Obama's Robot Army


No president has ever relied so extensively on the stealthy, secret killing of individuals on the battlefield.

There's a lot to chew on in Greg Miller's piece on the expansion of the drone program under Obama:

In the space of three years, the administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries. The apparatus involves dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force­ ­cockpits in the Southwest and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents. 

Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts. But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation's security goals. The rapid expansion of the drone program has blurred long-standing boundaries between the CIA and the military. 

Lethal operations are increasingly assembled a la carte, piecing together personnel and equipment in ways that allow the White House to toggle between separate legal authorities that govern the use of lethal force. In Yemen, for instance, the CIA and the military's Joint Special Operations Command pursue the same adversary with nearly identical aircraft. 

But they alternate taking the lead on strikes to exploit their separate authorities, and they maintain separate kill lists that overlap but don't match. CIA and military strikes this fall killed three U.S. citizens, two of whom were suspected al-Qaeda operatives. The convergence of military and intelligence resources has created blind spots in congressional oversight. Intelligence committees are briefed on CIA operations, and JSOC reports to armed services panels. As a result, no committee has a complete, unobstructed view. 

With a year to go in President Obama's first term, his administration can point to undeniable results: Osama bin Laden is dead, the core al-Qaeda network is near defeat, and members of its regional affiliates scan the sky for metallic glints.

I don't want to speak for "liberals," but I had no real sense, during the 2008 campaign, that Obama was a dove. When he said he would go into Pakistan and kill Osama Bin Laden, given the chance, I believed him. In terms of executing a ruthless war with Al Qaeda, Obama is the man Dick Cheney thinks he is. There is a strong temptation to borrow Obama's phrasing and crow, "Ask Osama Bin Laden if we're tough." And surely destroying Al'Qaeda is a great thing. But I doubt that it ends there.

Drones are a perfect weapon for a democracy. One gains all of the political credit for killing the country's enemies, and none of the blame for military casualties. The occasional slaughter of a 16-year old boy is surely regrettable, but of almost zero political import. (Please click through that link. To excerpt it is to ruin it.)

But I wonder about that 16 year old's younger siblings, about what they think of country they executes children a world away with a joystick. I wonder about their anger. But mostly I wonder about the secrecy here at home. In this business, the American president is the steward of his country's accounts. But Obama has a stated policy of keeping these sorts of expenses off the books. Some decades from now the bill will surely come due.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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