1/30/2012 11:29:49 AM
This post originally appeared at
Exclusive: New Iranian Commando Team Operating Near U.S.
(Tehran, FNA) The Fars News Agency has confirmed with the Republican Guard’s North American Operations Command that a new elite Iranian commando team is operating in the U.S.-Mexican border region. The primary day-to-day mission of the team, known as the Joint Special Operations Gulf of Mexico Task Force, or JSOG-MTF, is to mentor Mexican military units in the border areas in their war with the deadly drug cartels. The task force provides “highly trained personnel that excel in uncertain environments,” Maj. Amir Arastoo, a spokesman for Republican Guard special operations forces in North America, tells Fars, and “seeks to confront irregular threats...”
The unit began its existence in mid-2009—around the time that Washington rejected the Iranian leadership’s wish for a new diplomatic dialogue. But whatever the task force does about the United States—or might do in the future—is a sensitive subject with the Republican Guard. “It would be inappropriate to discuss operational plans regarding any particular nation,” Arastoo says about the U.S.
Okay, so I made that up. Sue me. But first admit that, a line or two in, you knew it was fiction. After all, despite the talk about American decline, we are still on a one-way imperial planet. Yes, there is a new U.S. special operations team known as Joint Special Operations Task Force-Gulf Cooperation Council, or JSOTF-GCC, at work near Iran and, according toWired magazine’s Danger Room blog, we really don’t quite know what it’s tasked with doing (other than helping train the forces of such allies as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia).
And yes, the quotes are perfectly real, just out of the mouth of a U.S. “spokesman for special-operations forces in the Mideast,” not a representative of Iran’s Republican Guard. And yes, most Americans, if they were to read about the existence of the new special ops team, wouldn’t think it strange that U.S. forces were edging up to (if not across) the Iranian border, not when our “safety” was at stake.
Reverse the story, though, and it immediately becomes a malign, if unimaginable, fairy tale. Of course, no Iranian elite forces will ever operate along the U.S. border. Not in this world. Washington wouldn’t live with it and it remains the military giant of giants on this planet. By comparison, Iran is, in military terms, a minor power.
Any Iranian forces on the Mexican border would represent a crossing of one of those “red lines” that U.S. officials are always talking about and so an international abomination to be dealt with severely. More than that, their presence would undoubtedly be treated as an act of war. It would make screaming headlines here. The Republican candidates for the presidency would go wild. You know the rest. Think about the reaction when Attorney General Eric Holder announced that an Iranian-American used-car salesman from Texas had contacted a Mexican drug cartel as part of a bizarre plot supposedly hatched by senior members of the elite Iranian Quds Force to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in a Washington restaurant and possibly bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies as well.
Though doubts were soon raised about the likelihood of such an Iranian plot, the outrage in the U.S. was palpable. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that it “crosses a line that Iran needs to be held to account for.” The Wall Street Journallabeled it “arguably an act of war,” as did Congressman Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Speaker of the House John Boehner termed it “a very serious breach of international behavior,” while House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers swore that it crossed “a very dangerous threshold” and called for “unprecedented” action by the Obama administration.
On the other hand, no one here would claim that a U.S. special operations team edging up to the Iranian border was anything out of the ordinary or that it potentially crossed any lines, red or otherwise, or was a step beyond what the international community accepts. In fact, the news, such as it was, caused no headlines in the press, no comments on editorial pages, nothing. After all, everyone knows that Iranians would be the equivalent of fish out of water in Mexico, but that Americans are at home away from home in the Persian Gulf (as in most other places on Earth).
The Iranian “War” Against America
Nonetheless, just for the heck of it, let’s suspend the laws of political and military gravity and pile up a few more fairy-tale-ish details.
Imagine that, in late 2007, Iran’s ruling mullahs and their military advisors had decided to upgrade already significant covert activities against Washington, including cross-border operations, and so launched an intensification of its secret campaign to “destabilize” the country’s leadership—call it a covert war if you will—funded by hundreds of millions of dollars of oil money; that they (or their allies) supported armed oppositional groups hostile to Washington; that they flew advanced robot drones on surveillance missions in the country’s airspace; that they imposed ever escalating sanctions, which over the years caused increased suffering among the American people, in order to force Washington to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and give up the nuclear program (military and peaceful) that it had been pursuing since 1943; that they and an ally developed and launched a computer worm meant to destroy American centrifuges and introduced sabotaged parts into its nuclear supply chain; that they encouraged American nuclear scientists to defect; that one of their allies launched an assassination program against American nuclear scientists and engineers, killing five of them on the streets of American cities; that they launched a global campaign to force the world not to buy key American products, including Hollywood movies, iPhones, iPods, and iPads, and weaponry of any sort by essentially embargoing American banking transactions.
Imagine as well that an embattled American president declared the Gulf of Mexico to be off-limits to Iranian aircraft carriers and threatened any entering its waters with dire consequences. In response, the Iranians promptly sent their aircraft carrier, the Mossadegh, and its battle group of accompanying ships directly into Gulf waters not far from Florida and then stationed a second carrier, the Khomeini, and its task force in the nearby Caribbean as support. (Okay, the Iranians don’t have aircraft carriers, but just for a moment, suspend disbelief.)
And keep in mind that, in this outlandish scenario, all of the above would only be what we knew about or suspected. You would have to assume that there were also still-unknown aspects to their in-the-shadows campaign of regime change against Washington.
Now, pinned to Iran, that list looks absurd. Were such things to have happened (even in a far more limited fashion), they would have been seen across the American political spectrum as an abomination (and rightly so), a morass of illegal, illegitimate, and immoral acts and programs that would have to be opposed at all costs. As you also know perfectly well, it is a description of just what we do know or suspect that the U.S. has done, alone or in concert with its ally Israel, or what, in the case of the assassination operations against nuclear scientists (and possibly an explosion that destroyed much of an Iranian missile base, killing a major general and 16 others), Israel has evidently done on its own, but possibly with the covert agreement of Washington.
And yet you can search the mainstream news far and wide without seeing words like “illegal,” “illegitimate,” or "immoral” or even “a very serious breach of international behavior” applied to them, though you can certainly find sunny reports on our potential power to loose destruction in the region, the sorts of articles that, if they were in the state-controlled Iranian press, we would consider propaganda.
While the other three presidential candidates were baying for Iranian blood at a recent Republican debate, it was left to Ron Paul, the ultimate outsider, to point out the obvious: that the latest round of oil sanctions being imposed by Washington and just agreed to by the European Union, meant to prohibit the sale of Iranian oil on the international market, was essentially an “act of war,” and that it preceded recent Iranian threats (an unlikely prospect, by the way) to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the planet’s oil flows.
And keep in mind, the covert war against Iran is ostensibly aimed at a nuclear weapon that does not exist, that the country’s leaders claim they are not building, that the best work of the American intelligence community in 2007 and 2010 indicated was not yet on the horizon. (At the moment, at worst, the Iranians are believed to be working toward “possible breakout capacity”—that is, the ability to relatively “quickly” build a nuclear weapon, if the decision were made.) As for nuclear weapons, we have 5,113 warheads that we don’t doubt are necessary for our safety and the safety of the planet. These are weapons that we implicitly trust ourselves to have, even though the United States remains the only country ever to use nuclear weapons, obliterating two Japanese cities at the cost of perhaps 200,000 civilian deaths. Similarly, we have no doubt that the world is safe with Israel possessing up to 200 nuclear weapons, a near civilization-destroying (undeclared) arsenal. But it is our conviction that an Iranian bomb, even one, would end life as we know it.
Added to that fear is the oft-cited fact that Iran is run by a mullahtariat that oppresses any opposition. That, however, only puts it in league with U.S. allies in the region like Bahrain, whose monarchy has shot down, beaten up, and jailed its opposition, and the Saudis, who have fiercely repressed their own dissidents. Nor, in terms of harm to its people, is Iran faintly in a league with past U.S. allies like General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, who launched a U.S.-backed military coup against a democratically elected government on September 11, 1973, killing more than died in the 9/11 attacks of 2001, or the Indonesian autocrat Suharto on whom the deaths of at least half a million of his people are usually pinned.
At Home in the World
Here, then, is a little necessary context for the latest round of Iran-mania in the U.S.: Washington has declared the world its oyster and garrisons the planet in a historically unique way—without direct colonies but with approximately 1,000 bases worldwide (not including those in war zones or ones the Pentagon prefers not to acknowledge). That we do so, unique as it may be in the records of empire, strikes us as anything but odd and so is little discussed here. One of the reasons is simple enough. What’s called our “safety” and “security” has been made a planetary issue. It is, in fact, the planetary standard for action, though one only we (or our closest allies) can invoke. Others are held to far more limiting rules of behavior.
As a result, a U.S. president can now send drones and special operations forces just about anywhere to kill just about anyone he designates as a threat to our security. Since we are everywhere, and everywhere at home, and everywhere have “interests,” we may indeed be threatened anywhere. Wherever we’ve settled in—and in the Persian Gulf, as an example, we’re deeply entrenched—new “red lines” have been created that others are prohibited from crossing. No one, after all, can infringe on our safety.
In support of our interests—which, speaking truthfully, are also the interests of oil—we could covertly overthrow an Iranian government in 1953 (starting the whole train of events that led to this crisis moment in the Persian Gulf), and we can again work to overthrow an Iranian government in 2012. The only issue seriously discussed in this country is: How exactly can we do it, or can we do it at all (without causing ourselves irreparably greater harm)? Effectiveness, not legality or morality, is the only measurement. Few in our world (and who else matters?) question our right to do so, though obviously the right of any other state to do something similar to us or one of our allies, or to retaliate or even to threaten to retaliate, should we do so, is considered shocking and beyond all norms, beyond every red line when it comes to how nations (except us) should behave.
This mindset, and the acts that have gone with it, have blown what is, at worst, a modest-sized global problem up into an existential threat, a life-and-death matter. Iran as a global monster now nearly fills what screen-space there is for foreign enemies in the present American moment. Yet, despite its enormous energy reserves, it is a shaky regional power, ruled by a faction-ridden set of fundamentalists (but not madmen), the most hardline of whom seem at the moment ascendant (in no small part due to American and Israeli policies). The country has a relatively modest military budget, and no recent history of invading other states. It has been under intense pressure of every sort for years now and the strains are showing. The kind of pressure the U.S. and its allies have been exerting creates the basis for madness—or for terrible miscalculation followed by inevitable tragedy.
In an election year in the U.S., little of this is apparent. The Republicans, Ron Paul aside, have made Iran the entrée du jour on the American (and Israeli) security menu, a situation that couldn’t be more absurdly out of proportion or more dangerous. In fact, when it comes to “American security,” our fundamentalists are off on another rampage with the Obama administration following behind.
Just as a small exercise to restore some sense of proportion, stop for a moment the next time you hear of American or Israeli plans for the further destabilization of Iran and think: what would we do if the Iranians were planning something similar for us?
It’s one small way to begin, individually, to imagine a planet on which everyone might experience some sense of security. And here’s the oddest thing, given the blowback that could come from a blowup in the Persian Gulf, it might even make us all safer.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of
The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s
as well as
The End of Victory Culture
, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book,
The United States of Fear
(Haymarket Books), has just been published. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses reversal scenarios on a one-way planet, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
[Note: The initial “Iranian” news article in this piece was taken, with a few small changes, from “New U.S. Commando Team Operating Near Iran,” a post by the intrepid Spencer Ackerman of Wired’sDanger Room blog, an important place to keep up on all things military. Let me offer a bow as well to Antiwar.com, Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, and Paul Woodward’s the War in Context. I don’t know what I’d do without them when it comes to keeping up.]
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt
, licensed under
1/25/2012 11:15:59 AM
Just for a moment, pretend that you don’t care who wins the 2012 presidential election. No preference whatsoever. Why would you even bother putting on your jacket, starting up the car, and standing in line to cast a ballot that means nothing to you? If only there was a way to dispose of your vote without feeling guilty . . .
“Why aren’t citizens allowed to sell their votes to the highest bidder?” asks John Holbo of Crooked Timber, a provocative, academic-leaning political blog. This at-first-blush gee-whiz inquiry leads Holbo down an interesting discussion of the place and potential of money in politics.
Holbo isn’t talking about selling away your right to vote, just single votes for candidates or propositions. As he puts it, “A short-term surrender of rights and liberties for the sake of something you want: namely, cash.”
In one way, granting citizens the right to sell their votes seems like a simple way to expand everyone’s economic agency. But, of course, there’s also the specter of a Citizens-United-on-overdrive nightmare, in which the money-slinging war between corporations, political action committees, and wealthy candidates leads to an electoral bloodbath. “In short,” writes Holbo, “it might look a lot like the real world, in its range of outcomes: The rich would mostly, but not necessarily always, win.”
The article doesn’t really take a side; rather, it’s meant to stir up discussion. The comments are worth a read as well. As you might imagine, a lot of people are balking at the idea.
As for me, candidates, if pay-for-vote legislation is ever enacted, I’ll pre-warn you that my vote will cost you a pretty penny. I care too much about what happens to our country, have something of a chip on my shoulder about “the system,” and have some student loans to pay back. But if you’re still interested, maybe you could borrow some cash from a banker—I hear you folks are on good terms.
Source: Crooked Timber
Image by Sarah Korf, licensed under Creative Commons.
Will Wlizlo is the editorial and web assistant at Utne Reader. Follow him on Twitter at @willwlizlo.
1/18/2012 3:43:38 PM
Ryan O’Connell warns viewers that “Unless you’re made of stone or a homophobe, this video will make you weep openly.” That’s quite a dare, so I took it. And within a minute, I was weeping. Openly. And I think you will too.
The video is Second Class Citizens by Ryan James Yezak, a short but powerful tribute to how dramatically the gay rights movement has evolved over the past decades. “Sometimes it feels like we’re crawling very slowly with gay rights,” says O’Connell in Thought Catalog (Jan. 17, 2012), especially as we watch the current Republican presidential candidates battle it out over who hates gays the most and is willing to strip away rights the fastest. “After viewing this video, however, one gets a healthy dose of perspective and realizes that, in fact, we have come a long way.”
Ryan O’Connell has a great little piece about being a blogger in The World’s First Perfect Zine (Oct. 2011).
Source: Thought Catalog
Image courtesy of www.brokebackmountainmovie.com.
1/16/2012 3:31:55 PM
This post originally appeared on
American fighter jets screamed over the Iraqi countryside heading for the MQ-1 Predator drone, while its crew in California stood by helplessly. What had begun as an ordinary reconnaissance mission was now taking a ruinous turn. In an instant, the jets attacked and then it was all over. The Predator, one of the Air Force’s workhorse hunter/killer robots, had been obliterated.
An account of the spectacular end of that nearly $4 million drone in November 2007 is contained in a collection of Air Force accident investigation documents recently examined by TomDispatch. They catalog more than 70 catastrophic Air Force drone mishaps since 2000, each resulting in the loss of an aircraft or property damage of $2 million or more.
These official reports, some obtained by TomDispatch through the Freedom of Information Act, offer new insights into a largely covert, yet highly touted war-fighting, assassination, and spy program involving armed robots that are significantly less reliable than previously acknowledged. These planes, the latest wonder weapons in the U.S. military arsenal, are tested, launched, and piloted from a shadowy network of more than 60 bases spread around the globe, often in support of elite teams of special operations forces. Collectively, the Air Force documents offer a remarkable portrait of modern drone warfare, one rarely found in a decade of generally triumphalist or awestruck press accounts that seldom mention the limitations of drones, much less their mission failures.
The aerial disasters described draw attention not only to the technical limitations of drone warfare, but to larger conceptual flaws inherent in such operations. Launched and landed by aircrews close to battlefields in places like Afghanistan, the drones are controlled during missions by pilots and sensor operators—often multiple teams over many hours—from bases in places like Nevada and North Dakota. They are sometimes also monitored by “screeners” from private security contractors at stateside bases like Hurlburt Field in Florida. (A recent McClatchy report revealed that it takes nearly 170 people to keep a single Predator in the air for 24 hours.)
In other words, drone missions, like the robots themselves, have many moving parts and much, it turns out, can and does go wrong. In that November 2007 Predator incident in Iraq, for instance, an electronic failure caused the robotic aircraft to engage its self-destruct mechanism and crash, after which U.S. jets destroyed the wreckage to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. In other cases, drones—officially known as remotely piloted aircraft, or RPAs—broke down, escaped human control and oversight, or self-destructed for reasons ranging from pilot error and bad weather to mechanical failure in Afghanistan, Djibouti, the Gulf of Aden, Iraq, Kuwait, and various other unspecified or classified foreign locations, as well as in the United States.
In 2001, Air Force Predator drones flew 7,500 hours. By the close of last year, that number topped 70,000. As the tempo of robotic air operations has steadily increased, crashes have, not surprisingly, become more frequent. In 2001, just two Air Force drones were destroyed in accidents. In 2008, eight drones fell from the sky. Last year, the number reached 13. (Accident rates are, however, dropping according to an Air Force report relying on figures from 2009.)
Keep in mind that the 70-plus accidents recorded in those Air Force documents represent only drone crashes investigated by the Air Force under a rigid set of rules. Many other drone mishaps have not been included in the Air Force statistics. Examples include a haywire MQ-9 Reaper drone that had to be shot out of the Afghan skies by a fighter jet in 2009, a remotely-operated Navy helicopter that went down in Libya last June, an unmanned aerial vehicle whose camera was reportedly taken by Afghan insurgents after a crash in August 2011, an advanced RQ-170 Sentinel lost during a spy mission in Iran last December, and the recent crash of an MQ-9 Reaper in the Seychelles Islands.
You Don’t Need a Weatherman . . . Or Do You?
How missions are carried out—and sometimes fail—is apparent from the declassified reports, including one provided to TomDispatch by the Air Force detailing a June 2011 crash. Late that month, a Predator drone took off from Jalalabad Air Base in Afghanistan to carry out a surveillance mission in support of ground forces. Piloted by a member of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing out of Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the robotic craft ran into rough weather, causing the pilot to ask for permission to abandon the troops below.
His commander never had a chance to respond. Lacking weather avoidance equipment found on more sophisticated aircraft or on-board sensors to clue the pilot in to rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, and with a sandstorm interfering with ground radar, “severe weather effects” overtook the Predator. In an instant, the satellite link between pilot and plane was severed. When it momentarily flickered back to life, the crew could see that the drone was in an extreme nosedive. They then lost the datalink for a second and final time. A few minutes later, troops on the ground radioed in to say that the $4 million drone had crashed near them.
A month earlier, a Predator drone took off from the tiny African nation of Djibouti in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes operations in Afghanistan as well as Yemen, Djibouti, and Somalia, among other nations. According to documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, about eight hours into the flight, the mission crew noticed a slow oil leak. Ten hours later, they handed the drone off to a local aircrew whose assignment was to land it at Djibouti’s Ambouli Airport, a joint civilian/military facility adjacent to Camp Lemonier, a U.S. base in the country.
That mission crew—both the pilot and sensor operator—had been deployed from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and had logged a combined 1,700 hours flying Predators. They were considered “experienced” by the Air Force. On this day, however, the electronic sensors that measure their drone’s altitude were inaccurate, while low clouds and high humidity affected its infrared sensors and set the stage for disaster.
An investigation eventually found that, had the crew performed proper instrument cross-checks, they would have noticed a 300-400 foot discrepancy in their altitude. Instead, only when the RPA broke through the clouds did the sensor operator realize just how close to the ground it was. Six seconds later, the drone crashed to earth, destroying itself and one of its Hellfire missiles.
Storms, clouds, humidity, and human error aren’t the only natural dangers for drones. In a November 2008 incident, a mission crew at Kandahar Air Field launched a Predator on a windy day. Just five minutes into the flight, with the aircraft still above the sprawling American mega-base, the pilot realized that the plane had already deviated from its intended course. To get it back on track, he initiated a turn that—due to the aggressive nature of the maneuver, wind conditions, drone design, and the unbalanced weight of a missile on just one wing—sent the plane into a roll. Despite the pilot’s best efforts, the craft entered a tailspin, crashed on the base, and burst into flames.
On occasion, RPAs have simply escaped from human control. Over the course of eight hours on a late February day in 2009, for example, five different crews passed off the controls of a Predator drone, one to the next, as it flew over Iraq. Suddenly, without warning, the last of them, members of the North Dakota Air National Guard at Hector International Airport in Fargo, lost communication with the plane. At that point no one—not the pilot, nor the sensor operator, nor a local mission crew—knew where the drone was or what it was doing. Neither transmitting nor receiving data or commands, it had, in effect, gone rogue. Only later was it determined that a datalink failure had triggered the drone’s self-destruct mechanism, sending it into an unrecoverable tailspin and crash within 10 minutes of escaping human control.
In November 2009, a Predator launched from Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan lost touch with its human handlers 20 minutes after takeoff and simply disappeared. When the mission crew was unable to raise the drone, datalink specialists were brought in but failed to find the errant plane. Meanwhile, air traffic controllers, who had lost the plane on radar, could not even locate its transponder signal. Numerous efforts to make contact failed. Two days later, at the moment the drone would have run out of fuel, the Air Force declared the Predator “lost.” It took eight days for its wreckage to be located.
In mid-August 2004, while drone operations in the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility were running at high tempo, a Predator mission crew began hearing a cascade of warning alarms indicating engine and alternator failure, as well as a possible engine fire. When the sensor operator used his camera to scan the aircraft, it didn’t take long to spot the problem. Its tail had burst into flames. Shortly afterward, it became uncontrollable and crashed.
In January 2007, a Predator drone was flying somewhere in the CENTCOM region (above one of 20 countries in the Greater Middle East). About 14 hours into a 20-hour mission, the aircraft began to falter. For 15 minutes its engine was failing, but the information it was sending back remained within normal parameters, so the mission crew failed to notice. Only at the last minute did they become aware that their drone was dying. As an investigation later determined, an expanding crack in the drone’s crankshaft caused the engine to seize up. The pilot put the aircraft into a glide toward an unpopulated area. Higher headquarters then directed that he should intentionally crash it, since a rapid reaction force would not be able to reach it quickly and it was carrying two Hellfire missiles as well as unspecified “classified equipment.” Days later, its remains were recovered.
The Crash and Burn Future of Robot Warfare
In spite of all the technical limitations of remote-controlled war spelled out in the Air Force investigation files, the U.S. is doubling down on drones. Under the president’s new military strategy, the Air Force is projected to see its share of the budgetary pie rise and flying robots are expected to be a major part of that expansion.
Already, counting the Army’s thousands of tiny drones, one in three military aircraft—close to 7,500 machines—are robots. According to official figures provided to TomDispatch, roughly 285 of them are Air Force Predator, Reaper, or Global Hawk drones. The Air Force’s arsenal also includes more advanced Sentinels, Avengers, and other classified unmanned aircraft. A report published by the Congressional Budget Office last year, revealed that “the Department of Defense plans to purchase about 730 new medium-sized and large unmanned aircraft systems” during the next 10 years.
Over the last decade, the United States has increasingly turned to drones in an effort to win its wars. The Air Force investigation files examined by TomDispatch suggest a more extensive use of drones in Iraq than has previously been reported. But in Iraq, as in Afghanistan, America’s preeminent wonder weapon failed to bring the U.S. mission anywhere close to victory. Effective as the spearhead of a program to cripple al-Qaeda in Pakistan, drone warfare in that country’s tribal borderlands has also alienated almost the entire population of 190 million. In other words, an estimated 2,000 suspected or identified guerrillas (as well as untold numbers of civilians) died. The populace of a key American ally grew ever more hostile and no one knows how many new militants in search of revenge the drone strikes may have created, though the numbers are believed to be significant.
Despite a decade of technological, tactical, and strategic refinements and improvements, Air Force and allied CIA personnel watching computer monitors in distant locations have continually failed to discriminate between armed combatants and innocent civilians and, as a result, the judge-jury-executioner drone assassination program is widely considered to have run afoul of international law.
In addition, drone warfare seems to be creating a sinister system of embedded economic incentives that may lead to increasing casualty figures on the ground. “In some targeting programs, staffers have review quotas—that is, they must review a certain number of possible targets per given length of time,” The Atlantic’s Joshua Foust recently wrote of the private contractors involved in the process. “Because they are contractors,” he explains, “their continued employment depends on their ability to satisfy the stated performance metrics. So they have a financial incentive to make life-or-death decisions about possible kill targets just to stay employed. This should be an intolerable situation, but because the system lacks transparency or outside review it is almost impossible to monitor or alter.”
As flight hours rise year by year, these stark drawbacks are compounded by a series of technical glitches and vulnerabilities that are ever more regularly coming to light. These include: Iraqi insurgents hacking drone video feeds, a virulent computer virus infecting the Air Force’s unmanned fleet, large percentages of drone pilots suffering from “high operational stress,” a friendly fire incident in which drone operators killed two U.S. military personnel, increasing numbers of crashes, and the possibility of an Iranian drone-hijacking, as well as those more than 70 catastrophic mishaps detailed in Air Force accident investigation documents.
Over the last decade, a more-is-better mentality has led to increased numbers of drones, drone bases, drone pilots, and drone victims, but not much else. Drones may be effective in terms of generating body counts, but they appear to be even more successful in generating animosity and creating enemies.
The Air Force’s accident reports are replete with evidence of the flaws inherent in drone technology, and there can be little doubt that, in the future, ever more will come to light. A decade’s worth of futility suggests that drone warfare itself may already be crashing and burning, yet it seems destined that the skies will fill with drones and that the future will bring more of the same.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. This article is the fifth in his new series on the changing face of American empire, which is being underwritten by Lannan Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook. (To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Turse discusses why drone warfare is anything but failure-proof, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Nick Turse
Image by Official U.S. Navy Imagery, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/6/2012 11:36:37 AM
It’s always a little heart-wrenching when an expectant mother loses her job. Being in the “pregnant and fired” position myself, I can attest that my news has elicited a lot of handwringing from family and friends. (Okay, so “fired” is an exaggeration. I’m just laid off, along with all my Utne Reader colleagues as we watch our beloved magazine close down its Minneapolis office and move south to company headquarters in Topeka, Kansas, come March.) Fortunately, it’s nothing personal. Bad economy, decreased profits, budget cuts, the usual. The Utne president didn’t fire me for requesting maternity leave (as happened to a Canadian army reservist), for having a growing baby bump (as happened to a server at Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club), or for using artificial insemination (as happened to an employee at Holy Family and St. Lawrence Catholic schools in Cincinnati). Nor did he badger me to get an abortion (as happened to a worker at Cookie’s Deli in New York). These are real-world examples of ways in which expectant mothers are mistreated in the workplace, even though the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 makes it illegal to fire a woman for being pregnant. These are all also real-world examples of women fighting back—suing their employers and bringing the cases to the media.
It’s inconvenient to spend 9 months growing a tiny person inside you. Between the swelling belly, the morning sickness that can make it difficult to perform your job, early complications that can make work dangerous altogether, needing a few months off after the child is born to attend to its constant needs, and needing a more flexible schedule in the months and years to come as you deal with daycare and school and illnesses—it’s a real zinger for you and your employer. But just like our society recognizes that military reservists need regular time off to attend to important duties without jeopardizing their job, we recognize that mothers-to-be need similar flexibility and time to attend to their valued duties. For more information on how to protect yourself and your children, visit the group MomsRising, a nonprofit devoted to building a more family-friendly America.
Source: CANOE, New York Post, Care2, NineMSN
Image by mahalie, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/5/2012 1:52:26 PM
This post originally appeared at
My resolution for 2012 is to be naïve—dangerously naïve.
I’m aware that the usual recipe for political effectiveness is just the opposite: to be cynical, calculating, an insider. But if you think, as I do, that we need deep change in this country, then cynicism is a sucker’s bet. Try as hard as you can, you’re never going to be as cynical as the corporations and the harem of politicians they pay for. It’s like trying to outchant a Buddhist monastery.
Here’s my case in point, one of a thousand stories people working for social change could tell: All last fall, most of the environmental movement, including 350.org, the group I helped found, waged a fight against the planned Keystone XL pipeline that would bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Canada through the U.S. to the Gulf Coast. We waged our struggle against building it out in the open, presenting scientific argument, holding demonstrations, and attending hearings. We sent 1,253 people to jailin the largest civil disobedience action in a generation. Meanwhile, more than half a million Americans offered public comments against the pipeline, the most on any energy project in the nation’s history.
And what do you know? We won a small victory in November, when President Obama agreed that, before he could give the project a thumbs-up or -down, it needed another year of careful review. (The previous version of that review, as overseen by the State Department, had been little short of a crony capitalist farce.) Given that James Hansen, the government’s premier climate scientist, had said that tapping Canada’s tar sands for that pipeline would, in the end, essentially mean “game over for the climate,” that seemed an eminently reasonable course to follow, even if it was also eminently political.
A few weeks later, however, Congress decided it wanted to take up the question. In the process, the issue went from out in the open to behind closed doors in money-filled rooms. Within days, and after only a couple of hours of hearings that barely mentioned the key scientific questions or the dangers involved, the House of Representatives voted 234-194 to force a quicker review of the pipeline. Later, the House attached its demand to the must-pass payroll tax cut.
That was an obvious pre-election year attempt to put the president on the spot. Environmentalists are at least hopeful that the White House will now reject the permit. After all, its communications director said that the rider, by hurrying the decision, “virtually guarantees that the pipeline will not be approved.”
As important as the vote total in the House, however, was another number: within minutes of the vote, Oil Change International had calculated that the 234 Congressional representatives who voted aye had received $42 million in campaign contributions from the fossil-fuel industry; the 193 nays, $8 million.
I know that cynics—call them realists, if you prefer—will be completely unsurprised by that. Which is precisely the problem.
We’ve reached the point where we’re unfazed by things that should shake us to the core. So, just for a moment, be naïve and consider what really happened in that vote: the people’s representatives who happen to have taken the bulk of the money from those energy companies promptly voted on behalf of their interests.
They weren’t weighing science or the national interest; they weren’t balancing present benefits against future costs. Instead of doing the work of legislators, that is, they were acting like employees. Forget the idea that they’re public servants; the truth is that, in every way that matters, they work for Exxon and its kin. They should, by rights, wear logos on their lapels like NASCAR drivers.
If you find this too harsh, think about how obligated you feel when someone gives you something. Did you get a Christmas present last month from someone you hadn’t remembered to buy one for? Are you going to send them an extra-special one next year?
And that’s for a pair of socks. Speaker of the House John Boehner, who insisted that the Keystone approval decision be speeded up, has gotten $1,111,080 from the fossil-fuel industry during his tenure. His Senate counterpart Mitch McConnell, who shepherded the bill through his chamber, has raked in $1,277,208 in the course of his tenure in Washington.
If someone had helped your career to the tune of a million dollars, wouldn’t you feel in their debt? I would. I get somewhat less than that from my employer, Middlebury College, and yet I bleed Panther blue. Don’t ask me to compare my school with, say, Dartmouth unless you want a biased answer, because that’s what you’ll get. Which is fine—I am an employee.
But you’d be a fool to let me referee the homecoming football game. In fact, in any other walk of life we wouldn’t think twice before concluding that paying off the referees is wrong. If the Patriots make the Super Bowl, everyone in America would be outraged to see owner Robert Kraft trot out to midfield before the game and hand a $1,000 bill to each of the linesmen and field judges.
If he did it secretly, the newspaper reporter who uncovered the scandal would win a Pulitzer. But a political reporter who bothered to point out Boehner’s and McConnell’s payoffs would be upbraided by her editor for simpleminded journalism. That’s how the game is played and we’ve all bought into it, even if only to sputter in hopeless outrage.
Far from showing any shame, the big players boast about it: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, front outfit for a consortium of corporations, has bragged on its website about outspending everyone in Washington, which is easy to do when Chevron, Goldman Sachs, and News Corp are writing you seven-figure checks. This really matters. The Chamber of Commerce spent more money on the 2010 elections than the Republican and Democratic National Committees combined, and 94% of those dollars went to climate-change deniers. That helps explain why the House voted last year to say that global warming isn’t real.
It also explains why “our” representatives vote, year in and year out, for billions of dollars worth of subsidies for fossil-fuel companies. If there was ever an industry that didn’t need subsidies, it would be this one: they make more moneyeach year than any enterprise in the history of money. Not only that, but we’ve known how to burn coal for 300 years and oil for 200.
Those subsidies are simply payoffs. Companies give small gifts to legislators, and in return get large ones back, and we’re the ones who are actually paying.
Whose Money? Whose Washington?
I don’t want to be hopelessly naïve. I want to be hopefully naïve. It would be relatively easy to change this: you could provide public financing for campaigns instead of letting corporations pay. It’s the equivalent of having the National Football League hire referees instead of asking the teams to provide them.
Public financing of campaigns would cost a little money, but endlessly less than paying for the presents these guys give their masters. And it would let you watch what was happening in Washington without feeling as disgusted. Even legislators, once they got the hang of it, might enjoy neither raising money nor having to pretend it doesn’t affect them.
To make this happen, however, we may have to change the Constitution, as we’ve done 27 times before. This time, we’d need to specify that corporations aren’t people, that money isn’t speech, and that it doesn’t abridge the First Amendment to tell people they can’t spend whatever they want getting elected. Winning a change like that would require hard political organizing, since big banks and big oil companies and big drug-makers will surely rally to protect their privilege.
Still, there’s a chance. The Occupy movement opened the door to this sort of change by reminding us all that the system is rigged, that its outcomes are unfair, that there’s reason to think people from across the political spectrum are tired of what we’ve got, and that getting angry and acting on that anger in the political arena is what being a citizen is all about.
It’s fertile ground for action. After all, Congress’s approval rating is now at 9%, which is another way of saying that everyone who’s not a lobbyist hates them and what they’re doing. The big boys are, of course, counting on us simmering down; they’re counting on us being cynical, on figuring there’s no hope or benefit in fighting city hall. But if we’re naïve enough to demand a country more like the one we were promised in high school civics class, then we have a shot.
A good time to take an initial stand comes later this month, when rallies outside every federal courthouse will mark the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision. That’s the one where the Supreme Court ruled that corporations had the right to spend whatever they wanted on campaigns.
To me, that decision was, in essence, corporate America saying, “We’re not going to bother pretending any more. This country belongs to us.”
We need to say, loud and clear: “Sorry. Time to give it back.”
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign
, and the author, most recently, of
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
. To catch Timothy MacBain’s first Tomcast audio interview of the new year in which McKibben discusses how the rest of us can compete with a system in which money talks, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
Copyright 2012 Bill McKibben
Image by Fort Wainwright Public Affairs Office, licensed under Creative Commons.
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