The Fog of Obamawar In Hi-Def 1080p

David S. Cloud has what can only be described as an amazing piece in today’s Los Angeles Times on the sobering reality and cold hearted bloodlust of remote drone warfare. Cloud’s story tells, in gripping, fully fleshed from all angles, detail the story of an United States killer drone operation gone awry.

The Americans were using some of the most sophisticated tools in the history of war, technological marvels of surveillance and intelligence gathering that allowed them to see into once-inaccessible corners of the battlefield. But the high-tech wizardry would fail in its most elemental purpose: to tell the difference between friend and foe.

This is the story of that episode. It is based on hundreds of pages of previously unreleased military documents, including transcripts of cockpit and radio conversations obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the results of two Pentagon investigations and interviews with the officers involved as well as Afghans who were on the ground that day.

Before you go any further, go read Cloud’s full article. Seriously, do it now, because the details of the story – of just this one singular drone strike – are too many and Cloud lays them out to well for me to pick, choose and substitute.

Suffice it to say, by the most conservative casualty report, by the US military naturally, there were at least 16 dead and 12 critically wounded. For which General Stanley McChrystal gave a verbal apology and the oh so benevolent United States government paid blood money stipends of $2,900 for the dismembered and disfigured survivors and $4,800 for the dead. At $76,800, the combined lives of 16 innocent dead citizens, blown to bits in their own country, is about the cost of one of the Hellfire missiles fired by a Predator drone. The cold and celebratory technician soldiers at the drone pilot center in Nevada, and video review center in Florida, played their war games on video monitors that are worth more than the United States assigns as the value of a developed human life in Afghanistan.

So much of the angst (though certainly not all) from the legal liberal left, whether here at Emptywheel, from our friend Glenn Greenwald, or others, centers on promises and inferences that Barack Obama made to get elected and how he has cravenly turned his back on them. And rightly so, because his track record on the rule of law and civil liberties has been both despicable and deplorable. But accelerated war in Afghanistan and increased use of remote killer drones was one area where he was honest when campaigning for office. He said that was what he was in favor of, how he would do it, and by god that is one promise he has made good on.

But there should have been more circumspection of Mr. Obama’s position then, and there certainly should be now. The use of drones and remote decision making in war, when applied to small and isolated battlefield considerations such as were present in the instance documented by David Cloud is too cold and detached. As a full fledged policy, it is imperial, brutish and cowardly. The root truth is it is, to mish mash several legal terms of art together, extrajudicial murder with reckless and depraved indifference.

Consider, if you will, the words and acts of the team, and various members in different detached locales, that collaborated to perpetrate this atrocity. Individually, it is hard to place the real weight of blame on any of them; rather the blame lies with the nature of the government, and its leaders, that put them in the position where this kind of hell can, and all too commonly will, occur. This is not the technological advancement of an enlightened society, it is the slipping decay into national depravity. Writ large on a global scale.

Just ponder some of the direct words and thoughts uttered by the individuals in this one case:

“Oh, sweet target!” – This was uttered when there was nothing more than a couple of vehicles with citizens in it.

“I really doubt that children call. Man, I really … hate that,” – the excited utterance of contemptuous denial when one of the team identified the likely presence of children in one or more of the vehicles.

“The weapons we’ve identified and the demographics of the individuals plus the ICOM.” – When there had been NO identification whatsoever of even one weapon, much less multiple/plural weapons and there was NOTHING whatsoever to tie their nebulous “ICOM” chatter to these innocent Afghanistan citizens lawfully going about their business. None. Nada. Zero. Zilch.

When you have a remote and lethal military hammer like the US government possesses, human nails are too easy to find and too easy to pound. When you leave your hammer on permanent war status – in three different wars no less – a lot is going to get nailed. As so many have said, this is not making us safer, it is fueling that which we are so terrified of and lashing out at so ferociously. It is one of the dumbest, most asinine and most craven vicious circles in the history of man and we are being led by a man, again remote and detached, aloof in the White House who is eerily proud of this “strategy”.

It is hard to see how any enlightened discussion would not lend the conclusion that this is criminally reckless behavior under both domestic and international law. There are skilled advocates more than capable of producing legal sophistry to the contrary and, if hired and tasked with doing so, I could too. That is what lawyers do. To be clear, however, I would have no problem defending any individual in the scenario David Cloud so remarkably, and fairly, portrays. What I find indefensible is the strategy and policy of the political leadership in the United States that propagates the killing and the ever more relentless necessity for more of the same. The architects of the vicious circle and the man who has now expanded it to the extrajudicial execution of American citizens.

Today, David Cloud portrays the vignette of the cold, detached remote killing in the Afghanistan countryside. Tomorrow it will be open ground in the vicinity of Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana or Key West. Hammers like this, once set in motion and cravenly unrestrained by the men in American political leadership and White House, always find more nails. Stay tuned, drone life and remote enforcement is coming to a city and town near you. Sooner than you think.

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Collateral damage, with collateral being defined as anyone who doesn’t count to the PTB. Drones, BTW, presumably armed with uniquely intrusive sensors rather than Hellfire missiles, are being deployed here, too.

    After all, a predictable consequence of disaster capitalism is that the hoi poloi will eventually become upset and a few of them will want to do something about it beyond wait for the next, possibly rigged election.

  2. orionATL says:

    1. magical thinking in time of war leads to delusions of effectiveness.

    2. why is bradley mannning incarcerated at quantico and being mentally tortured while some dod official provides the latimes with this detailed military info, which, by the way, will doubtless lead to american deaths because our “sources and methods” were revealed ?

    i’m sure bill keller is scowling in disapprobation.

  3. JohnLopresti says:

    The Republicans in congress* House of Representatives probably will approve of the efforts at DoD modernization thru robotics; but will they see a way to close what journalist Nick Turse counts as 1,180 (January 2011) foreign bases operated by DoD? Technology like wireless and internet has given loose knit ideological groups a sort of extranational cyberstatehood. The call I want to hear from Obama is one to attend to human principles; but probably a majority of Republicans, likewise a disappointing proportion of unprincipled Democratic party members, are unlikely to perceive political advantage in responding morally and in a modern way to the new immoralities of robotic war and stateless belligerents.

    • lareineblanche says:

      The call I want to hear from Obama is one to attend to human principles

      Please don’t hold your breath

      …are unlikely to perceive political advantage in responding morally…

      Therein lies one of the core problems, doesn’t it?
      If you want people like Obama to change course on any given issue, you must make it politically damaging for him to stay the course. Until then, the goal (for someone politically active, that is) is to create tactics which will make the continuation of such policies politically unfeasible.

  4. Mary says:

    On the one hand, the Taliban are so bad that a fully trained Spec Forces team and commander (which asked for airstrikes from the get go) need drones and Kiowa’s with hellfire missiles circling – – on the other hand, if they had just been able to find one weapon in the group of civilians traveling through that infested territory, then they would have all been “justified” in the killings. You can hear the eagerness to blow people up in the comments – they aren’t people to anyone invovled in the decisions to blow them up – they are a video game where bored operators want to get their chance to light up the screen with “hits” and dismemberment.

    The initial reports on this all left out the fact that the civilians being targeted as Taliban were Hazaras. Obama wants more of the same, bc he thinks it keeps him popular. Beyond creepy. Beyond hopeless. War as a video game, and the 2900 they paid for blowing arms and legs of people a drop in the bucket that will never be questioned.


    Or not.

    • behindthefall says:

      they are a video game where bored operators want to get their chance to light up the screen


      • lsls says:

        Absolutely…I know someone whose daughter is dating one of them..he’s in Iraq. Typical of what is described…video games…and power.

  5. lareineblanche says:

    Agreed, amazing article.
    The fog of war (and also the semantics which render the words “war” and “terrorism” almost devoid of meaning, or so elastic as to mean whatever you want them to mean) also has the function of creating an exceptional circumstance (see : Yoo, Rumsfeld and Bybee memos on torture and detention of “enemy belligerents”, etc.) providing cover for continued crimes and policies which would under normal circumstances be considered unacceptable. By creating a situation in which violence is to be expected – a “war zone” (which is basically now wherever Obama decides it is…) there is a sort of tacit assumption that “things are messy” and therefore anything is possible.
    The AUMF and all the subsequent memos which are considered controversial were drafted assuming that there was a general climate of hostilities which would justify such acts, rendering them necessary. If we are going to put and end to this type of incident it seems to me that we will have to create a reality in which there is no longer an ongoing “war” at all – indeed, these are horrible, but not isolated nor extraordinary events, on the contrary, this is what war is all about, it’s foolish to believe otherwise.
    Alan Nairn :

    “…But we did it with the intent of protecting our forces.”

    And there’s a certain logic to that. If you’re a soldier and you’re in combat, naturally you want to protect yourself and protect your friends, and you will do everything possible to do that, including killing someone who you think, who you speculate, might be firing at you or might potentially fire at you. So that inevitably sets up a situation where when you send troops into a country in a hostile situation, when you invade a country, that means—really it means, in a practical sense—that in order to protect your troops, you have to kill civilians, you have to kill them in large numbers. And that’s what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan. That’s what it did in Iraq. And that’s what it’s setting up to do in a series of other places. It’s an inevitable result of the initial act, of the initial act of invasion, and, in legal terms, what is often the initial act of aggression.

  6. Jeff Kaye says:

    Excellent commentary, bmaz. God, I hope the government doesn’t hire you to defend its criminals.

    This is not the technological advancement of an enlightened society, it is the slipping decay into national depravity. Writ large on a global scale.

    Very well said and summarized. God, I didn’t do as you suggested and go and immediately read Cloud’s article, but I will now.

  7. workingclass says:

    I have no words to express the loathing and contempt I feel for the United States government and for the filthy rich people who own it.

    This is elected Democrats and Republicans doing the bidding of rich fuckers who deal in the suffering and death of ordinary people to get a little richer.

    Have at least a spark of common decency y’all. Have a little self respect. STOP supporting the legacy parties.

      • Gitcheegumee says:

        I posted this on a previous thread,but it seems quite apprpriate to the discussion here:

        China hits back with report on U.S. human rights record

        Source: xinhuanet

        BEIJING, April 10 (Xinhua) — China retorted the U.S. criticism on its human rights situation by publishing a report of the U.S. human rights record on Sunday.

        The Human Rights Record of the United States in 2010 was released by the Information Office of China’s State Council, or cabinet, in response to the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2010 issued by the U.S. Department of State on April 8.

        The U.S. reports are “full of distortions and accusations of the human rights situation in more than 190 countries and regions including China. However, the United States turned a blind eye to its own terrible human rights situation and seldom mentioned it,” China’s report said.

        The United States has taken human rights as “a political instrument to defame other nations’ image and seek its own strategic interests,” the report said.

        Read more:

    • Surtt says:

      I have no words to express the loathing and contempt I feel for the United States government and for the filthy rich people who own it.

      It’s not just the rich or the government.

  8. chetnolian says:

    But of course this sort of thing is not new. The attitude of finding a target and simply wanting so much for it to be real that you make up and believe the facts is eerily similar to that of the operations room crew of the USS Vincennes. The common thread is dependence on technology combined with confidence that the US is always right.

    However with sadness I note there are British crews at Creech driving “British” Predators and I don’t doubt they have done the same things.

    • hackworth1 says:

      Reminds me of the video slaughter of Iraqi reporters via helicopter as leaked by wikileaks.

      Those soldiers, like these, were chomping at the bit to kill something. Kill somebody’s sons, fathers, children, mothers.

      Obama fooled me. He needs impeachment. Sick Bastard.

  9. spanishinquisition says:

    Actually in reading the article, it looks like there was a surprising lack of intel – it doesn’t seem like they had much cell phone direction finding equipment, which if they had, they wouldn’t have using the Taliban phone traffic as evidence. What I’m talking about isn’t really that high tech as radio direction finding has been around for a long time, including with cell phones.

  10. CTuttle says:

    Mahalo, bmaz…! Our drones are being used elsewhere too…

    …A drone-fired missile targeting the Zeitoun neighborhood in Gaza City injured four people, two critically, and killed Raed Zuhair Al-Bar, 30, a member of the armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committees, medics said.

  11. mattcarmody says:

    I’ll do their fucking screening and analysis work for them for free. Just give me a place to live, I’ll even buy my own food and provide my own gas to get to and from wherever I’d be working.

    I guarantee you, I could do this and cut down the number of civilian casualties by a factor of 90%. Bottom line is to change the rules of engagement and stop killing people because our political rulers can’t accept the fact that Americans are gonna be killed. You don’t want American casualties? Get the fuck out of the theater of operations and let the people who live there take care of their own problems. Here are a few more families that now have a blood feud to settle with the US.

  12. GeorgeJohnston says:

    But the high-tech wizardry would fail in its most elemental purpose: to tell the difference between friend and foe.

    That’s because Arab wedding parties look exactly like insurgents planning an attack.

    • Kitt says:

      And 3′ tall 6 year old children look exactly like “Oh, sweet target”. I don’t know if a word has been invented yet that describes the level of cowardice of someone who gleefully slaughters children from the safe comfort of 7,000 miles away.

  13. emptywheel says:

    Here’s what really gets me.

    The rule is there has to be an “imminent threat”:

    To use deadly force, the commander would first have to make a “positive identification” that the adversary was carrying weapons and posed an “imminent threat.”

    Of course it does. That’s international law, and Harold Koh has said that makes it all legal.

    But the only reason a convoy of vehicles would be viewed as an imminent threat is because we had just inserted a team of special ops guys.

    A few hours earlier, a dozen U.S. special operations soldiers, known as an A-Team, had been dropped off by helicopter near Khod, five miles south of the convoy. The elite unit was moving on foot toward the village, with orders to search for insurgents and weapons.

    Another U.S. special operations unit had been attacked in the district a year earlier, and a soldier had been killed. This time the AC-130, the Predator drone and two Kiowa attack helicopters were in the area to protect the A-Team.


    “We all had it in our head, ‘Hey, why do you have 20 military age males at 5 a.m. collecting each other?’ ” an Army officer involved in the incident would say later. “There can be only one reason, and that’s because we’ve put [U.S. troops] in the area.”

    So we put in a JSOC team to carry out offensive operations, with a drone to protect it. And yet the guys playing video game god think that a group of men gathering purportedly in response to that JSOC team count as an imminent threat.

    • bmaz says:

      Yes, but it is even worse than that. During the target evaluation process, the convoy of locals went from within approximately 3 miles of the A-Team to, when they were blown up and killed, 12 miles away and going the opposite direction.

      They were not just innocent, we shot them in the back going the opposite direction.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Plus, the convoy’s considerable distance from the inserted team at the time the convoy was fired on rather discounts the notion that it posed an imminent threat. Unless they had a Scud missile stuck somewhere in a mid-sized SUV.

      What’s most glaring abut the reported dialogue is the American team’s self-absorption and ignorance about what an entire local population might be and be doing – in the country they call home – besides making the killing of serendipitously infiltrated American soldiers their life’s mission.

      Shadows are either other or “military age males”, not adolescents, tall children or old men or women. Unidentified objects are assumed to be weapons. Unidentified small persons can’t be children, babies or noncombatant women. The “only” reason for a convoy of a three vehicles was to attack a surprise insertion of American spec ops soldiers. It couldn’t have anything to do with the region being generally hostile, both in its native geography and for its reputation of housing insurgents.

      The reported dialogue reminds me that the stand-up line about great oxymorons seems still to apply: one of the greatest is “military intelligence”.

      As it ponders how to be a more effective colonial power, the US should consider some of the problems of being a post-colonial power. The UK, for example, continues to wrestle with past atrocities while we generate new ones.

      Survivors of mistreated Kenyans and Malayans are seeking retribution 60 years on. Good for them. The US, like a nation of militarist Jacob Marleys, keeps adding lengths to its already long chain, lengthening the queue of those who will one day seek justice – or exact revenge when it is denied them.

      • bmaz says:

        As they surveyed the carnage, seeing other children, the Predator crew tried to reassure themselves that they could not have known.

        “No way to tell, man,” the safety observer said.

        “No way to tell from here,” the camera operator added.

        At 9:30 a.m., the pilot came back on the radio.

        “Since the engagement,” he said, “we have not been able to PID [positively identify] any weapons.”

  14. skepticdog says:

    Warfare by drones is very popular in the US. Very little risk of losing US soldiers.

    Seems low tech, what happens when someone uses it on us? We certainly can’t morally object to its use in war.

  15. orionATL says:

    competitive determination to “win” the (afghan) competition +

    anxiety scaled up to fear +

    desire for revenge for past losses +

    technology that creates “video game gods” +

    systemic dod disregard for the lives of “host country” citizens +

    systemic dod disregard for the lives of american soldiers

    and those multiple american leaders who set the terms of this equation expect that it will, in time, =


  16. TarheelDem says:

    But the high-tech wizardry would fail in its most elemental purpose: to tell the difference between friend and foe.

    Yep, having US soldiers with cultural prejudices and a gung-ho attitude make battlefield decisions from 7000 miles away becomes criminal when a chain of event happen to show the fallacy of the operation and the leadership does not desist.

    But even when US troops try to supplement that information with intelligence from locals on the ground who should know the culture, there is the same failure to recognize friend and foe, but in the sourcing of the information.

    And if it is a US troop on the ground making the decision, the errors are similar to those 7000 miles away but shaped by the urgency of the battlefield.

    There is no excuse for using drones in a war in which enemy is not uniformed and marked (as in conventional war) and is pursuing a strategy of mixing with civilians even in areas where the civilians do not support them. More so when the enemy is an insurgency resisting occupation.

    I expect some international consideration of laws regulating or prohibiting the use of drones under the laws of war. Now if the US ever fully signs and ratifies all of the elements of the laws of war (such as landmines and anti-personnel cluster bombs, for example)…

  17. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The episode makes a mockery of the idea of “nation building”. Our armed services aren’t trained for that, we’re not very good at it, and I doubt if it ever could be accomplished at the point of a gun or the pressing of a joy stick’s “fire” button. It’s like a violent, self-absorbed parent expecting not to raise a rebellious teen.

  18. dancewater says:

    Nazi who arrested Anne Frank ‘became spy for West Germany’

    Silberbauer was employed directly by Eichmann and answered to him at Berlin’s infamous department IVB4, the headquarters of the programme to exterminate the Jews. Silberbauer was the officer in charge of the Gestapo squad which arrested the Frank family on 4 August, 1944. After the War, the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal tracked down Silberbauer, who was working as police inspector in Vienna.

    Silberbauer was quoted as asking Wiesenthal after he burst in on him: “Why pick on me after all these years? I only did my duty. Now I am suspended and I have just bought some new furniture and how am I going to pay for it?” After a cursory investigation, Silberbauer was reinstated by the Austrian authorities who declared that he was only doing his job when he rounded up the Franks and dispatched them to their deaths.

    His later employment as a spy, first for the Organisation Gehlen – West Germany’s first spy agency – and subsequently the BND was hitherto unknown. Mr Koch reveals the BND believed Silberbauer’s credentials as a former Gestapo officer would enable him to infiltrate easily the numerous secret Nazis groups in both Austria and Germany after 1945.He died aged 61 in 1972.

    He is quoted as saying of Anne Frank’s diary: “I bought the little book last week to see if I am in it. But I am not. Maybe I should have picked it up off the floor.”


    reminded me of the drone operators…. and pilots.

  19. tjallen says:

    You can easily buy your own Predator; look online at any RC Airplane hobby website – for example, here is one complete with cameras:
    You can buy a wide variety of scale model jets and military aircraft, some with quite amazing performance capabilities (130+ mph electric!) Israel etc doesn’t need to buy them from the US Military contractors. Hobbyists are building them. Here’s a whole page full:
    I would suspect a wide variety of people have purchased these for a wide variety of purposes, not all family-friendly entertainment.

  20. revolutionary1 says:

    The Democratic and Republican Party no longer serve the interests of the American people. To begin to take the country back, some politician needs to run on these (beyond left vs. right) ideas and WIN.

    1. End Political Corruption – enact the Fair Elections Now Act. Strictly voluntary. Matching funds. $100.00 maximum donation. Ban politicians from becoming lobbyists

    2. End The Wars – (another form of corporate welfare). Immediately pull out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen

    3. Put Millions Back To Work – Federal government invest $2 trillion over 10 years through a national infrastruc­ture bank (run by engineers, not politician­s) to create jobs now and increase productivi­­­­ty later. Fund with a millionair­­­­e’s tax

    4. Balance The Budget – over time by cutting the defense budget, end agricultur­­­­al subsidies, stop corporate welfare, raise taxes on the super-rich­­­­, contain the explosion of health-car­­­­e costs by adding the public option, allow Medicare to purchase drugs, give MEDPAC wider authority and allow drug re-importa­­­­tion

    5. End National Addiction To Oil – begin with a carbon tax to reduce consumptio­­n, increase energy efficiency and make alternativ­­e energy more cost-compe­­titive. Revenues generated should go to reducing payroll taxes to stimulate employment

    6. Keep Social Security Solvent For Generations – raise the ceiling on income subject to the Social Security tax to $180,000. Congress could gradually slow the growth of benefits for middle and high earners while still allowing these benefits to rise in terms of absolute dollars and purchasing power. Lower-wage earners would receive everything they are now promised. Eliminate $4.8 trillion long-term deficit

    7. End Bank Monopoly – break up the big banks, strengthen the Volker Rule, end the foreclosur­­e crisis by giving bankruptcy judges the power to order reductions in mortgage principal owed

    8. Encourage Upward Mobility In Society – make higher education free to families that can’t afford it. Fund with a financial transactio­­­ns and bank tax

  21. SFRob says:

    Last week I saw a report of a shooting rampage in South America. The news showed a “man on the street” interview where the guy said something to the effect “it was just like something in the United States where someone goes wild and just shoots everyone.” Proud moment! Our reputation isn’t what it used to be.