Administrative geographies and killing fields

Daniel Klaidman‘s chilling account of the Obama administration’s ‘Kill or Capture’ counterterrorism programme, published in June this year, has been updated.  Klaidman added a new dimension to the frequent jibe that the use of Predators and Reapers has turned war into a videogame when he described how target lists were drawn up in Washington:

‘As many as seventy-five officials from across the counterterrorism bureaucracy and the White House took part in the SVTS, government-speak for a secure video teleconference. It was killing by committee.’

According to Klaidman, the process deeply disturbed Harold Koh, the Legal Adviser to the State Department (this was before he addressed the American Society of International Law on the legality of targeted killing in March 2010):

‘Koh took in the videoconference with morbid fascination… There was also an inexorable quality to the meeting, a machinelike pace that left him feeling more like an observer than a participant. He was unsettled by the bloodless euphemisms the military used to talk about violent death. A targeted killing became a “direct action” or a “kinetic strike.” Code names for the hunted militants were bland and impersonal, drawn from the names of provincial American cities. At the time, JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] was working its way through Ohio. Koh understood the need to “objectify” the enemy.  The “operators” had to separate themselves from the brutality of their actions. But as a human rights lawyer, he was trained to do the opposite. “I kept slipping back and forth between the view of the predator and the view of the prey,” he later told a friend.’

But the videoconferences have been discontinued, and in today’s Washington Post Greg Miller provides the  first of three reports on the creation of a so-called ‘disposition matrix’ to ‘streamline’ targeted killing and boost the role of the National Counter-Terrorism Center and its Director, John Brennan.

At least three geographies are embedded in the process.  First, Miller shows that the close co-operation between the Pentagon (particularly through JSOC) and the CIA continues to gather momentum, not least because the Arab uprisings have changed the calculus of co-operation with other agencies:

The Arab spring has upended U.S. counterterrorism partnerships in countries including Egypt where U.S. officials fear al-Qaeda could establish new roots. The network’s affiliate in North Africa, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has seized territory in northern Mali and acquired weapons that were smuggled out of Libya. “Egypt worries me to no end,” a high-ranking administration official said. “Look at Libya, Algeria and Mali and then across the Sahel. You’re talking about such wide expanses of territory, with open borders and military, security and intelligence capabilities that are basically nonexistent.”

Other relationships have been strengthened, of course, not least with regimes regrettably undisturbed by the uprisings – notably Saudi Arabia:

“If he’s in Saudi Arabia, pick up with the Saudis,” the former official said. “If traveling overseas to al-Shabaab [in Somalia] we can pick him up by ship. If in Yemen, kill or have the Yemenis pick him up.”

The disposition matrix is supposed ‘to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the “disposition” of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.’  But as the menu of geopolitical options narrows, so the range of drone strikes is destined to increase – with no end in sight.

Miller’s focus, like that of most reporters, is on the routinisation of the process – what one intelligence analyst described, for a different kill-chain an age ago, as ‘the bureaucratization of homicide‘: Ian Shaw‘s ‘bureaucratic present‘ has a long history – and, not altogether surprisingly, Robert Chesney over at Lawfare doesn’t think there’s much of a story here at all:

It certainly is a good thing to create an information management tool that makes certain that officials across agencies and departments can have real-time, comprehensive understanding of the options available (practically, legally, diplomatically, etc.) in the event specific persons turn up in specific places.

But the administration of lethal violence using these ‘management tools’ involves more than mapping the geopolitical portfolio I sketched above.  There is a second, doubled geography at work.

Those who carry out drone missions – either calling in conventional strike aircraft or combat helicopters or carrying out the strikes from their own platforms – frequently insist that they are only ‘eighteen inches from the battlefield’ (the distance from eye to screen) so that there is, for them, a new and chilling intimacy to these ‘remote’ operations.  It is, to be sure, a qualified intimacy, as I’ve shown in several essays: those involved in these missions are immersed in the evolving situation – in this sense theirs is a ‘videogame war’ since videogames are profoundly immersive, something most critics seem to lose sight of – but even when they are required to remain on station to carry out a post-strike inventory of body parts – which is common – the visual field remains one in which the landscape of the enemy Other (and the identity between the two is rarely questioned) is profoundly alien.

But to those who order these strikes – and perhaps to a wider political circle – the administrative process renders the ‘remoteness’ of such operations absolute. Here is Micah Zenko:

‘Recently, I spoke to a military official with extensive and wide-ranging experience in the special operations world, and who has had direct exposure to the targeted killing program. To emphasize how easy targeted killings by special operations forces or drones has become, this official flicked his hand back over and over, stating: “It really is like swatting flies. We can do it forever easily and you feel nothing. But how often do you really think about killing a fly?”’

And finally, the comment-storm created by Miller’s report (and remarks likes these) continues to focus public attention on the theatre of secrecy in Washington rather than the killing-fields where the executions are carried out.