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Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, How Extrajudicial Executions Became "War" Policy in Washington

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: I think you're just great! What a response TD subscribers gave to my recent request for donations in a pitch letter themed for honesty. ("Rest assured, TomDispatch is not down to its last dollar; it's not sinking in a sea of red ink. We're not going to shut down if you don't give us something. We're okay.") It says something about who you are and what this site means to you (and warms my heart). Thanks to so many of you who decided to contribute, TD writers will all get paid a little more this year and I'll have some extra bucks for expenses of all sorts. It's a godsend and I can't thank you enough. If there were any of you who meant to give something and were distracted by life before you did, it's never too late. Just visit our donation page any time. Tom]

Strangely, amid the spike in racial tensions after the killing of two black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota, and of five white police officers by a black sharpshooter in Dallas, one American reality has gone unmentioned. The U.S. has been fighting wars -- declared, half-declared, and undeclared -- for almost 15 years and, distant as they are, they've been coming home in all sorts of barely noted ways. In the years in which the U.S. has up-armored globally, the country has also seen an arms race developing on the domestic front. As vets have returned from their Iraq and Afghan tours of duty, striking numbers of them have gone into police work at a time when American weaponry, vehicles, and military equipment -- including, for instance, MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles) -- have poured off America's distant battlefields and, via the Pentagon, into police departments nationwide. And while the police were militarizing, gun companies have been marketing battlefield-style assault rifles to Americans by the millions, at the very moment when it has become ever more possible for citizens to carry weapons of every sort in a concealed or open fashion in public.

The result in Dallas: Micah Johnson, a disturbed Army Reserves veteran, who spent a tour of duty in Afghanistan and practiced military tactics in his backyard, armed with an SKS semi-automatic assault rifle, wearing full body armor, and angry over police killings of black civilians, took out those five white officers. One of them was a Navy vet who had served three tours of duty in Iraq and another a former Marine who had trained local police for DynCorp, a private contractor, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, civilian protesters, also armed with assault rifles (quite legal in the streets of Dallas), scattered as the first shots rang out and were, in some cases, taken in by the police as suspects. And at least two unarmed protesters were wounded by Johnson. (Think of that, in his terms, as "collateral damage.") In the end, he would be killed by a Remotec Andros F5 robot, built by weapons-maker Northrop Grumman, carrying a pound of C4 plastic explosive, and typical of robots that police departments now possess.

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In other words, this incident was capped by the first use of deadly force by a drone in the United States. Consider that a war-comes-home upping of the ante. Already, reports the Defense One website, makers of military-grade robots -- a burgeoning field for the Pentagon -- are imagining other ways to employ such armed bots not only on our distant battlefields but at home in a future in which they will be "useful, cheap, and ubiquitous," and capable of Tasing as well as killing.

Of course, among the many things that have also come home from the country's wars, Predator and Reaper drones are now flying over "the homeland" on missions for the Pentagon, not to mention the FBI, the Border Patrol, and other domestic agencies. So the future stage is set. Once you've used any kind of drone in the U.S. to kill by remote control, it's only logical -- given some future extreme situation -- to extend that use to the skies and so consider firing a missile at some U.S. target, as the CIA and the Air Force have been doing regularly for years in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. And of course, in our domestic arms race, with small drones commercially available to anyone and the first of them armed (no matter the rudimentary nature of that armament), it's not hard to imagine a future Micah Johnson, white or black, using one of them sooner or later. After all, Johnson was already talking about planting "IEDs" (the term for insurgent roadside bombs in our war zones) and a flying IED is a relatively modest step from there.

So, welcome to the "home front," folks. And speaking of drones, it's worth giving a little thought to what might, in fact, still come home, to the sort of example that two administrations have set by turning the president into an assassin-in-chief and regularly creating law for themselves when it comes to the targeting of distant peoples. In that light, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon considers America's Trojan Horse technology of death and just what it may someday smuggle into "the homeland." Tom

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The Trojan Drone
An Illegal Military Strategy Disguised as Technological Advance
By Rebecca Gordon

Think of it as the Trojan Drone, the ultimate techno-weapon of American warfare in these years, a single remotely operated plane sent to take out a single key figure. It's a shiny video game for grown ups -- a Mortal Kombat or Call of Duty where the animated enemies bleed real blood. Just like the giant wooden horse the Greeks convinced the Trojans to bring inside their gates, however, the drone carries something deadly in its belly: a new and illegal military strategy disguised as an impressive piece of technology.

The technical advances embodied in drone technology distract us from a more fundamental change in military strategy. However it is achieved -- whether through conventional air strikes, cruise missiles fired from ships, or by drone -- the United States has now embraced extrajudicial executions on foreign soil. Successive administrations have implemented this momentous change with little public discussion. And most of the discussion we've had has focused more on the new instrument (drone technology) than on its purpose (assassination). It's a case of the means justifying the end. The drones work so well that it must be all right to kill people with them.

The Rise of the Drones

The Bush administration launched the assassination program in October 2001 in Afghanistan, expanded it in 2002 to Yemen, and went from there. Under Obama, with an actual White House "kill list," the use of drones has again expanded, this time nine-fold, with growing numbers of attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia, as well as in the Afghan, Iraqi, and Syrian war zones.

There's an obvious appeal to a technology that allows pilots for the CIA, Joint Special Operations Command, or the Air Force to sit safely in front of video screens in Nevada or elsewhere in the U.S., while killing people half a world away. This is especially true for a president running a global war with a public that does not easily accept American casualties and a Congress that prefers not to be responsible for war and peace decision-making. Drone assassinations have allowed President Obama to spread the "war on terror" to ever more places (even as he quietly retired that phrase), without U.S. casualties or congressional oversight and approval.

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One problem has, however, dogged the drone program from the beginning: just like conventional air strikes, remotely targeted missiles and bombs tend to kill the wrong people. Over the last seven years, the count of civilians killed by drones has been mounting. Actual figures are hard to come by, although a number of nongovernmental organizations and journalists have done a good job of collating information from a variety of sources and offering reasonable estimates.

Analysis from all these sources suggests that there are at least three reasons why civilians die in such attacks.

1. The intelligence information on the individual targeted is often wrong. He isn't where they think he is, or he isn't even who they think he is. For example, in 2014 a British human rights organization, Reprieve , compiled data on drone strikes that targeted specific individuals in Yemen and Pakistan. According to the Guardian, Reprieve's work

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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