near a Taliban compound. In response to Obama’s assertion that drones “have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” and that “this thing”—the drone program—“is being kept on a very tight leash,” Benjamin writes, “Tell that to the thousands of grieving family members.”
Engelhardt and Turse estimate that the minimal number of insurgent deaths from drone strikes is currently 2,000 to 3,000, scaling the figure because there is no “efficient or reliable method” for counting the kills where there are few, if any, journalists or sources. The number of current civilian casualties is a “big question mark,” according to Turse, with the added difficulty that the numbers have been skewed by the Obama administration, which counts all males of military age killed in drone strikes as militants (unless there is contradicting intelligence).
Engelhardt cites a Bureau of Investigative Journalism figure of 175 children killed from drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal areas. “So we know something,” he states, “but what we know is limited. What we know, which is probably more important, is that every area where drones are being used, things are getting worse” (History News Network interview).
According to a 2012 Pew Research Center poll of Pakistanis “familiar with the drone campaign: 94 percent overwhelmingly believe the attacks kill too many innocent people; only 17 percent back American drone strikes against leaders of extremist groups, even if they are conducted in conjunction with the Pakistani government.”
In September, a drone strike in Yemen killed 13 civilians, including 3 women. A senior Yemeni Defense Ministry official told CNN, “This was one of the very few times when our target was completely missed. It was a mistake, but we hope it will not hurt our anti-terror efforts in the region.” In contrast, CNN quoted Nasr Abdullah, a Yemeni activist, “I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake. This part of Yemen takes revenge very seriously.”
On civilian deaths from drone strikes, Benjamin believes that the figures from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism are probably among the best. It is one of the few organizations that has sources in the areas of the strikes. She also notes the opinions of Shahzad Akbar and Noor Behram. Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who represents drone victims, who thinks that the majority of causalities are civilians. Appearing on “Democracy Now!” with Benjamin this year, he said that he “wanted to reach out to Americans so that they can make an informed judgment on drones. Their opinion matters, and it’s going to matter in the next elections, as well.” In 2011, Behram, who photographs the outcomes of drone strikes, figured, “For every ten to fifteen people killed, maybe they get one militant.” That is similar to a 2009 Brookings Institute estimate that drone strikes in Pakistan killed “10 or so civilians” for every militant.
A new report, Living With Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan, validates the critics of drone warfare. It states: “A significant rethinking of current U.S. targeted killing and drone strike policies is long overdue. U.S. policy-makers, and the American public, cannot continue to ignore evidence of the civilian harm and counterproductive impacts of U.S. targeted killings and drone strikes in Pakistan.”
The 165-page report, from the human rights clinics at Stanford and NYU law schools, was a 9-month effort that included two research trips in Pakistan, 130 interviews with “victims, witnesses, and experts,” and an extensive review of relevant documentation and news. Only 2 percent of the total drone casualties in Pakistan were estimated to be “high- level” targets.
The first paragraph of the “Executive Summary of Living With Drones” describes the “dominate narrative” in the U.S. about drone warfare, in which drones are viewed as a “surgically precise and effective tool that makes the U.S. safer” because terrorists in Pakistan can be killed without too much negative impact on civilians. The next paragraph bluntly states, “This narrative is false.”
Mike Reizman works as a technical writer and freelance journalist.
Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit from the
Nest Eggs of American Workers
By Ellen E. Schultz
Portfolio/Penguin 2011, 216 pp.
Review from UE News
We already know that employers are stealing workers’ pensions and that they’ve been doing it for more than 20 years. But in this well-researched and well-argued book, Ellen Schultz, an award-winning investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal, documents the complex ways in which they’ve been doing it, how they profit from these crimes, and how gaping loopholes in laws and regulations let them get away with it.
Interestingly for UE members, the first corporate leader Schultz mentions is Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, recounting a speech he gave to investors in December 2010. Immelt told them that the GE pension “has been a drag for a decade,” and that to relieve itself of this financial burden, GE was going to keep future employees out of the pension. But Immelt’s presentation was fundamentally untrue. Says Schultz: the company’s pension and retiree plans, huge and well-funded, “had contributed billions of dollars to the company’s bottom line over the past decade and a half,” and the company had not contributed a cent to the workers’ pension plan since 1987.
One of the ways GE made money from the pension fund was by selling chunks of it when it spun off a division of the company. For example, Schultz writes that when GE sold an aerospace unit to Martin Marietta in 1993, it transferred 30,000 employees and $1.2 billion in pension assets—$531 million more than was needed to cover the pension liabilities. But all that was included in the sale price, so “GE effectively got to put half a billion dollars from its pension plan into its pocket.”
With case studies involving some of the biggest names in corporate America, Schultz describes the elaborate schemes by which employers have gutted workers’ pension plans and retiree health care to finance downsizings, boost corporate profits and, in many cases, pay for the obscenely generous benefits of top managers and executives.
She describes how some companies have transformed their pensions into “cash-balance plans,” presented as a change that will benefit employees, when in fact cash-balance plans are a way to disguise retroactive pension cuts. A similar scheme called the “pension equity plan” also enables employers to cut workers’ pension benefits; the calculations are so complex that most employees don’t realize they’ve been fleeced until they’re about to retire. These and other innovative ways of robbing workers have been developed by what she calls “a new breed of benefits consultants” that emerged over the past two decades, who specialize in cutting retirement benefits for ordinary employees while boosting executive compensation.
The many complicated and sinister schemes to loot retirement benefits that Schultz describes can be depressing and mind-boggling to follow. She humanizes these stories by introducing us to individual retirees who were the victims of these plots, who struggled for months or years to even grasp what was happening to them. Some of these people fought back, in some cases achieving limited success, but often failing in a system of “benefits law” which the corporations have largely rigged in their own favor.
The book deals with the looting of pensions in the private, corporate sector. But, in the final pages, she says a few words about the developing crisis of public employee pension plans. The same consultants and financial firms who engineered the pillage of private pensions, she writes, are now playing “a non-starring role in the public pension debacle.” She adds: “The scapegoat game continues. Corporate employers are still blaming aging workers, rising ‘legacy costs’ and ‘spiraling’ retiree health care costs for their financial woes—not their own actions that squandered billions of dollars in pension assets, their thinly-masked desire to convert benefits earned by and promised to retirees into profits for executives and shareholders, and their willingness to sacrifice retiree plans, and the well being of retirees, for short-term gains.”
What’s the answer? Schultz calls for tightening laws to stop many of the abuses she’s uncovered. “Pension law requires that the plan be managed for the ‘exclusive benefit’ of the participants,” she writes, but the law “is like a toothless dog.” She wants “laws that make it tougher for companies to terminate their pensions to capture the surplus money,” and tightening of loopholes that enable corporate executives to divert the money in pension and retiree health plans.
While the reforms she proposes would help protect those workers and retirees who still have defined benefit pensions and retiree healthcare, they could not help the millions who have already lost these benefits. Because Schultz’s scope is limited to the past two or three decades, she does not look back to the origins of employer-based pensions, and therefore misses the underlying problem.
Social Security, as originally conceived by members of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic Security in 1934 and 1935, was intended to provide full retirement security as well as “all forms of social insurance”— health insurance, accident insurance, unemployment benefits, maternity benefits, etc. To get the original Social Security Act through Congress in 1935, Roosevelt scaled back these goals (National healthcare was left out of the bill, for example, and agricultural and domestic workers were excluded, which left out half of the African American work- force). New Dealers planned to broaden the concept and coverage of Social Security in later amendments, but by the late 1930s life insurance companies, which devised and marketed pension plans to employers (then generally covering only high-paid managerial employees) had gained political traction for the idea of “supplementation.”
This was the notion that Social Security should provide only a minimal, subsistence retirement benefit, to be “supplemented” by employer pensions, savings, and other income.
After World War II, with the failure of efforts to expand Social Security’s coverage of retirement and healthcare, unions turned, often reluctantly, to bargaining pensions and health insurance with employers. (An excellent history of these developments is Jennifer Klein’s 2003 book, For All These Rights: Business, Labor and the Shaping of America’s Public-Private Welfare State.)
The system of employer-based pensions and health insurance “supplementing” Social Security was never complete—even in the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s, huge sections of the working class had no pensions or health coverage. In our time, we’re witnessing the collapse of that system, with healthcare becoming unaffordable even with insurance, and defined benefit pensions rapidly disappearing. Retirement Heist is a very important indictment of corporate America’s looting of its workers’ retirement funds. It is further evidence that we need to return to the vision of 1935: retirement and healthcare are much too important to be entrusted to employers, and must instead be guaranteed by the federal government as human rights.
Are Conservative Documentary Films on the Rise?
Review by Bill Berkowitz
If you were the generous sort, you might call Dinesh D’Souza the Neil Armstrong of conservative filmmaking. D’Souza, a controversial longtime Christian conservative political activist and provocateur, has landed where no other conservative making documentary films has landed before—on the list of the top ten highest-grossing documentary films in history.
Although D’Souza’s thesis about President Obama was eviscerated by Bill Maher on HBO’s “Real Time” in late August, 2016: Obama’s America is now at number two on the list of all-time documentary box office moneymakers, trailing only Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 by $90 million.
D’Souza, who co-directed the documentary with John Sullivan, told FOX411’s Pop Tarts column: “We’re really ramping it up to the next level, theaters are begging for the film because they know our per-screen average is the highest in the country right now. We are on-track to surpass Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and who knows, we could even reach Michael’s Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 box office numbers. That film had a major distributor and opened in 900 theaters, we opened in one. And we don’t have a big Hollywood studio behind us.”
Later, D’Souza told the Guardian that, “The product is selling because people sense there is real information here. Not allegations, not assertions, but real information that is valuable in assessing the future of the country.”
The Michael Moore Factor
The success of Michael Moore’s documentaries inspired a spate of conservatives to make movies. At first, this resulted in a spate of anti-Moore documentaries: Canadian filmmakers Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine made Manufacturing Dissent, a film investigating Moore, while Michael Wilson attempted to refute Moore’s Bowling for Columbine with the subtly titled Michael Moore Hates America.
Despite D’Souza’s optimistic comment, no conservative documentary has yet come close to touching the box office success of Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (released some five months before the 2004 election), which is still listed as the number one grossing documentary film in history. In fact, according to boxofficemojo.com, three of Moore’s films (Bowling for Columbine and Sicko are the other two) are listed in the top ten grossing documentaries of all time, and five are in the top twenty-five.
Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista (Gingrich Productions) have made a number of films including, Nine Days that Changed the World and A City Upon A Hill, which, according to its website, “explores the concept of American Exceptionalism from its origin to the present day.” While none of the Gingrich films have gotten major theatrical play, Gingrich Productions distributes a fair number of DVDs via its website and during personal appearances.
David Bossie’s Citizens United has also been in the forefront of conservative filmmaking. One of CU’s films, Hillary: The Movie, had less to do with box office numbers than with political impact, as it was that film that ultimately helped lead to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
At the Republican Party Convention, Citizens United premiered Occupy Unmasked, a film directed by Stephen K. Bannon, who last year made The Undefeated, a Sarah Palin vanity project. Occupy Unmasked, according to a FoxNews. com report, “takes cameras into the Occupy camps in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Portland, Denver, and Oakland, documenting instances of brutality and profanity that took place.”
Occupy Unmasked, inspired by and featuring the late Andrew Breitbart, does exactly what you expect it to do—throw a load of elephant dung about the origin and leaders of the Occupy Movement up on the screen and call itself a documentary film.
2016: Obama’s America
2016: Obama’s America has been the talk of the conservative movement for months. Released to select theaters in mid-July, the film moved into the number 14 spot on boxofficemojo.com’s list before the Republican Convention, leapfrogging the previously highest grossing conservative documentary, 2008’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.
D’Souza’s film is based on an earlier book titled, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, and Obama’s America. In an interview with Focus on the Family’s citizenlink.com, D’Souza said that the “film focuses on… the ideological mystery of Obama. What’s his inner compass? What’s he like?”?
D’Souza added: Obama “is shrinking American power abroad and expanding the power of the state at home and he’s doing both things simultaneously. It’s part of his sort of anti-colonial or third-world agenda—an agenda that was very powerfully held by his father and one that Obama adopted at a young age.”
Esquire’s Mark Warren recently reported that, “Glenn Beck says that only D’Souza knows the truth about Obama and his deeply un-American designs for the country which we all call home…[and] Rush Limbaugh…says that his new documentary may well constitute a turning point in this election.”
Warren also reminded readers that D’Souza has a history of playing fast and loose with the facts: “Remember, it is D’Souza who five years ago published The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11,” in which he blamed the deaths on September 11, 2001 not on the religious fanatics who were actually responsible for it, but on his fellow Americans. The ‘cultural left’ who, by its failure to stone homosexuals to death in the public square, and its insistence on speaking so freely and having so much sex, provoked the violence of crazy Muslims, giving them no choice but to kill us en masse. That’s what D’Souza’s book actually says.”
Of the film, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir recently wrote: “Somebody in…D’Souza’s shaggy, piecemeal right-wing screed 2016: Obama’s America definitely has a problem with post-colonial theory and the conflicted ideologies of third-world intellectuals. But I don’t think it’s Barack Obama. A blend of genuinely fascinating observations and shrill, repetitious character assassination, 2016 is the surprise hit documentary of late summer, hypothetically lifting the spirits of true-hearted Americans as they battle to thwart the dastardly schemes of…well, the middle-of-the-road, drone-happy politician who has occupied the White House for the last four years, apparently without showing his true colors.
“As far as actual argumentation about Obama goes, there’s nothing new here that Sarah Palin didn’t try in 2008: The president spent his childhood and young manhood pallin’ around with terrorists of various stripes and haunted by the specter of his Kenyan radical dad, and those influences have shaped him into a creature of unique deviousness. While the birthers may not be precisely correct when it comes to troublesome factual details—D’Souza does not endorse, disavow or even mention the kookier conspiracy theories—they’re right at the level of essence and insight. Obama is a dyed-in-the-wool anti-American who was born in a hospital with a funny name, reared on his absent father’s ‘Third World collectivism’ and elected president in a nationwide racial pity party after concealing crucial elements of his own background. He is ‘weirdly sympathetic to Muslim jihadis’ and hopes to enable a ‘United States of Islam’ in the Middle East while raising taxes to 100 percent at home. Any questions?”
D’Souza slams Michael Moore
D’Souza told the Daily Beast’s Meghan McCain that being compared to Michael Moore was “almost an insult”: “Michael Moore is a creative, entertaining, and ridiculous figure. I admire his entrepreneurship. I admire the fact that he knows how to pack a punch. But when you combine the sleight of hand, the manipulation of facts, the ignoring of facts, intellectually, it’s a disgrace. I’m a college president. If I were at the intellectual level of Michael Moore, this movie would be a dud.”
McCain asked if he thought he was “smarter than Michael Moore?” He pointed out that saying he was smarter than Moore was “like saying I’m smarter than Mike Tyson. Yes, I am saying that, but I’m saying more than that. I’m saying I made an intelligent film and he hasn’t.”
Whether D’Souza’s film does anything more politically than entertain Mitt Romney’s base remains to be seen. What is probably the most predictable outcome of 2016: Obama’s America, is that Dinesh D’Souza is more than likely to continue making films.
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.