On the first of May 2010 at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, President Obama acknowledged that the Jonas Brothers were in attendance. He added, “Sasha and Malia are huge fans, but boys, don’t get any ideas. Two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming.” His delivery was cool and casual, successfully evoking uproarious laughter from the audience. Self-deprecation is not an unprecedented rhetorical device for commanders-in-chief: in 2007 at the Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner, George W. Bush made light of his failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, showing a slideshow that documented his personal search under pieces of furniture in the Oval Office. The media lambasted him for the joke, and understandably so. President Bush was making light of what had become a long, bloody, and offensive war under his purview. So it seems strange that the same body of journalists should excuse President Obama for trivializing the drone program — what was, and continues to be, one of the most classified programs in the world.
On the other hand, it is important to ask why President Obama would risk his reputation by making such a statement. After all, he had instructed then-Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to avoid acknowledging even the existence of a drone-facilitated targeted killing program. It must be inferred that the president made a political calculation in preparing his remarks for that night. Said under the appropriate circumstances, and with the right delivery, they had important political consequence. British linguist J.L. Austin first popularized the theory of performativity in language. “Performative utterances” are statements that “do not ‘describe’ or ‘report’ or constate anything at all, are not ‘true or false;’ and the uttering of the sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of an action, which again would not normally be described as, or as ‘just,’ saying something” (Austin 5). Jokes, then, are an obvious kind of performative utterance: they are meant to produce laughter and, in a larger sense, to change or reinforce the disposition of the audience towards the subject material or towards the speaker. Through this lens, one can say that Obama’s statement was effective: the audience received the joke with laughter and, as evidenced by the poverty of mainstream-media criticism relative to the aforementioned Bush gaffe, designated the event as undeserving of journalistic scrutiny. This would presumably not have been the case had the joke been made during a White House press conference. Austin asserts that a performative utterance must be said under the appropriate circumstances for it to be effective (8). In this case, a traditionally humor-heavy gathering of high-profile celebrities and Washington elites allowed the president to assert his relatability by projecting an image of goofy, but conventionally moral fatherhood. More importantly, however, it allowed him to infect the audience with a sense of confidence in his military leadership and with the drone program in particular. In short, if the president can laugh at drones, then nobody should take drones too seriously.
Obama’s remarks at the Correspondents’ Dinner might be seen as the ‘icebreaker’ in an ongoing public dialogue that the president prides himself on starting, supposedly when his counterterrorism advisor John Brennan made a speech defending drones in April 2012 (“Brennan”). However, I prefer to see it as the ostentatious advertisement of an ongoing, precisely rehearsed performance to create the illusion of transparency while simultaneously protecting the program from public scrutiny. Obama, lest he be seen as a do-nothing dove or a war-mongering hawk, has stylized himself as a pioneer of the twenty-first century military, the tenets of which are safety, precision, and, above all, stealth. Thus, it is important to note that Obama’s CIA has become inflated with new military responsibilities (such as drone strikes in non-combat zones) at the same time as its existing domestic and foreign surveillance programs have been vastly expanded. Though his administration often uses the tagline “the most transparent administration in history” (Easley), the manifold expansion of the CIA — the most opaque, legally-questionable agency in history — seems to prove otherwise.
Ultimately, I hope to demystify a highly strategic pattern of rhetoric that the Obama administration has constructed in order to protect the reputation and legitimacy of its practices. Though I believe it is important to identify such behaviors for the sake of American democratic integrity, it is, more crucially, the integrity of both the victims and agents of this war that are at stake. Images of “remote” and “surgical” warfare dehumanize the countless civilian communities for whom drone strikes are anything but “surgical,” and indeed the operators of drone technology, whose engagement in this war is anything but “remote.”
Although the Obama administration has significantly altered the drone program in size and scope, the program itself has precendent. According to statistics from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 52 drone strikes were carried out during the Bush administration (“Covert”). However, it has been widely reported that Obama significantly accelerated the use of drones for targeted killings, especially in countries on which the US has not officially declared war. There have been 376 confirmed strikes in Pakistan alone since 2004, 325 of which have been carried out under the Obama administration (“Covert”). Aside from strikes in active combat zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq, there have also been several strikes in Yemen and Somalia. Although Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (who happens to sit on the Senate Subcommittee of Human Rights and the Law) touted the highest BIJ death toll of 4,700 in support of the drone program, militant and civilian death tolls from the administration remain officially classified (Amnesty International 13).
On April 30, 2012, John Brennan, current Director of the CIA and then-Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, delivered a speech defending the drone program. This was the first public description and justification of drone-facilitated target killings from a government official since the program’s inception. It was titled “The Ethics and Efficacy of the President’s Counterterrorism Strategy.” In the speech, he claimed the program is “legal,” “ethical,” “wise,” and held to “rigorous standards and process of review.” These descriptors have since become part of the administration’s vocabulary in dealing with public scrutiny of drones. In a press briefing on February 5, 2013, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney stated, “These strikes are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise.” President Obama, giving a speech at National Defense University on May 23, 2013, gave a slight variation, saying that the strikes are “effective,” “legal,” and held to “the highest standard we can set” (“Remarks”). As evidenced by the title of Carney’s speech, these statements are not so much arguments in an open dialogue as much as proclamations of seeming fact.
According to Austin’s definition of a performative utterance, these statements, in that they are descriptive, may appear to miss the mark. However, the condition of non-description is probably faulty, in that description can indeed be performative (Searle 536). Thus, these statements must be understood in terms of the administration’s subjectivity towards drones rather than the objective truth of their contents. In addition, adhering to Austin’s condition of appropriate circumstances, it is important to note that these speeches are all highly publicized and targeted at the general populace. When weighing the degree of certainty in these statements against the larger, more complex body of government dialogues and definitions that pertain to drones, their performative value becomes clearer. By using a vocabulary whose words it can unilaterally define and interpret, the administration performs the illusion of transparency while actually obscuring key details of the program—thus protecting itself from legal and ethical scrutiny.
The insistence that drone strikes outside of established combat zones are legal, both under constitutional and international law, is of the utmost importance to their perceived legitimacy. However, a closer examination of the administration’s legal justification reveals that the strikes are not so much deemed legal as the laws are deemed irrelevant. Two days before John Brennan’s speech, law professor and specialist in international humanitarian law, Mary Ellen O’Connell testified before the Congressional Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs regarding the legality of drone strikes in non-combat zones. She stated:
The International Law Association’s Committee on the Use of Force issued a report in 2008 confirming the basic characteristics of all armed conflict: 1.) the presence of organized armed groups that are 2.) engaged in intense inter-group fighting. The fighting or hostilities of an armed conflict occurs within limited zones, referred to as combat or conflict zones. It is only in such zones that killing enemy combatants or those taking a direct part in hostilities is permissible (“United”).
Accordingly, because American troops are not engaged in intense fighting in Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia, to kill ‘enemy combatants’ in these countries is to violate international law. However, in a Department of Justice white paper released in February 2013, the administration makes clear that, while they are bound to international humanitarian law, they perceive no geographic constraints on military action: “There is little judicial or other authoritative precedent that speaks directly to the question of the geographic scope of a non-international armed conflict in which one of the parties is a transnational, non-state actor.” This argument implies that the U.S. military could, under its own legal justifications, potentially conduct drone strikes in any part of the world that it locates an alleged terrorist. Though President Obama said in his speech “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’,” his official legal justification for drone strikes rests precisely on this concept. Judith Butler, in examining similar equivocation towards the legality of the Guantanamo Bay detention camps, argues, “These [speech] acts become the means by which sovereign power extends itself; the more it can produce equivocation, the more effectively it can augment its power in the apparent service of justice.” The same can be said for the rhetoric surrounding Obama’s drone program. By publicly distancing himself from the rhetoric of President Bush while simultaneously appropriating his policies, Obama maintains the image of a steadfast and savvy commander-in-chief.
Also crucial to this image is the perception of a drone program that is “ethical,” and held to “rigorous standards and process of review.” Ethics here are defined in terms of several factors: necessity—the target has military value, distinction—only military targets can be intentionally targeted, proportionality—collateral damage cannot be excessive, and humanity—use of weapons that do not cause excessive pain or suffering. The Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International each recently released detailed reports of strikes occurring in Yemen and Pakistan, respectively. Citing a blanket refusal of the U.S. government to release details on specific strikes, both organizations conducted interviews with allegedly non-combatant victims of the strikes. These personal accounts indicate unnecessary suffering and insufficient compensation. On March 17, 2011, an estimated forty-two people were killed when Hellfire missiles struck a bus depot in Pakistan’s Northern Waziristan tribal region. Most of the victims were participating in a tribal gathering, or ‘jirga,’ to settle a dispute over the use of a local chromite mine (Huffington). Many such instances of collateral damage seem to be the result of so-called “signature strikes,” whose targeting systems seek out ‘signature terrorist behaviors’ (Shane).
As officials tout the accuracy and proportionality of drone strikes, it is essential to examine how drone technology identifies militants and differentiates them from civilians. In conversation with former and current government officials, The New York Times reported that the term “signature strike” was “originally used to suggest the specific ‘signature’ of a known high-level terrorist, such as his vehicle parked at a meeting place. But the word evolved to mean the “signature” of militants in general” (Shane). The Oxford English Dictionary defines “signature” as “designating a distinctive attribute which is identified or associated with a particular person or thing” (“Signature”). It follows that “signature strikes” were originally intended to identify a particular person, presumably a specific terrorist, but now identify a particular thing, which is terrorism. But what is the signature look or the signature behavior of terrorism? The criteria for identifying ‘signatures’ remains classified, but the administration remains confident about the certainty of these systems. In his speech, Obama stressed that, before any strike is authorized, “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured” (“Remarks”). Perhaps, then, it is important to define “civilian.” According to a separate investigation by The New York Times, the administration “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent” (Shane, Becker). Nomenclature, in this case, must be seen as a performative linguistic device. Given the power to define, administration officials can give the illusion of “ethics” by saying things that are true only by their own standards. In consequence, thousands of Pakistani, Yemeni, and Somali people are covertly deprived of their humanity and reduced to guilt by association.
Still, the program has been described as “wise,” a term used in association with the idea that drones remove the American human both from the process and consequences of war. Officials often argue that drone warfare, unlike “putting boots on the ground” (“Remarks”), poses no threat of harm to American lives. However, the term “unmanned aerial vehicle” must seem a pejorative misnomer to those who operate the drones’ surveillance and weapons systems from bases in the U.S. and abroad. Evidence suggests that drone operators suffer from trauma-induced mental illnesses comparable to the average soldier. War philosopher Caroline Holmqvist points out the paradox of “remote” or “virtual” war:
Virtual war, it seems, is less virtual than would appear at first glance. This conclusion is strengthened by the growing realization that drone operators suffer as high, and possibly higher, rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as soldiers engaged in battle as a result of exposure to high-resolution images of killing, including the details of casualties and body parts that would never be possible to capture with the human eye (542).
So, to depict the program as a model of 21st century militarism, enabled by advanced technologies and enabling the disengagement of American troops, is both to dehumanize drone operators and to minimize the perception of human agency in drone strikes. If a strike is successful, it is due to the precision of computer technology; if a strike kills scores of innocent civilians, it is due to the unpredictable inaccuracies of the computer technology. In this way, the Obama administration assigns it a robotic psychology that renders American agency in civilian deaths as “remote.”
However, the communities that continue to be terrorized by the strikes and the daily experience of drones overhead hold America responsible as they would with any conventional attack; despite claims of “efficacy,” drone strikes may be creating more anti-American militants than they kill. Terrorist organizations often exploit the fearful communities by using resentment towards drones as a recruitment opportunity. It seems, however, that the administration has accommodated for this growth. Though Obama has called the drone program “a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists,” in October 2012, The Washington Post reported the formulation of the “disposition matrix,” a classified methodology intended to vastly expand kill lists. According to the report, there is a broad consensus amongst administration officials that the lists will continue to expand for at least the next ten years. Here, again, the administration has used a vocabulary that benefits their image but is at odds with their policy. The word “effective,” along with the concept of a “kill list,” implies finite and limited objectives, while the actual policy implies an indefinite, limitless war. Thus, with no temporal or geographic constraint, drone warfare becomes a self-perpetuating system — killing individuals and thereby creating more individuals to kill, exponentially increasing in size and scope until an entire culture is at risk.
If this culture is to stand a chance of survival, we must recognize that claims of transparency do not prove transparency and that transparency after the fact is not transparency at all. Though Brennan claimed in his speech, “I’m here today because President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts,” the most controversial information such as civilian death tolls, rationale for specific strikes, and definitions of ‘signature’ behavior remain classified. And what has been discussed publicly has come after years of denial and quietism. Mark Fenster, law professor and specialist in government transparency, argues “information is more likely to produce an informed, engaged public when it is presented in a timely manner.” Instead, the American public has been misled and disengaged. The administration, using words that it apparently has the power to define, has championed the drone program as the cutting-edge future of military operations. If drones are to be our future, then it is crucial that we have the information to judge for ourselves their legality, ethics, wisdom, and efficacy. Otherwise, we risk acquiescence to a government that is breaking the law, destroying innocent lives, and building up anti-American sentiment all in the name of our safety.
Perhaps activist Madea Benjamin said it best when she interrupted the President’s speech at the National Defense University: “Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes killing people on the basis of suspicious activities? Will you compensate the innocent families? That will make us safer at home.” After Benjamin was dragged out of the room, the president prefaced a glossy recognition of the woman’s right to free speech and the ‘tough’ nature of these issues by saying, “I’m going off-script, as you might expect here.” The audience burst into laughter and applause. Whether we decide to laugh and applaud the president or if we decide to call upon him for justice and real transparency because we understand that these are not just ‘tough issues’ but threats to our nation’s safety and integrity, is a test of our humanity.
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