Re-launch and Rescue

The much-missed Radical Philosophy has just re-launched as an open access journal with downloadable pdfs here.  The site also includes access to the journal’s wonderful archive.

Among the riches on offer, I’ve been particularly engaged by Martina Tazzioli‘s Crimes of solidarity. which picks up on one of the central themes in the last of the ‘old’ RP series.  It addresses what she calls ‘migration and containment through rescue’, the creeping criminalisation of the rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean.  In a perceptive section on ‘Geographies of Ungrievability’ Martina writes:

The criminalisation of alliances and initiatives in support of migrants’ transit should not lead us to imagine a stark opposition between ‘good humanitarians’, on the one side, and bad military actors or national authorities, on the other. On the contrary, it is important to keep in mind the many entanglements between military and humanitarian measures, as well as the role played by military actors, such as the Navy, in performing tasks like rescuing migrants at sea that could fall under the category of what Cuttitta terms ‘military-humanitarianism’. Moreover, the Code of Conduct enforced by the Italian government actually strengthens the divide between ‘good’ NGOs and ‘treacherous’ humanitarian actors. Thus, far from building a cohesive front, the obligation to sign the Code of Conduct produced a split among those NGOs involved in search and rescue operations.

In the meantime, the figure of the refugee at sea has arguably faded away: sea rescue operations are in fact currently deployed with the twofold task of not letting migrants drown and of fighting smugglers, which de facto entails undermining the only effective channels of sea passage for migrants across the Mediterranean. From a military-humanitarian approach that, under Mare Nostrum, considered refugees at sea as shipwrecked lives, the unconditionality of rescue is now subjected to the aim of dismantling the migrants’ logistics of crossing. At the same time, the migrant drowning at sea is ultimately not seen any longer as a refugee, i.e. as a subject of rights who is seeking protection, but as a life to be rescued in the technical sense of being fished out of the sea. In other words, the migrant at sea is the subject who eventually needs to be rescued, but not thereby placed into safety by granting them protection and refuge in Europe. What happens ‘after landing’ is something not considered within the framework of a biopolitics of rescuing and of letting drown. Indeed, the latter is not only about saving (or not saving) migrants at sea, but also, in a more proactive way, about aiming at human targets. In manhunting, Gregoire Chamayou explains, ‘the combat zone tends to be reduced to the body of the enemy’. Yet who is the human target of migrant hunts in the Mediterranean? It is not only the migrant in distress at sea, who in fact is rescued and captured at the same time; rather, migrants and smugglers are both considered the ‘prey’ of contemporary military-humanitarianism.

As I’ve explained in a different context, I’m no longer persuaded by Grégoire’s argument about the reduction of the conflict zone (‘battlefield’) to the body, but the reduction of the migrant to a body adds a different dimension to that discussion.

In the case of the eastern Mediterranean, Martina describes an extraordinary (though also all too ordinary) ‘spatial rerouting of military-humanitarianism, in which migrants [fleeing Libya] are paradoxically rescued to Libya’:

Rather than vanishing from the Mediterranean scene, the politics of rescue, conceived in terms of not letting people die, has been reshaped as a technique of capture. At the same time, the geographic orientation of humanitarianism has been inverted: migrants are ‘saved’ and dropped in Libya. Despite the fact that various journalistic investigations and UN reports have shown that after being intercepted, rescued and taken back to Libya, migrants are kept in detention in abysmal conditions and are blackmailed by smugglers, the public discussion remains substantially polarised around the questions of deaths at sea. Should migrants be saved unconditionally? Or, should rescue be secondary to measures against smugglers and balanced against the risk of ‘migrant invasion’? A hierarchy of the spaces of death and confinement is in part determined by the criterion of geographical proximity, which contributes to the sidelining of mechanisms of exploitation and of a politics of letting die that takes place beyond the geopolitical borders of Europe. The biopolitical hold over migrants becomes apparent at sea: practices of solidarity are transformed into a relationship between rescuers and drowned.

There’s much more in this clear, compelling and incisive read.  A good companion is Forensic Architecture‘s stunning analysis of ‘Death by Rescue’ in The Left-to-Die Boat here and here (from which I’ve taken the image that heads this post).

Spaces of exception and enemies

Human Geography 25

I’m just back from a wonderful time at a conference in Galway organised by John Morrissey as part of The Haven Project on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.  The latest issue of Human Geography (Vol 9, No 2) is devoted to Geographical Perspectives on the European ‘Migration and Refugee Crisis‘ – those scare-quotes are vital – and if your library doesn’t subscribe you can contact the Institute of Human Geography at (most of the articles can be downloaded here).

At Galway I gave a new presentation on ‘Surgical strikes and modern war’, describing and analyzing the ways in which hospitals and ambulances, doctors and nurses have become targets of military violence; it drew on my new series of posts (see here and here), and there will be more to come on both Kunduz and on Syria (which was my main focus), but you can find a preliminary account of the whole event from Alex Jeffrey here.

My starting point was the modern space of exception seen not as ‘the camp‘, as Giorgio Agamben would have it, but as the killing fields of contemporary military and paramilitary violence (what would once have been called ‘the battlefield‘).  For these are spaces in which groups of people are knowingly and deliberately exposed to death through the removal of legal protections that would ordinarily be afforded them; and yet these are not spaces in which the law is suspended tout court, spaces from which the law withdraws and abandons the victims of violence to their fatebut rather spaces in which law – and specifically international humanitarian law – seeks to regulate and, crucially, to sanction violence.  This is a form of martial law that Agamben never considers (I know I am taking liberties with that term, but that is precisely my point): here as elsewhere violence exists not only beyond the law but is inscribed within it.  My purpose was to show how what was once a sacred space within this zone of exception – ‘the hospital’,  a topological figure that extends from the body of the wounded through the sites of the evacuation chain to the hospital itself – has become corroded; no longer a space of immunity – of safety – an exception to the exception, it has often become a central target of contemporary violence.

The need to pull all this together largely explains my silence these last weeks, and a lot has happened in the interim.  Where to start?  A good place is the latest issue of Radical Philosophy, the last in its present form, which includes two essays of direct relevance to the theme of the Galway conference.

First, an important essay by Achille Mbembe on ‘The Society of Enmity’ which you can download here:

Desire (master or otherwise) is also that movement through which the subject – enveloped on all sides by a specific phantasy [fantasme] (whether of omnipotence, ablation, destruction or persecution, it matters little) – seeks to turn back on itself in the hope of protecting itself from external danger, while other times it reaches outside of itself in order to face the windmills of the imagination that besiege it. Once uprooted from its structure, desire then sets out to capture the disturbing object. But since in reality this object has never existed – does not and will never exist – desire must continually invent it. An invented object, however, is still not a real object. It marks an empty yet bewitching space, a hallucinatory zone, at once enchanted and evil, an empty abode haunted by the object as if by a spell.

The desire for an enemy, the desire for apartheid, for separation and enclosure, the phantasy of extermination, today all haunt the space of this enchanted zone. In a number of cases, a wall is enough to express it.  There exist several kinds of wall, but they do not fulfil the same functions. [6] A separation wall is said to resolve a problem of excess numbers, a surplus of presence that some see as the primary reason for conditions of unbearable suffering. Restoring the experience of one’s existence, in this sense, requires a rupture with the existence of those whose absence (or complete disappearance) is barely experienced as a loss at all – or so one would like to believe. It also involves recognizing that between them and us there can be nothing that is shared in common. The anxiety of annihilation is thus at the heart of contemporary projects of separation.

Everywhere, the building of concrete walls and fences and other ‘security barriers’ is in full swing. Alongside the walls, other security structures are appearing: checkpoints, enclosures, watchtowers, trenches, all manner of demarcations that in many cases have no other function than to intensify the zoning off of entire communities, without ever fully succeeding in keeping away those considered a threat.

You can already surely hear the deadly echoes of Carl Schmitt – whose spectral presence lurked in the margins of my own presentation in Galway (for geographical elaborations of Schmitt, see Steve Legg‘s Spatiality, sovereignty and Carl Schmitt and Claudio Minca and Rory Rowan‘s On Schmitt and space) – and Achille makes the link explicit:

dangerousmindThis is an eminently political epoch, since ‘the specific political distinction’ from which ‘the political’ as such is defined – as Carl Schmitt argued, at least – is that ‘between friend and enemy’.  If our world today is an effectuation of Schmitt’s, then the concept of enemy is to be understood for its concrete and existential meaning, and not at all as a metaphor or an empty lifeless abstraction. The enemy Schmitt describes is neither a simple competitor, nor an adversary, nor a private rival whom one might hate or feel antipathy for. He is rather the object of a supreme antagonism. In both body and flesh, the enemy is that individual whose physical death is warranted by their existential denial of our own being.

However, to distinguish between friends and enemies is one thing; to identify the enemy with certainty is quite another. Indeed, as a ubiquitous yet obscure figure, today the enemy is even more dangerous by being everywhere: without face, name or place. If they have a face, it is only a veiled face, the simulacrum of a face. And if they have a name, this might only be a borrowed name, a false name whose primary function is dissimulation. Sometimes masked, other times in the open, such an enemy advances among us, around us, and even within us, ready to emerge in the middle of the day or in the heart of night, every time his apparition threatening the annihilation of our way of life, our very existence.

Yesterday, as today, the political as conceived by Schmitt owes its volcanic charge to the fact that it is closely connected to an existential will to power. As such, it necessarily and by definition opens up the extreme possibility of an infinite deployment of pure means without ends, as embodied in the execution of murder.

The essay is taken from Achille’s latest book, Politiques de l’inimitié published by Découverte in 2016:

Introduction – L’épreuve du monde
1. La sortie de la démocratie
Retournement, inversion et accélération
Le corps nocturne de la démocratie
La consumation du divin
Nécropolitique et relation sans désir
97827071881822. La société d’inimitié
L’objet affolant
L’ennemi, cet Autre que je suis
Les damnés de la foi
État d’insécurité
Nanoracisme et narcothérapie
3. La pharmacie de Fanon
Le principe de destruction
Société d’objets et métaphysique de la destruction
Peurs racistes
Décolonisation radicale et fête de l’imagination
La relation de soin
Le double ahurissant
La vie qui s’en va
4. Ce midi assommant
Impasses de l’humanisme
L’Autre de l’humain et généalogies de l’objet
Le monde zéro
Capitalisme et animisme
Émancipation du vivant
Conclusion. L’éthique du passant

Asylum seekers being registered at Passau

Second, an essay by Mark Neocleous and Maria Kastrinou, ‘The EU hotspot: Police war against the migrant’, which you can download here.  They start by asking a series of provocative questions about the EU strategy of ‘managing’ (read: policing) migration through the designation of ‘hotspots’ in which all refugees are to be identified, registered and fingerprinted:

There is no doubt that in some ways the term ‘hotspot’ is meant to play on the ubiquity of this word as a contemporary cultural trope, but this obviousness may obscure something far more telling, something not touched on by the criticisms of the hotspots, which tend to focus on either their squalid conditions or their legality (for example, with routes out of Greece being closed off migrants are in many ways being detained rather than registered; likewise, although ‘inadmissibility’ is being used as the reason to ship migrants back to Turkey, in reality ‘inadmissibility’ often means nothing other than that the political and bureaucratic machine is working too slowly to adequately process asylum claims).  Neither the legality nor the sanitary state of the hotspot is our concern here. Nor is the fact that the hotspots use identification measures largely as instruments of exclusion. Rather, we are interested in what the label ‘hotspot’ might tell us about the way the EU wants to manage the crisis. What might the hotspot tell us about how the EU imagines the refugee? But also, given that the EU’s management of the refugee crisis is a means for it to manage migration flows across Europe as a whole, what might the hotspot tell us about how the EU imagines the figure of the migrant in general?

You can find an official gloss (sic) on hotspots here (and more detail here), critical readings by Frances Webber here and Glenda Garelli and Martina Taziolli here, and NGO responses from Oxfam here and Caritas here.  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism also has a useful report on Frontex, the EU’s border agency, here.


Here is the kernel of Mark’s and Maria’s answer to their questions – and you will see see the link with Achille’s essay immediately:

For every police war, an enemy is needed. Defining the zones as hotspots suggests that migrants have arrived as somehow already ‘illegal’ in some way, enabling them to be situated within the much wider and never-ending ‘war on crime’. Yet this process needs to be understood within the wider practice of criminalizing breaches of immigration law in western capitalist polities over the last twenty years, as individual states and the state system as a whole have increasingly sought to make the criminal law work much more closely with immigration law: ‘crimmigration’, as it has become known, means that criminal offences can now very easily result in deportation, while immigration violations are now frequently treated as criminal offences. Concerning the UK, for example, Ana Aliverti has noted that ‘the period between 1997 and 2009 witnessed the fastest and largest expansion of the catalogue of immigration crimes since 1905’.  This expansion serves to further reinforce the conception of the migrant as already tainted by crime, as the figure of the criminal and the figure of the migrant slowly merge. The term ‘illegal immigrant’ plays on this connection in all sorts of ambiguous ways. Indeed, it is significant that the very term ‘illegal immigrant’ has over the same period replaced the term ‘undocumented migrant’, so that a figure once seen as lacking papers is seen now as lacking law.

However, the fact that migrants arriving in the EU hotspots do so as propertyless (or at least apparently so) subjects adds a further significance. Why? Because by arriving propertyless the historical figure to which the migrant is most closely aligned is as much the vagrant as the criminal. Aliverti’s reference to 1905 is a reference to the Aliens Act of that year, in which any ‘alien’ landing in the UK in contravention of the Act was deemed to be a rogue and vagabond. The Act was underpinned by making such ‘aliens’ liable to prosecution under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act of 1824, usually punishable in the form of hard labour in a house of correction. As Aliverti puts it, ‘in view of the similarities between the poor laws and early immigration norms, it is no coincidence that the first comprehensive immigration legislation in 1905 penalized the unauthorized landing of immigrants with the penalties imposed on “rogues and vagabonds” and vagrancy was one of the grounds for expulsion of foreigners.’  In the mind of the state, the vagrant is the classic migrant, just as migrants arriving in the hotspots are increasingly coming to look like and be treated as the newest type of vagrant. In the mind of the state, the propertyless migrant is a kind of vagrant-migrant (which is of course one reason why welfare and migration are so frequently connected).

Vagrancy legislation has always been the ultimate form of police legislation: it criminalizes a status rather than an act (the offence of vagrancy consists of being a vagrant); it gives utmost authority to the police power (the accusation of vagrancy lies at the discretion of the police officer); and it seeks not to punish a crime as such but to instead eliminate what are regarded as threats to social order (as in section 4 of the UK’s Vagrancy Act of 1824, which enables people to be arrested and punished for being ‘idle and disorderly’, for ‘being a rogue’, for ‘wandering abroad’ or for simply ‘not giving a good account of himself or herself’; note the present tense used – section 4 of the Act of 1824 is still in operation in the UK).

And in case the links with ‘The society of enmity’ are still opaque, I leave the last word to Achille:

Hate movements, groups invested in an economy of hostility, enmity, various forms of struggle against an enemy – all these have contributed, at the turn of the twenty-first century, to a significant increase in the acceptable levels and types of violence that one can (or should) inflict on the weak, on enemies, intruders, or anyone considered as not being one of us. They have also contributed to a widespread instrumentalization of social relations, as well as to profound mutations within contemporary regimes of collective desire and affect. Further, they have served to foster the emergence and consolidation of a state-form often referred to as the surveillance or security state.

From this standpoint, the security state can be seen to feed on a state of insecurity, which it participates in fomenting and to which it claims to be the solution. If the security state is a structure, the state of insecurity is instead a kind of passion, or rather an affect, a condition, or a force of desire. In other words, the state of insecurity is the condition upon which the functioning of the security state relies in so far as the latter is ultimately a structure charged with the task of investing, organizing and diverting the constitutive drives of contemporary human life. As for the war, which is supposedly charged with conquering fear, it is neither local, national nor regional. Its extent is global and its privileged domain of action is everyday life itself. Moreover, since the security state presupposes that a ‘cessation of hostilities’ between ourselves and those who threaten our way of life is impossible – and that the existence of an enemy which endlessly transforms itself is irreducible – it is clear that this war must be permanent. Responding to threats – whether internal, or coming from the outside and then relayed into the domestic sphere – today requires that a set of extra-military operations as well as enormous psychic resources be mobilized. The security state – being explicitly animated by a mythology of freedom, in turn derived from a metaphysics of force – is, in short, less concerned with the allocation of jobs and salaries than with a deeper project of control over human life in general, whether it is a case of its subjects or of those designated as enemies.

Hidden in plane sight


Just out: Negative Publicity: artefacts of extraordinary rendition by Edmund Clark and Crofton Black, with an essay by Eyal Weizman:

British photographer Edmund Clark and counterterrorism investigator Crofton Black have assembled photographs and documents that confront the nature of contemporary warfare and the invisible mechanisms of state control. From George W. Bush’s 2001 declaration of the “war on terror” until 2008, an unknown number of people disappeared into a network of secret prisons organized by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency—transfers without legal process known as extraordinary renditions. No public records were kept as detainees were shuttled all over the globe. Some were eventually sent to Guantánamo Bay or released without charge, while others remain unaccounted for.

The paper trail assembled in this volume shows these activities via the weak points of business accountability: invoices, documents of incorporation, and billing reconciliations produced by the small-town American businesses enlisted in detainee transportation. Clark has traveled worldwide to photograph former detention sites, detainees’ homes, and government locations. He and Black recreate the network that links CIA “black sites,” and evoke ideas of opacity, surface, and testimony in relation to this process—a system hidden in plain sight. Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition, copublished with the Magnum Foundation, its creation supported by Magnum Foundation’s Emergency Fund, raises fundamental questions about the accountability and complicity of our governments, and the erosion of our most basic civil rights.


Here is how the always absorbing We make money not art describes the project:

Photographer Edmund Clark spent 4 years spent hunting for sites of extraordinary rendition and photographing any location associated with the programme. None of the photo printed in the book shows any clear evidence of torture, kidnapping or any other human right abuse. There is nothing spectacular to witness here, just mundane places such as the entrance to a Libyan intelligence service detention facility, the corridors connecting cells to interrogation rooms, anonymous streets or the bedroom of the son of a man formerly imprisoned in a CIA black site. Clark calls the making of these photographs “an act of testimony.”

However, the images start to bear a chilling significance when coupled with the paper trail and extracts of interview patiently compiled by Crofton Black, an investigative journalist whose research focuses on extraordinary rendition and black site cases. Over the course of his inquiry, Black has amassed incriminating documents that range from satellite maps to landing records, from border guard patrol logs to testimonies of people tortured in CIA ‘black sites’, from invoices to CIA documents released after freedom of information act litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union. He managed to give them meaning by organizing them into engrossing episodes that give a glimpse of the building and unraveling of the extraordinary rendition network.

And VICE has an interview with the authors here.  Here is their description of the origins of the project:

Edmund Clark: In 2011, while I was working on a body of work on Guantanamo Bay, I was in contact with Clive Stafford Smith at Reprieve and found out that they were doing work on extraordinary rendition. I met Crofton and discovered that was what he was also researching. I became interested in doing something on extraordinary rendition as a progression of my work on Guantanamo Bay.
Crofton Black: When he first came to me I’d been out in Lithuania, looking at this weird site—a warehouse that had been built in the woods in the middle of nowhere, on the site of a former riding school. I was building a court case around it, so when [Clark] got in touch I said, ‘Oh, you should go to Lithuania and take some photos of this strange, peculiar place.’ Which he did. After that we started formulating a more complex and ambitious scheme of trying to document the black-site network through documents, images, and prose. We spent a long time working out how to fit it all together.

Former CIA Black Site, Lithuania

Former CIA Black Site, Lithuania

Crofton explains why he was drawn to the visual:

I was aware that I had all this material, that there were remarkable stories and images and documents that were bizarre, and spoke beyond what was immediately visible in them. I knew I wanted to do something with it that was less dry than legal cases, which are quite dull. There was an opportunity to do something that spoke to a different, and bigger, audience.

And they both emphasise the banality of bureaucracy in the service of violence (an argument that resonates with what – in relation to targeting for nuclear war – Henry Nash called ‘the bureaucratization of homicide’, which I discuss here):

Black: Obviously, post-Hannah Arendt, “the banality of evil” has become a standardized phrase. For me, one of the places you see it most strongly is in bureaucracy: in these documents, in the way they are written, the way certain forms of interrogation are described, or flight routes are detailed. I wanted to make that point. None of these things would be possible without a complex bureaucratic system enabling them. In theory, the idea of a bureaucracy is that everything has its place and gets done by the right person. But in practice it often means that no one is responsible for anything. And that’s what we found in Eastern Europe—no one was responsible. There’s no one in Poland or Lithuania who is responsible for any of this stuff!
Clark: That’s something we wanted to bring out: the ordinariness, the banality of it all. When she spoke of the banality of evil, Hannah Arendt was talking about the bureaucracy of National Socialism. Here, we are talking about a mosaic of small companies—small to medium enterprises—earning a buck.


Note the glorious correction above.

And one final comment about the geography of this sprawling bureaucracy which explains why my title is not a mis-spelling:

Black: Most of the paperwork in the book is from other entities or other countries [than the US]. If they wanted to have an entirely secret prison system, they shouldn’t have invented one that involved flying prisoners all over the world. You simply can’t fly a plane from A to B without leaving a gigantic paper trail. You just can’t, otherwise planes would be bumping into each other. They could have just held their 119 prisoners in Afghanistan and we would probably have found it an awful lot more difficult to find out about it. But the peculiarities of how they wanted—or, at times, were forced to—use different locations… that made it detectable.

All of this, of course, parallels Trevor Paglen‘s work in interesting and complementary ways: see my post here, which connects Trevor’s project to Crofton’s work on ‘the boom and bust of the CIA’s torture sites‘ and his involvement in the Rendition Project.

Citizen Ex

Algorithmic citizenship JPEG

I’m late to this, so apologies, but if you are either weary of web-surfing or can’t get off your digital board, check out James Bridle‘s Citizen Ex project on ‘algorithmic citizenship’:

Algorithmic Citizenship is a form of citizenship which is not assigned at birth, or through complex legal documents, but through data. Like other computerised processes, it can happen at the speed of light, and it can happen over and over again, constantly revising and recalculating. It can split a single citizenship into an infinite number of sub-citizenships, and count and weight them over time to produce combinations of affiliations to different states.

Citizen Ex calculates your Algorithmic Citizenship based on where you go online. Every site you visit is counted as evidence of your affiliation to a particular place, and added to your constantly revised Algorithmic Citizenship. Because the internet is everywhere, you can go anywhere – but because the internet is real, this also has consequences.

The basic idea is derived from an essay by John Cheney-Lippold in Theory, culture and society here:

Marketing and web analytic companies have implemented sophisticated algorithms to observe, analyze, and identify users through large surveillance networks online. These computer algorithms have the capacity to infer categories of identity upon users based largely on their web-surfing habits. In this article I will first discuss the conceptual and theoretical work around code, outlining its use in an analysis of online categorization practices. The article will then approach the function of code at the level of the category, arguing that an analysis of coded computer algorithms enables a supplement to Foucauldian thinking around biopolitics and biopower, of what I call soft biopower and soft biopolitics. These new conceptual devices allow us to better understand the workings of biopower at the level of the category, of using computer code, statistics and surveillance to construct categories within populations according to users’ surveilled internet history. Finally, the article will think through the nuanced ways that algorithmic inference works as a mode of control, of processes of identification that structure and regulate our lives online within the context of online marketing and algorithmic categorization.

From James’s Citizen Ex site you can download (from the banner, top left) an extension to your browser which – after you’ve browsed some more – will calculate, in a very rough and ready way, your own algorithmic citizenship.  Mine (from today’s little effort) is shown at the head of this post.

This may look like an entertaining distraction, but what lies behind it is of course deadly serious: read, for example, James’s (short) stories on Libya and Syria.

Created as a browser plug-in, Citizen Ex shows us the true physical locations of the sites we visit and the territories that govern our actions as we traverse the web. In this reality, every mouse click leaves a trace, as our personal data is collected and stored in locations around the globe. It is with this information that governments and corporations construct a notional vision of our lives. This is our ‘algorithmic citizenship’ — the way we appear to the network. This programmatic fluidity is far removed from the true complexity of human identity. It reduces it to something calculable, which has profound implications for our understanding of privacy, citizenship and the self.

It also has profound implications for surveillance and the digital production of the killing spaces of later modern war.  Read this alongside Louise Amoore‘s brilliant work on The politics of possibility and you can perhaps see where I’m going:

‘[W]hat comes to count as the actionable intelligence behind a sovereign decision is a mosaic of overwhelmingly ordinary fragments of a life that become, once arrayed together, secret and sensitive evidence…

‘Drawing some elements of past activities into the calculation, the mosaic nonetheless moves over the surface of multiple past subjects and events in order to imagine a future unknown subject.’

It’s not difficult to divine (sic) how ‘Citizen Ex’ becomes ‘Citizen-Ex’.

Irresponsible Eyes

The Left to Die Boat

I’m off to Berlin to give a new version of ‘Angry Eyes‘ at HAU’s Waffenlounge (‘Weapons Lounge’), so I’ve been thinking some more about the dispersed and distributed field of militarized vision.  En route, I’ve read Timothy Raeymaekers‘ thoughtful reflection over at Liminal Geographies on Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani‘s short film Liquid Traces.

Their video retraces the awful journey of 72 desperate people who set out from Tripoli on 27 March 2011.  Two weeks later their boat washed ashore on the Libyan coast again – but with only 11 survivors on board, two of whom later died.

I expect many readers will recognise that Liquid Traces derives from a project at Forensic Architecture called The Left to Die Boat:

The Forensic Oceanography project was launched in summer 2011 to support a coalition of NGOs demanding accountability for the deaths of migrants in the central Mediterranean Sea while that region was being tightly monitored by the NATO-led coalition intervening in Libya. The efforts were focused on what is now known as the “left-to-die boat” case, in which sixty-three migrants lost their lives while drifting for fourteen days within the NATO maritime surveillance area.

By going “against the grain” in our use of surveillance technologies, we were able to reconstruct with precision how events unfolded and demonstrate how different actors operating in the Central Mediterranean Sea used the complex and overlapping jurisdictions at sea to evade their responsibility for rescuing people in distress. The report we produced formed the basis for a number of ongoing legal petitions filed against NATO member states.


As Tim notes,

The paradox is this: despite its departure during a period of massive Frontex and NATO deployment following the Tunisian and Libyan uprisings, and despite the vicinity of 38 NATO ships (see below) and numerous commercial vessels, the migrants who were traveling across the Mediterranean were left to die while being actively observed through an assemblage of multiple, irresponsible eyes.


Tim concludes in terms that echo my own invocation of Donna Haraway, though in a radically different context:

Rather than being a God’s eye, which towers high above human activity, as if it were seeing from nowhere, the assemblage that surveys Mediterranean waters constitutes a patchy puzzle of often conflicting and contradictory visions and legislations, and – I might add – quite different and opposing temporalities. As Haraway points out, the main question in this case becomes not what but “how to see? Where to see from? What limits to vision? What to see for? Whom to see with? Who gets to have more than one point of view? Who gets blinded? Who wears blinders? Who interprets the visual field? What other sensory powers do we wish to cultivate besides vision?” And… “with whose blood were my eyes crafted?”

in Berlin, I’ll be presenting a new reading of an air strike orchestrated by an MQ-1 Predator in Uruzgan; here’s the programme note:

In the early hours of 21 February 2010 a team of US Special Forces soldiers and Afghan National Army troops flew in by helicopter to the village of Khod in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. Their job was to search for a factory making Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). In the darkness the headlights of three vehicles were spotted in the far distance, and their movements were tracked by a Predator drone sending back full motion video to its crew at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Hour after hour, the Predator crew became more and more convinced that they were watching a group of Taliban preparing to attack the Special Forces team. But the Predator only had only one missile left, and so two combat helicopters were ordered in to attack. As the smoke cleared, it became obvious that a dreadful mistake had been made: women and children were visible among the casualties. A subsequent US Army investigation revealed that at least 15 innocent civilians had been killed and another 12 seriously injured; there were no Taliban present. The crew of the Predator were blamed – not least for having a ‘Top Gun’ mentality. But re-reading the 2,000 pages of that investigation reveals another story that dramatically complicates what has become the standard critique of Unmanned Aerial Violence and raises a series of troubling questions about militarized vision and later modern war.

More here on the narrowness of the standard ‘Predator view’, and I’ll post the full essay as soon as it’s finished.

The War Corps

The US Congressional Research Service recently released a report, Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2014:

The instances differ greatly in number of forces, purpose, extent of hostilities, and legal authorization. Eleven times in its history the United States has formally declared war against foreign nations. These 11 U.S. war declarations encompassed 5 separate wars: the war with Great Britain declared in 1812; the war with Mexico declared in 1846; the war with Spain declared in 1898; the First World War, during which the United States declared war with Germany and with Austria-Hungary during 1917; and World War II, during which the United States declared war against Japan, Germany, and Italy in 1941, and against Bulgaria, Hungary, and Rumania in 1942.

Some of the instances were extended military engagements that might be considered undeclared wars. These include the Undeclared Naval War with France from 1798 to 1800; the First Barbary War from 1801 to 1805; the Second Barbary War of 1815; the Korean War of 1950-1953; the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1973; the Persian Gulf War of 1991; global actions against foreign terrorists after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States; and the war with Iraq in 2003. With the exception of the Korean War, all of these conflicts received congressional authorization in some form short of a formal declaration of war. Other, more recent instances often involve deployment of U.S. military forces as part of a multinational operation associated with NATO or the United Nations.

Barbara Salazar Torreon, who compiled the report, adds:

The list does not include covert actions or numerous instances in which U.S. forces have been stationed abroad since World War II in occupation forces or for participation in mutual security organizations, base agreements, or routine military assistance or training operations. Because of differing judgments over the actions to be included, other lists may include more or fewer instances.


abc news has now provided an interactive that maps the data set here, together with a discussion of the original report.

Drones, battlefields and later modern war

STIMSON Drone report 2014

This morning the Stimson Center issued an 81-page Recommendations and Report of the Task Force on US Drone Policy: you can access it online via the New York Times here or download it as a pdf here; Mark Mazetti‘s report for the Times is here.

Founded in 1989, the Stimson Center is a Washington-based ‘non-profit and non-partisan’ think-tank that prides itself on providing ’25 years of pragmatic solutions to global security’.  It’s named after Henry Stimson, who served Presidents Taft, Roosevelt and Truman as Secretary of War and President Hoover as Secretary of State.  The Center established its 10-member Task Force on drones a year ago, with retired General John Abizaid (former head of US Central Command, 2003-2007) and Rosa Brooks (Professor of Law at Georgetown) as co-chairs; the Task Force was aided by three Working Groups – on Ethics and Law; Military Utility, National Security and Economics; and Export Control and Regulatory Challenges – each of which is preparing more detailed reports to be published later this year.  The present Report focuses on

‘key current and emerging issues relating to the development and use of lethal UAVs outside the United States for national security purposes. In particular, we focus extensively on the use of UAVs for targeted counterterrorism strikes, for the simple reason that this has generated significant attention, controversy and concern.’

But this focus repeats and compounds the myopia of both conventional wisdom and contemporary debate.  The Report summarily (and I think properly) rejects a number of misconceptions about the use of drones, insisting that their capacity to strike from a distance is neither novel nor unique; noting that the vast majority of UAVs in the US arsenal are non-weaponized (‘less than 1 percent of … UAVs carry operational weapons at any given time’ – though their intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance functions are of course closely tied to the deployment of weapons by conventional strike aircraft or ground forces); and arguing that ‘UAVs do not turn killing into “a video game”‘. These counter-claims are unexceptional and the Task Force presents them with clarity and conviction.

But the Report also accepts that the integration of UAVs into later modern war on ‘traditional’ or ‘hot’ battlefields [more about those terms in a moment] is, by and large, unproblematic.  Thus:

‘UAVs have substantial value for a wide range of military and intelligence tasks. On the battlefield, both weaponized and non-weaponized UAVs can protect and aid soldiers in a variety of ways. They can be used for reconnaissance purposes, for instance, and UAVs also have the potential to assist in the detection of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, as well as ordinary explosives. Weaponized UAVs can be used to provide close air support to soldiers engaged in combat.’

A footnote expands on that last sentence:

‘In the past, warfighters on the ground under imminent threat would have to navigate a complicated command hierarchy to call for air support. The soldier on the ground would have to relay coordinates to a Forward Air Controller (FAC), who would then talk the pilot’s eyes onto a target in an extremely hostile environment. These missions have always been very dangerous for the pilot, who has to fly low and avoid multiple threats, and also for people on the ground. It is a human-error rich environment, and even today, it is not uncommon for the wrong coordinates to be relayed, resulting in the deaths of friendlies or innocent civilians. To ease these difficulties, DARPA is currently investigating how to replace the FAC and the pilot by a weaponized UAV that will be commanded by the soldier on the ground with a smartphone.’

And subsequently the Report commends the ‘robust’ targeting process put in place by the US military and the incorporation of military lawyers (JAGs) into the kill-chain:

‘The Department of Defense has a robust procedure for targeting, with outlined authorities and steps, and clear checks on individual targets. The authorization of a UAV strike by the military follows the traditional process in place for all weapons systems (be they MQ-9 Reaper drones or F-16 fighter jets). Regardless of whether particular strikes are acknowledged, the Pentagon has stated that UAV strikes, like strikes from manned aircraft, are subject to the military’s pre-strike target development procedures and post-strike assessment.

‘The process of determining and executing a strike follows a specific set of steps to ensure fidelity in target selection, strike and post-strike review.’

Targeting cycle

Both Craig Jones and I have discussed the targeting cycle [the figure above shows one of six steps in the ‘find-fix-track-target-engage-assess’ cycle, taken from JP 3-60 on Joint Targeting, issued in January 2013] and the role of operational law within it (Craig in much more detail than me), and these are all important considerations.  But the Report glosses over the fragilities of the process, which in practice is not as ‘robust’ as the authors imply.  They concede:

‘No weapons system is perfect, and targeting decisions — whether for UAV strikes or for any other weapons delivery system — are only as good as the intelligence on which they are based. We do not doubt that some US UAV strikes have killed innocent civilians. Nonetheless, the empirical evidence suggests that the number of civilians killed is small compared to the civilian deaths typically associated with other weapons delivery systems (including manned aircraft).’

cover_646That last sentence is not unassailable, but in addition I’ve repeatedly argued that it is a mistake to abstract strikes carried out by UAVs from the wider network of military violence in which their ISR capabilities are put to use:  hence my ongoing work on the Uruzgan airstrike in Afghanistan, for example, and on ‘militarised vision’ more generally.  What these studies confirm is that civilian casualties are far more likely when close air support is provided – by UAVs directly or by conventional strike aircraft – to ‘troops in contact’ (even more so when, as in both the Kunduz and Uruzgan airstrikes, it turns out that troops calling in CAS were not ‘in contact’ at all).

In short, while it’s perhaps understandable that a Task Force that included both General Abizaid and Lt-Gen David Barno (former head of Combined Forces Command – Afghanistan from 2003-2005) should regard the use of UAVs on ‘traditional’ battlefields as unproblematic, I think it regrettable that their considerable expertise did not result in a more searching evaluation of remote operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But what, then, of those ‘non-traditional’ battlefields?  A footnote explains:

‘Throughout this report, we distinguish between the use of UAV strikes on “traditional” or “hot” battlefields and their use in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. These are terms with no fixed legal meaning; rather, they are merely descriptive terms meant to acknowledge that the US of UAV strikes has not been particularly controversial when it is ancillary to large-scale, open, ongoing hostilities between US or allied ground forces and manned aerial vehicles, on the one hand, and enemy combatants, on the other. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States deployed scores of thousands of ground troops and flew a range of close air support and other aerial missions as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, and UAV strikes occurred in that context. In Libya, US ground forces did not participate in the conflict, but US manned aircraft and UAVs both operated openly to destroy Libyan government air defenses and other military targets during a period of large scale, overt ground combat between the Qaddafi regime and Libyan rebel groups. In contrast, the use of US UAV strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere has been controversial precisely because the strikes have occurred in countries where there are no US ground troops or aerial forces openly engaged in large scale combat.’


A major focus of the report is on what Frédéric Mégret (above) has called ‘the deconstruction of the battlefield‘ and the countervailing legal geographies that provide an essential armature for later modern war (though it’s surprising that the Report makes so little use of academic research on UAVs and contemporary conflicts).  The authors ‘disagree with those critics who have declared that US targeted killings [in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia] are “illegal”’ – no surprise there either, incidentally, since one of the Working Groups included Kenneth Anderson, Charles Dunlap and Christine Fair: I’m not sure in what universe that counts as ‘non-partisan’) but they also accept that these remote operations move in a grey zone (and in the shadows):

‘The law of armed conflict and the international legal rules governing the use of force by states arose in an era far removed from our own. When the Geneva Conventions of 1949 were drafted, for instance, it was assumed that most conflicts would be between states with uniformed, hierarchically organized militaries, and that the temporal and geographic boundaries of armed conflicts would be clear.

‘The paradigmatic armed conflict was presumed to have a clear beginning (a declaration of war) and a clear end (the surrender of one party, or a peace treaty); it was also presumed the armed conflict to be confined geographically to specific, identifiable states and territories. What’s more, the law of armed conflict presumes that it is a relatively straightforward matter to identify “combatants” and distinguish them from “civilians,” who are not targetable unless they participate directly in hostilities. The assumption is that it is also a straightforward matter to define “direct participation in hostilities.”

‘The notion of “imminent attack” at the heart of international law rules relating to the use of force in state self-defense was similarly construed narrowly: traditionally, “imminent” was understood to mean “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”

‘But the rise of transnational non-state terrorist organizations confounds these preexisting legal categories. The armed conflict with al-Qaida and its associated forces can, by definition, have no set geographical boundaries, because al-Qaida and its associates are not territorially based and move easily across state borders. The conflict also has no temporal boundaries — not simply because we do not know the precise date on which the conflict will end, but because there is no obvious means of determining the “end” of an armed conflict with an inchoate, non-hierarchical network.

‘In a conflict so sporadic and protean — a conflict with enemies who wear no uniforms, operate in secret and may not use traditional “weapons” — the process of determining where and when the law of armed conflict applies, who should be considered a com- batant and what counts as “hostilities” inevitably is fraught with difficulty…

‘While the legal norms governing armed conflicts and the use of force look clear on paper, the changing nature of modern conflicts and security threats has rendered them almost incoherent in practice. Basic categories such as “battlefield,” “combatant” and “hostilities” no longer have a clear or stable meaning. And when this happens, the rule of law is threatened.’

These too are important considerations, but they are surely not confined to counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia: they also apply with equal force to counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and intersect with a wider and much more fraught debate over the very idea of ‘the civilian’.

There is a particularly fine passage in the Report:

‘Consider US targeted strikes from the perspective of individuals in — for instance — Pakistan or Yemen. From the perspective of a Yemeni villager or a Pakistani living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), life is far from secure. Death can come from the sky at any moment, and the instability and incoherence of existing legal categories means that there is no way for an individual to be certain whether he is considered targetable by the United States. (Would attending a meeting or community gathering also attended by an al-Qaida member make him targetable? Would renting a building or selling a vehicle to a member of an “associated” force render him targetable? What counts as an “associated force?” Would accepting financial or medical aid from a terrorist group make him a target? Would extending hospitality to a relative who is affiliated with a terrorist group lead the United States to consider him a target?).

‘From the perspective of those living in regions that have been affected by US UAV strikes, this uncertainty makes planning impossible, and makes US strikes appear arbitrary. What’s more, individuals in states such as Pakistan or Yemen have no ability to seek clarification of the law or their status from an effective or impartial legal system, no ability to argue that they have been mistakenly or inappropriately targeted or that the intelligence that led to their inclusion on a “kill list” was flawed or fabricated, and no ability to seek redress for injury. Their national laws and courts can offer no assistance in the face of foreign power, and far from protecting their fundamental rights and freedoms, their own states may in fact be deceiving them about their knowledge of and cooperation with US strikes. Meanwhile, geography and finances make it impossible to access US courts, and a variety of legal barriers — such as the state secrets privilege, the political question doctrine, and issues of standing, ripeness and mootness — in any case would prevent meaningful access to justice.’

This is one of the clearest summaries of the case for transparency and accountability I’ve seen, but the same scenario has also played out in Afghanistan (and in relation to the Taliban, which appears only once in the body of the Report) time and time again.  There are differences, to be sure, but the US military has also carried out its own targeted killings in Afghanistan, working from its Joint Prioritized Effects List.  The Report notes that ‘in practice, the military and CIA generally work together quite closely when planning and engaging in targeted UAV strikes: few strikes are “all military” or “all CIA”’ – which is true in other senses too – and this applies equally in Afghanistan.

In sum, then, this is a valuable and important Report – but it would have been far more incisive had its critique of ‘US drone policy’ cast its net wider to provide a more inclusive account of remote operations.  The trans-national geographies of what I’ve called ‘the everywhere war’ do not admit of any simple distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ battlefields, and trying to impose one on such a tangled field of military and paramilitary violence ultimately confuses rather than clarifies.  I realise that this is usually attempted as an exercise in what we might call legal cartography, but I also still think William Boyd‘s Gabriel was right when, in An Ice-Cream War, he complained that maps give the world ‘an order and reasonableness’ it doesn’t possess.  And we all also know that maps – like the law – are instruments of power, and that both are intimately entangled with the administration of military violence.