Boundless Informant and the everyware war

As part of my presentation on “Drones and the everywhere war” at York, I decided to unpack this extraordinary claim made by John Nagl, one of the architects of the US military’s revised counterinsurgency doctrine:

We’re getting so good at various electronic means of identifying, tracking, locating members of the insurgency that we’re able to employ this extraordinary machine, an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine that has been able to pick out and take off the battlefield not just the top level al Qaeda-level insurgents, but also increasingly is being used to target mid-level insurgents.

It’s a remark I’ve discussed several times before.  Nagl’s ‘killing machine’ is not limited to drone strikes, of course, but subsumes the ‘night raids’  and other Special Forces operations detailed in Jeremy Scahill‘s Dirty Wars.  But at York I wanted to explore how those ‘electronic means of identifying, tracking and locating’ fed into drone strikes in Pakistan: and, thanks to Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, I was able to get much closer to the belly of the beast.

Drones+ app

I’d started the presentation with a riff on Josh Begley‘s attempt to persuade Apple to include his Drones+ app in the App store.  Apple decided, for several contradictory and spurious reasons, to reject the app, and at his thesis defence Josh asked:

 ‘Do we really want to be as connected to our foreign policy as we are to our smart phones… Do we really want these things to be the site of how we experience remote war?’

Apple’s answer was ‘no’, clearly, but it turns out that others are intimately connected to drone strikes through their phones and e-mails, and it was this that I fastened on.

Josh, undeterred by Apple, went on to launch the Dronestream platform, from which he tweeted details of every known US drone strike.  I combined one of Josh’s tweets for 1 October 2012 with a version of James Bridle‘s Dronestagram, which uses Instagram to post images of the location of drone strikes (I say ‘a version’ because Dronestagram was launched too late for this particular strike, so this is a mock-up; in any case, it’s difficult to pinpoint the locations from available reports with much precision, but the details for this strike are available via the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as the second slide below shows):

1 October 2012 Dronestream and Dronestagram

Bureau of Investigative Journalism 1 October 2012 strike

We now know that this strike was made possible as a result of interceptions made by the National Security Agency’s Counter-Terrorism Mission-Aligned Cell (CT-MAC).  Writing in the Washington Post on 16 October 2013 Greg Miller, Julie Tait and Barton Gellman explained how this strike had targeted Hassan Ghul:

Hassan Ghul NSA intercepts

Not quite ‘any doubt’; as they went on to note, ‘Although the attack was aimed at “an individual believed to be” the correct target, the outcome wasn’t certain until later, when “through SIGINT [signals intelligence] it was confirmed that Hassan Ghul was killed.”‘

So how did the intercept work?  Not surprisingly, we don’t know for sure; but the map below of NSA’s ‘Boundless Informant‘ – another dimension of what I’ve been calling ‘the everywhere war’ – offers some clues.  I’ve taken it from a report in the Guardian by Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill:

Boundless Informant March 2013 heat map

This is six months later, but it shows that Pakistan was, after Iran, the major focus of NSA’s surveillance and data mining operations (Miller and his colleagues had noted that “NSA threw the kitchen sink at FATA’, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas).  It would be wrong to assume that the targeted killing of Ghul was the result of a simple hack into hotmail, and the Post report details the multiple methods used by NSA.

Still, the geography of covert surveillance shown on the map is revealing.  Yesterday Greenwald returned to Boundless Informant and rebutted the charge that he had misinterpreted the meaning of this and other slides, and in doing so quoted from NSA’s own explanation of the system:

BOUNDLESSINFORMANT is a GAO [Global Access Operations, a branch of the NSA] prototype tool for a self-documenting SIGINT system. . . BOUNDLESSINFORMANT provides the ability to dynamically describe GAO’s collection capabilities (through metadata record counts) with no human intervention and graphically display the information in a map view, bar chart, or simple table. . . .
By extracting information from every DNI and DNR metadata record, the tool is able to create a near real-time snapshot of GAO’s collection capability at any given moment. The tool allows users to select a country on a map and view the metadata volume and select details about the collection against that country. The tool also allows users to view high level metrics by organization and then drill down to a more actionable level – down to the program and cover term.

It’s not too difficult to connect the dots and draw two more general conclusions.  The first is that this is another, darker dimension to the ‘code/space’ and ‘everyware’ discussed in such impressive detail by Rob Kitchen and Martin Dodge:

Everyware war

My slide is just short-hand, of course, but you can see where I’m going, I hope – and, as we know from this week’s harrowing testimony on Capitol Hill about the murder of Mamana Bibi in Waziristan and Amnesty International’s report, Will I Be Next?, these operations and their algorithms work to turn ‘everyday life’ into everyday death.  So I’ll be thinking more carefully about code/space and its implication in the individuation of later modern war, paying closer attention to the technical production of ‘individuals’ as artefacts and algorithms as well as the production of the space of the target: more to come.

The second general conclusion I leave to Peter Scheer, who provides a more refined (and critical) gloss on John Nagl’s comment with which I began:

SCHEER Connecting the dots

I’m incorporating these and other developments into the revised and extended version of “Moving targets and violent geographies” which will appear in The everywhere war, but I hope this bare-bones account (and that first draft, available under the DOWNLOADS tab) shows that my posts are more connected than they must sometimes appear…  The slides were pulled together on the day I gave the presentation, so forgive any rough edges.

Unmanned and unmoored

Robert Greenwald‘s feature-length documentary film Unmanned: America’s drone wars is being released on 30 October: it will be streaming online for a limited time, but if you sign up here you will be able to watch it thanks to Brave New Foundation free of charge (and no, this isn’t piracy).  Thanks to Jorge Amigo and Sara Koopman for the heads-up.

As I noted last summer, Greenwald prepared the video to accompany the Stanford/NYU report Living under Drones, and you can find more about the background to the film in George Zornick‘s article for the Nation here.  Like the crew that made Madiha Tahir‘s Wounds of Waziristan, Greenwald travelled to Pakistan, but the twist here is that Greenwald is bringing some of the witnesses to Capitol Hill this week:

“What we’ve been able to do is put a face to policy. Bring over living, breathing, human beings who can look the camera, or the congresspeople, or reporters, in the eye and say, ‘Yes, my grandmother was in the field. She was killed by a drone,’ ” he explained. “ ‘My mother, who I miss every day, was killed by a drone. How could she possibly, under any set of circumstances, be called a terrorist?’”

For more details on the project to bring them to the United States and the horrors that they witnessed, see Ryan Devereux‘s chilling report here about the murder of Mamana Bibi.

Mamana Bibi

Zubair, now 13, said the sky was clear the day his grandmother died. He had just returned home from school. Everyone had been in high spirits for the holiday, Zubair said, though above their heads aircraft were circling. Not airplanes or helicopters, Zubair said.

“I know the difference,” Zubair said, explaining the different features and sounds the vehicles make. “I am certain that it was a drone.” Zubair recalled a pair of “fireballs” tearing through the clear blue sky, after he stepped outside. After the explosion there was darkness, he said, and a mix of smoke and debris.

“When it first hit, it was like everyone was just going crazy. They didn’t know what to make of it,” Zubair said. “There was madness.” A piece of shrapnel ripped into the boy’s left leg, just above his kneecap. A scar approximately four inches in length remains. “I felt like I was on fire,” he said. The injury would ultimately require a series of costly operations.

Nabeela, the little girl, was collecting okra when the missiles struck. “My grandma was teaching me how you can tell if the okra is ready to be picked,” she said. “All of the sudden there was a big noise. Like a fire had happened.

“I was scared. I noticed that my hand was hurting, that there was something that had hit my hand and so I just started running. When I was running I noticed that there was blood coming out of my hand.”

Nabeela continued running. The bleeding would not stop. She was eventually scooped up by her neighbors. “I had seen my grandmother right before it had happened but I couldn’t see her after. It was just really dark but I could hear [a] scream when it had hit her.”

This is the same attack detailed in Amnesty’s report, Will I be next? last week.  Amnesty’s account of the strike, on Ghundi Kala in North Waziristan on 24 October 2012, included this photograph showing the position of Mamana Bibi‘s family when the drone struck while she was working in the fields:

Ghundi Kala drone killing October 2012

This is exactly that I meant when I said that all these targeted killings – and this was one which surely went hideously wrong (though I’m not sure what going right would look like) – have effects that reach far beyond the individual victim.  The ‘individuation of warfare‘ is never confined to an individual; and in this case, like so many others, it’s not warfare either.

More soon.

UPDATE:  The Independent carries an early report of the testimony of Mamana Bibi’s son here and the Guardian here (‘Bibi’ simply means ‘grandmother’ and is an honorific – the family name is Rehman).

“Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day,” Rehman said, through a translator. “Some media outlets reported that the attack was on a car, but there is no road alongside my mother’s house. Others reported that the attack was on a house. But the missiles hit a nearby field, not a house. All of them reported that three, four, five militants were killed.”

Instead, he said, only one person was killed that day: “Not a militant but my mother.”

“In urdu we have a saying: aik lari main pro kay rakhna. Literally translated, it means the string that holds the pearls together. That is what my mother was. She was the string that held our family together. Since her death, the string has been broken and life has not been the same. We feel alone and we feel lost.”

In the image below, her grand-daughter is holding her drawing of the attack.

Nabila Rehman

Read this alongside Kenneth Anderson and Benjamin Wittes here – with their double-act doublespeak of Amnesty International’s ‘coyness’ and its ‘blithe claims’ (do they know what these words mean??) – and retch.

 

Ghosts of Bagram

bagram_worse_than_guantanamo

I’ve written about ‘haunting’ before, but Asim Rafiqui has an elegaic photo-essay over at Warscapes on The Ghosts of Bagram that adds other dimensions and deserves the widest audience.  Over the last several months I’ve been compiling what has turned into a fat dossier to help me revise my essay on Guantanamo, “The Black Flag” (DOWNLOADS tab), for The everywhere war; in particular, I’m determined to  incorporate other sites in the global war prison – notably Bagram in Afghanistan – because the (in)constant attention focused on Guantanamo artfully distracts the public gaze from these other sites.

No doubt Obama will say he is as ‘haunted‘ by his failure to close Guantanamo as he is by the killing of civilians by US drones in Waziristan.  But here is Rafiqui on the other ghosts from Pakistan:

‘They are ghosts, and I have spent nearly two months trying to find any evidence of them. They are the 40 Pakistani men who remain imprisoned, without charge or evidence, by the Americans at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. They have not been see or heard by anyone other than their immediate families who are granted carefully monitored and heavily censored telephone and internet video call access. Some of the men have been in Bagram, often called one of America’s most notorious prisons, for over 11 years. Denied access to the press, human rights organizations, and legal representation, these men have been silenced and erased, the evidence and rationale for their incarceration beyond the eyes, ears and focus of the public and the media. This is intentional and part of a process of systemic dehumanization that enables the unjust detention and cruel prison conditions the men face. Until 2012, their own government refused to recognize them as citizens of Pakistan. I have spent two months traveling across Pakistan trying to discover something, anything, about them.’

In 2008 the US Supreme Court in Boumedienne vs. Bush extended the right of habeas corpus protections to non-citizens detained at Guantanamo.  But those incarcerated at Bagram, many of them not only from Afghanistan and Pakistan but also from Iraq, central Africa and south east Asia, are beyond the reach of the writ: see Andrew Tutt on ‘Boumedienne’s wake’ here and, for a more comprehensive analysis,  Janet Cooper Alexander on ‘The law free zone and back again’ here.   If you need background on Bagram, try Lisa Hajjar on Bagram as ‘Obama’s GITMO’ here, and for the global war prison more generally Laleh Khalili‘s Time in the Shadows.

Precarious life

Just back from a wonderful trip to Toronto and York, where (among other things) I gave a new presentation on “Drones and the everywhere war“.  It turned out to have been timely: there’s been a flurry of revelations and reports about the US campaign of targeted killing in Pakistan and Yemen, and I managed to incorporate some of them into the argument.

Karim's Home

I’ll be posting about all this shortly, but in the meantime – and directly related – news from Madiha Tahir that Wounds of Waziristan premieres on VICE Motherboard on line for a limited period today.

It’s smart and stunning, and addresses a swath of vital issues about the drone strikes in just 25 minutes: from their colonial antecedents in ‘air policing’ and the special laws imposed on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas by the British state through extraordinary testimony from survivors to the collusion between the US and Pakistan in exposing the population of FATA to military violence.

Waziristan I feel sick all day

The testimony should be read alongside the reports from Amnesty International [“WIll I Be Next? Drone strikes in Pakistan“] and Human Rights Watch [“Between a drone and al-Qaeda“, on Yemen]  issued earlier this week.  There’s a short video from AI on their report:

Reading and thinking about these testimonies has helped convince me that the root problem with drones is not that they enable killing from a distance: as I’ve said before, if you object to killing someone 7,500 miles away, over what distance do you think it is acceptable?   In fact, although Predators and Reapers are controlled from the continental United States they have to be deployed close to their targets: these are not weapons of global reach.  One of the most fundamental issues is that they can only be used in uncontested air space, so that they are limited to haunting the skies over some of the most vulnerable and marginal populations on earth, whose own governments care little about them and where the distinction between a combatant and a civilian is made to count for precious little.  One of my next tasks is to revise “Moving targets and violent geographies” (DOWNLOADS tab) to incorporate these reports and to emphasise this conclusion.

In one sequence, repeating a tactic which has been used by other artists in Iraq in particular, “Wounds” projects US drone strikes in Waziristan onto a map of Madiha’s home state, New Jersey:

Obama Years

Madiha also appears on a panel on “Life Under Drones” at the Drones & Aerial Robotics Conference in New York earlier this month, with Wazhmah Osman, Chris Rogers and Tara McKelvey, also now up at YouTube:

Medical-military machines and casualties of war 1914-2014

SABER, Desert Rat Sketchbook

As promised, I’ve added the outline of my proposed new research programme on the casualties of war to the DOWNLOADS page (scroll way down).  I’ve omitted all the pages in the formal application that drove me to distraction – knowledge mobilisation plan (sic), budget justification, ‘expected outcomes’ and the rest – but if you do look at this ‘Detailed Description’ (as it has to be called), please bear in mind that:

(a) this is still very preliminary, and my work is in the earliest of stages (this is a grant application, after all);

(b) everything had to fit into a prescribed, very limited space (leaving no room for nuance); and

(c) I was more or less required to use the Harvard reference system, the enemy of all good writing.

I’ve added a few lines of clarification and a series of illustrations to liven things up (no room for those in the original), but I hope this gives you some idea of what I’m up to.  And, as always, I’d welcome any comments or suggestions – preferably by e-mail to avoid the spam filters.

In working on this, I’ve stumbled into a series of unusually rich primary sources and secondary literatures, and since I’ve mentioned good writing I want to flag two texts that have kept me going throughout this process.

MAYHEW WoundedThe first is Emily Mayhew‘s Wounded: from Battlefield to Blighty 1914-1918, which I noted in an earlier post; for editions outside the UK the subtitle becomes A new history of the Western Front.  I’ve now read it, and admire its substance but also its style enormously.  It’s based on painstaking research, literally so, and yet the main chapters read like a novel, and the analytical-bibliographic apparatus has been artfully moved to the Notes where it becomes a model of clear, concise and thought-provoking commentary rather than a cage that hobbles the narrative.

MacLeish Making war at Fort HoodThe second is Ken MacLeish‘s Making war at Fort Hood: life and uncertainty in a military community.  I met Ken at a workshop in Paris last year, and if you read anything better this year – in style and substance – than his Chapter 2 (‘Heat, weight, metal, gore, exposure’) I’ d like to know about it.  The combination of ethnographic sensitivity, elegant prose, and a theoretical sensibility that Ken wears with confidence and displays with the lightest of touch is simply stunning.

Since I’m off to York next week I’ll be spending the next few days preparing a new presentation on ‘Drones and the everywhere war’.  I hope this will also give me  time to return to my posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone which I had to put on hold while I trekked from Flanders to Afghanistan for my grant application…

A different sort of hell

I’ve been in Grant Writing Hell for most of last week and right through this long week-end. Everything has to be in by tomorrow morning, and I’ll post the final version of what has become Medical-military machines and casualties of war 1914-2014 once it’s done and I am in recovery (for an early preview see here).  If only I could track down whoever persuaded the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (and the rest of the world for that matter) that drop-down menus achieve consistency and save time… They don’t; apart from the time taken to scroll through endless lists the pre-selected categories never seem to quite fit so you have to click “Other” AND THEN TYPE IT IN ANYWAY.

SACCO The Great War

But I must stick my head above the parapet to notice Joe Sacco‘s forthcoming book The Great War, July 1, 1916, due out at the end of this month/early next.  It depicts the first day of the Battle of the Somme, which for Sacco represents ‘the point where the common man could have no more illusions about the nature of modern warfare’, and I’ve selected (below) panels that speak directly to Medical-military machines.  Writing in the Guardian, Steve Rose explains:

Technically it’s not a book at all: The Great War is actually one continuous drawing, a 24ft-long panorama narrating the British forces’ experience of 1 July 1916, spatially and chronologically, from orderly morning approach to chaotic battlefield engagement to grim aftermath. There are no boxes of text or speech bubbles, no individuated characters, instead Sacco portrays a mass event in painstaking, monochrome, almost technical detail. It’s like a cross between Hergé and the Chapman brothers; the Bayeux Tapestry as a silent movie.

SACCO The Great War

It took Sacco eight months, working in part from photographs held at the Imperial War Museum in London.  ‘When you’re drawing,’ he told Rose,

‘it makes you experience things at a deeper level. Because you kind of inhabit the whole scene … You inhabit each person you draw. You have to give some individuality to each figure, no matter how small they are. I’m leading them to war, and in a way I’m killing them. It’s a very intimate experience.’

In  a departure from Sacco’s previous works there are no words – remember Walter Benjamin: ‘I have nothing to say only to show’ (though he was writing about literary montage) – though there is an accompanying essay by historian Adam Hochschil (adapted from his own book, To end all wars).  In an author’s note Sacco explains:

The Great War is modeled in part on Mateo Pericoli‘s wordless Manhattan Unfurled, a beautiful, accordion-style foldout drawing of the city’s skyline. As a comic book artist, however, I felt impelled to provide a narrative, so the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the Norman invasion of England, was my touchstone. In the interest of making the drawing compact, I referenced medieval art in other, stylistic ways, namely by dispensing with realistic perspective and proportion. Thus a few inches in the drawing might represent a hundred yards or a mile of reality. However, I have tried to get the details — the field kitchens, the horse ambulances — right.

Making The Great War wordless made it impossible to indict the high command or laud the sacrifice of the soldiers. It was a relief not to do these things. All I could do was show what happened between the general and the grave, and hope that even after a hundred years the bad taste has not been washed from our mouths.

He’s also cited other influences – the late Joe Colquhoun‘s Charley’s War [there’s an excellent and probably unique interview here], Jacques Tardi‘s It was the war of the trenches (see here).

The physical scale of the project is extraordinary – a day a foot, you might say – and NPR unfolded the panorama in its newsroom:

NPR unfolds Sacco

Here it is in a jerky video from Vimeo:

Laura Sneddon has an interesting report from Sacco’s appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival earlier this year, where he situated The Great War in relation to his previous work (notably, for me anyway, Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza) and described his take on his combination of listening-drawing-reporting.

I like the description of Sacco as a graphic journalist, and if you want to know more about his work there’s a short overview by Hannah Sender, a thoughtful review of Sacco’s Journalism by Rob Clough at The Comics Journal,  and a fine short article by Reed Johnson published by the Los Angeles Times to coincide with Footnotes.  In it, Sacco said he was at the point of thinking it was time ‘to walk away from battlefields…’  I’m glad he didn’t.

If you’re in London later this month he’s appearing at the LRB Bookshop on Monday 28 October  in conversation with David Boyd Hancock.

SACCO The Great War 2

Perhaps I should have drawn my application…

A call to arms

LACOSTE La géographie ça sert d'abord à faire la guerreI expect most readers will be familiar with the debate in anthropology over its contemporary militarization:  the incorporation and appropriation of anthropologists and anthropological knowledge in the service of military power, most notably through ‘Human Terrain Teams’.

But it’s a much wider debate that isn’t limited by the military’s ‘cultural turn’ and what I once called ‘the rush to the intimate’ (see DOWNLOADS tab), and recent ‘Human Geography Summits‘ have repeatedly drawn attention to the strategic and tactical significance of geo-spatial intelligence and geographical modelling in apprehending (and appropriating) that ‘human terrain’ (for the 2013 meeting see here).

And now, over at Antipode, there is a must-read open-access column by Joel Wainwright:  ‘“A remarkable disconnect”: On violence, military research, and the AAG’ .  As you’ll see, it’s about much more than the wretched Bowman Expeditions to Central America, important as they are and indispensable as Joel’s critique in Geopiracy has been (see also my brief commentary on different ‘expeditions’ here).

The first part of Joel’s argument, ‘Misunderstanding militarized’, is available at the Public Political Ecology Lab here.