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Engelhardt writes: "Here's the essence of it: you can trust America's creme de la creme, the most elevated, responsible people, no matter what weapons, what powers, you put in their hands. No need to constantly look over their shoulders."

US drone. (photo: USAF)
US drone. (photo: USAF)

Predator Nation

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

14 May 12


On staring Death in the face and not noticing.

ere's the essence of it: you can trust America's crème de la crème, the most elevated, responsible people, no matter what weapons, what powers, you put in their hands. No need to constantly look over their shoulders.(Credit:

Placed in the hands of evildoers, those weapons and powers could create a living nightmare; controlled by the best of people, they lead to measured, thoughtful, precise decisions in which bad things are (with rare and understandable exceptions) done only to truly terrible types. In the process, you simply couldn't be better protected.

And in case you were wondering, there is no question who among us are the best, most lawful, moral, ethical, considerate, and judicious people: the officials of our national security state. Trust them implicitly. They will never give you a bum steer.

You may be paying a fortune to maintain their world - the 30,000 people hired to listen in on conversations and other communications in this country, the 230,000 employees of the Department of Homeland Security, the 854,000 people with top-secret clearances, the 4.2 million with security clearances of one sort or another, the $2 billion, one-million-square-foot data center that the National Security Agency is constructing in Utah, the gigantic $1.8 billion headquarters the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency recently built for its 16,000 employees in the Washington area - but there's a good reason. That's what's needed to make truly elevated, surgically precise decisions about life and death in the service of protecting American interests on this dangerous globe of ours.

And in case you wondered just how we know all this, we have it on the best authority: the people who are doing it - the only ones, given the obvious need for secrecy, capable of judging just how moral, elevated, and remarkable their own work is. They deserve our congratulations, but if we're too distracted to give it to them, they are quite capable of high-fiving themselves.

"The covertness of our drone wars in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere really turns out to have less to do with secrecy - just about every covert drone strike is reported, sooner or later, in the media - than assuring two administrations that they could pursue their drone wars without accountability to anyone."

We're talking, in particular, about the use by the Obama administration (and the Bush administration before it) of a growing armada of remotely piloted planes, a.k.a. drones, grimly labeled Predators and Reapers, to fight a nameless, almost planet-wide war (formerly known as the Global War on Terror). Its purpose: to destroy al-Qaeda-in-wherever and all its wannabes and look-alikes, the Taliban, and anyone affiliated or associated with any of the above, or just about anyone else we believe might imminently endanger our "interests."

In the service of this war, in the midst of a perpetual state of war and of wartime, every act committed by these leaders is, it turns out, absolutely, totally, and completely legal. We have their say-so for that, and they have the documents to prove it, largely because the best and most elevated legal minds among them have produced that documentation in secret. (Of course, they dare not show it to the rest of us, lest lives be endangered.)

By their own account, they have, in fact, been covertly exceptional, moral, and legal for more than a decade (minus, of course, the odd black site and torture chamber) - so covertly exceptional, in fact, that they haven't quite gotten the credit they deserve. Now, they would like to make the latest version of their exceptional mission to the world known to the rest of us. It is finally in our interest, it seems, to be a good deal better informed about America's covert wars in a year in which the widely announced "covert" killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan is a major selling point in the president's reelection campaign.

No one should be surprised. There was always an "overt" lurking in the "covert" of what now passes for "covert war." The CIA's global drone assassination campaign has long been a bragging point in Washington, even if it couldn't officially be discussed directly before, say, Congress. The covertness of our drone wars in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere really turns out to have less to do with secrecy - just about every covert drone strike is reported, sooner or later, in the media - than assuring two administrations that they could pursue their drone wars without accountability to anyone.

A Classic of Self-Congratulation

Recently, top administration officials seem to be fanning out to offer rare peeks into what's truly on-target and exceptional about America's drone wars. In many ways, these days, American exceptionalism is about as unexceptional as apple pie. It has, for one thing, become the everyday language of the presidential campaign trail. And that shouldn't surprise us either. After all, great powers and their leaders tend to think well of themselves. The French had their "mission civilisatrice," the Chinese had the "mandate of heaven," and like all imperial powers they inevitably thought they were doing the best for themselves and others, sadly benighted, in this best of all possible worlds.

Sometimes, though, the American version of this does seem... I hate to use the word, but exceptional. If you want to get a taste of just what this means, consider as Exhibit One a recent speech by the president's counterterrorism "tsar," John Brennan, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. According to his own account, he was dispatched to the center by President Obama to provide greater openness when it comes to the administration's secret drone wars, to respond to critics of the drones and their legality, and undoubtedly to put a smiley face on drone operations generally.

We have turned much of the planet into what "can only be considered an American free-fire zone." (art: Khalil Bendib/OtherWords)

Ever since the Puritan minister John Winthrop first used the phrase in a sermon on shipboard on the way to North America, "a city upon a hill" has caught something of at least one American-style dream - a sense that this country's fate was to be a blessed paragon for the rest of the world, an exception to every norm. In the last century, it became "a shining city upon a hill" and was regularly cited in presidential addresses.

Whatever that "city," that dream, was once imagined to be, it has undergone a largely unnoticed metamorphosis in the twenty-first century. It has become - even in our dreams - an up-armored garrison encampment, just as Washington itself has become the heavily fortified bureaucratic heartland of a war state. So when Brennan spoke, what he offered was a new version of American exceptionalism: the first "shining drone upon a hill" speech, which also qualifies as an instant classic of self-congratulation.

Never, according to him, has a country with such an advanced weapon system as the drone used it quite so judiciously, quite so - if not peacefully - at least with the sagacity and skill usually reserved for the gods. American drone strikes, he assured his listeners, are "ethical and just," "wise," and "surgically precise" - exactly what you'd expect from a country he refers to, quoting the president, as the preeminent "standard bearer in the conduct of war."

Those drone strikes, he assured his listeners, are based on staggeringly "rigorous standards" involving the individual identification of human targets. Even when visited on American citizens outside declared war zones, they are invariably "within the bounds of the law," as you would expect of the preeminent "nation of laws."

The strikes are never motivated by vengeance, always target someone known to us as the worst of the worst, and almost invariably avoid anyone who is even the most mediocre of the mediocre. (Forget the fact that, as Greg Miller of the Washington Post reported, the CIA has recently received permission from the president to launch drone strikes in Yemen based only on the observed "patterns of suspicious behavior" of groups of unidentified individuals, as was already true in the Pakistani tribal borderlands.)

"... they are transforming the promise of America into a promise of death. And death, visited from the skies, isn't precise. It isn't glorious. It isn't judicious. It certainly isn't a shining vision. It's hell. And it's a global future for which, someday, no one will thank us."

Yes, in such circumstances innocents do unfortunately die, even if unbelievably rarely - and for that we couldn't be more regretful. Such deaths, however, are in some sense salutary, since they lead to the most rigorous reviews and reassessments of, and so improvements in, our actions. "This too," Brennan assured his audience, "is a reflection of our values as Americans."

"I would note," he added, "that these standards, for identifying a target and avoiding... the loss of lives of innocent civilians, exceed what is required as a matter of international law on a typical battlefield. That's another example of the high standards to which we hold ourselves."

And that's just a taste of the tone and substance of the speech given by the president's leading counterterrorism expert, and in it he's no outlier. It catches something about an American sense of self at this moment. Yes, Americans may be ever more down on the Afghan war, but like their leaders, they are high on drones. In a February Washington Post/ABC News poll, 83% of respondents supported the administration's use of drones. Perhaps that's not surprising either, since the drones are generally presented here as the coolest of machines, as well as cheap alternatives (in money and lives) to sending more armies onto the Eurasian mainland.

Predator Nation

In these last years, this country has pioneered the development of the most advanced killing machines on the planet for which the national security state has plans decades into the future. Conceptually speaking, our leaders have also established their "right" to send these robot assassins into any airspace, no matter the local claims of national sovereignty, to take out those we define as evil or simply to protect American interests. On this, Brennan couldn't be clearer. In the process, we have turned much of the rest of the planet into what can only be considered an American free-fire zone.

We have, in short, established a remarkably expansive set of drone-war rules for the global future. Naturally, we trust ourselves with such rules, but there is a fly in the ointment, even as the droniacs see it. Others far less sagacious, kindly, lawful, and good than we are do exist on this planet and they may soon have their own fleets of drones. About 50 countries are today buying or developing such robotic aircraft, including Russia, China, and Iran, not to speak of Hezbollah in Lebanon. And who knows what terror groups are looking into suicide drones?

As the Washington Post's David Ignatius put it in a column about Brennan's speech: "What if the Chinese deployed drones to protect their workers in southern Sudan against rebels who have killed them in past attacks? What if Iran used them against Kurdish separatists they regard as terrorists? What if Russia used them over Chechnya? What position would the United States take, and wouldn't it be hypocritical if it opposed drone attacks by other nations that face 'imminent' or ‘significant' threats?"

This is Washington's global drone conundrum as seen from inside the Beltway. These are the nightmarish scenarios even our leaders can imagine others producing with their own drones and our rules. A deeply embedded sense of American exceptionalism, a powerful belief in their own special, self-evident goodness, however, conveniently blinds them to what they are doing right now. Looking in the mirror, they are incapable of seeing a mask of death. And yet our proudest export at present, other than Hollywood superhero films, may be a stone-cold robotic killer with a name straight out of a horror movie.

Consider this as well: those "shining drones" launched on campaigns of assassination and slaughter are increasingly the "face" that we choose to present to the world. And yet it's beyond us why it might not shine for others.

In reality, it's not so hard to imagine what we increasingly look like to those others: a Predator nation. And not just to the parents and relatives of the more than 160 children the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has documented as having died in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. After all, war is now the only game in town. Peace? For the managers of our national security state, it's neither a word worth mentioning, nor an imaginable condition.

In truth, our leaders should be in mourning for whatever peaceful dreams we ever had. But mention drones and they light up. They're having a love affair with those machines. They just can't get enough of them or imagine their world or ours without them.

What they can't see in the haze of exceptional self-congratulation is this: they are transforming the promise of America into a promise of death. And death, visited from the skies, isn't precise. It isn't glorious. It isn't judicious. It certainly isn't a shining vision. It's hell. And it's a global future for which, someday, no one will thank us.

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 His latest book, "The United States of Fear" (Haymarket Books), has just been published. your social media marketing partner


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+23 # bluepilgrim 2012-05-14 16:19
Not everyone supports these war crimes, but as a whole the US is a rogue, criminal nation, and that is at the heart of the immorality that brings everything else down, from the theft by the banksters to the prison industry to racism and bigotry to the constant lies by the media to wrecked economy and social programs.

When just one little corner of a pool is contaminated with pathogenic bacteria then the entire pool is soon contaminated. When evil and injustice is tolerated anywhere that rot spreads everwhere and destroys everything. We are seeing it as it happens, and the fault is the American population -- not in our 'stars' but in ourselves, to paraphrase Shakespeare.
+12 # bluepilgrim 2012-05-14 16:59
There is no end to it. We are actually IN a world war now, especially when looking at what is happening with NATO (which is largely a US, or at least the empire's, puppet).

"Don'tbe stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party..."

Escalating America’s Third War in Yemen
by Micah Zenko
May 14, 2012

America’s Third War is escalating quickly in the skies over Yemen. Despite previous rebuffs from the White House, last month the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the CIA—which both run parallel drone campaigns in Yemen—were granted broad authority to conduct "signature strikes" against anonymous suspected militants, who are determined to support al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) based on the observed "patterns of suspicious behavior" from multiple intelligence sources.

A senior Obama administration official described the enlarged scope of targets as "broadening the aperture" for JSOC and CIA drones. By one estimate, there have been more drone strikes in the past month (seventeen, including two on Saturday) than in the preceding nine years, since the first strike on November 3, 2002. Meanwhile, there have been between ten and fifty other U.S. attacks on militants in Yemen using manned aircraft or naval platforms.

+15 # RMDC 2012-05-14 18:04
Drone strikes are pre-meditated murder. The only justification for killing in war is self-defense. Soldiers on a battlefield facing each other are mutual threats. There is no threat from a family in Pakistan or Yemen or any of the dozen more nations now suffering from Obama's murder spreee.

I will never vote again for the murderer Obama. I don't care if Romney wins. He too will probably become a murderer. But I could never vote for a gloating murderer like Obama and I hope no one else will. There is a line that cannot be crossed. Obama crossed it. There is a point at which American have to stand up and say "no more." We are there now. Send Obama back to Chicago in infamy. He deserves it. We'll deal with Romney the same way.

I know that Obama really does not make any decisions about drones. The CIA does that. But he is the president. If he's afraid to fire everyone at the CIA, then he should go back to Chicago and watch basketball for the rest of his life. He's not up to this job. The same will go for Romney.
+9 # bluepilgrim 2012-05-14 19:15
Well, I do care if Romney wins because he will be terrible (also), ut at least he isn't directly a war criminal yet.

For voting, I will, as you know, vote for Jerry White, SEP party, but of course he wont win.

The only answer to this is on the streets, as with OWS and other actions by the people. It's gone too far now to expect anything from the political machines.

Yes, a truly moral and courageous presidnt could put a stop to this, but s/he would never get as far as even close to the position.

Rest assured, that sooner or later this will come to an end. The questions is how much misery until then and if it will take down the entire nation, or world, in the process. It's up to the people: either enough will wake up in time, or they won't, but what is unsustainable will certainly end, and none of this is sustainable, as anyone who is awake plainly sees.
+3 # John Locke 2012-05-15 07:23
I agree fully with what you have to say. The problem is us... our population appears to be the least intelligent in the world. This is evident by the mentality of Joe Six pack....give them their sports and the government can take away their freedom and they won't even notice it!
+3 # bluepilgrim 2012-05-15 09:20
I think there are others just as ignorant (not exactly intelligence, here)but we are far down on the list, especially taking 'developed' nations into account (as with education, health care, etc.).
We have an immensely powerful propaganda machine here, and structures to keep people dumb and brutish. We also are at the heart of the corporate empire -- in the belly of the beast.

This is much of libertariansm might apply -- in breaking from the hegemony -- but even that's been perverted and co-opted into this weird 'free market' and anti-social nonsense instead of what should be a philosophy for rediscovering and reintegrating the conscious self and struggling against the false consciousness and myths of the hegemony (such as manifest destiny).

Bottom line: the oligarchy has spent so much time and resource in controlling and mystifying the people that they are not largely stupified and and mystified, and that has resulted in the severe dysfunction of the society, similar to how people grow up crazy in a dysfunctional family, just playing out insane scripts instead of self-actualized at all. (Erich Fromm should be required reading in pubic school.) The language itself has been perverted to where it's difficult to even think sane thoughts on a verbal level.
+2 # bluepilgrim 2012-05-15 11:11
Should be "now largely stupified" -- my other typos and dyslexic errors should be decipherable.

I do want to say that a major function of organizing - and we see some of this in the occupy movement -- is education and develoment of the people (masses). We have to counter the propaganda, spread the truth, and develop ouselves in the various skills to organize and manage groups.

We have to rebuild normal society and cooperative functioning, and authentic communication. We have to learn how to help each other effectively, in day to day living even. For those involved in church that can be a medium to do it, for others we can form local organizations, co-ops, service groups, and such. Credit unions are really just a form of doing this, for financial services -- but the concept can be applied to education, employment networks, house maintenance, child care, food, transportation -- all of the needed functions of a community. And we can see some of that in the occupy movement too: occupiers seeing to the needs of all the people there (say, in the park), as well as needs of the homeless, for instance, where it is within the capabilities of the occupiers to do that. It's a rebuilding of society.
+2 # Glen 2012-05-15 11:00
I agree, John Locke. I was reminded of that last week while listening to a discussion concerning the Middle East. It was more than obvious that the participants had no knowledge of the territory, much less its history. The history is nothing more than propaganda in most people's heads. And it is not just the Middle East.

The discussion was filled with television and propaganda buzz words, such as collateral damage, they have been fighting since the beginning time, we don't need them coming over here, they hate Israel, they don't care who dies if they get some money. This is not an isolated attitude among the population.
+13 # grindermonkey 2012-05-14 22:20
Since the US was founded on the quest for gold and slaves, its evolution to planetary greed monster is to be expected.
+6 # Elroys 2012-05-14 22:36
It's quite sad, actually. We are capable of incredible heights and can access deep levels of consciousness and wisdom. Yet we have chosen the Predator and Reaper. And all the little children around the world will have their own toys. And one day someone will attach (name your poison - nucs, bioweapons, lots of free choice there). I hope the few that are screwing it up for the rest of humanity burn in hell for a very long time.
+9 # Lennie 2012-05-14 23:03
Well, these "drones" are, basically, SUPER sophisticated Radio Controlled model airplanes. R/C airplanes don't have to be THAT sophisticated. They don't need to be controlled from a bunker 12,000 miles away from where they are. But they can be "drones." What will we all say when some "bad guys" start aiming "drones," be they super fancy, or super simple, at us? One guy wanted to try it once, and it didn't work. A bit more "sophistication ," and, well, next time. . . In other words, look at what we have started. What goes around, CAN come around. Maybe we ought to look in the mirror and see that we're not so exceptional, after all. If we were, we wouldn't be doing this!
+3 # Granny Weatherwax 2012-05-15 06:18
Remember these news reels in 2003 where US soldiers sitting in air-conditioned M1 Abrahms were berating Iraqi fighters waging asymmetrical warfare (read guerilla) on US forces.
"Can't they stand up and fight like men?"

Now it's even better: the US fighters are home for dinner every night, without even interrupting the mission: they just hand the drone controls to the guy from the next shift.

I don't see a problem with leveraging a technical advantage in warfare - this has always been the case and is actually a prime promoter of technical advancement, but let's not claim this gives us the moral high ground.
It just gives us the best kill ratio, all the while conveniently fogetting that the more powerfull killing touys should come with the highest sense of responsibility.
+1 # John Locke 2012-05-17 17:27
Drones are by far the most impersonal method of killing, and that is what war is about… to be impersonal, that’s why we don't have men and women killed in Afghanistan, we have troops killed...Take the personality out of the equation and we can kill more people...Drones are also killing the innocent people, women and children….I think when we have gone that far, its time to take a break and try thinking rationally for a change…instead of developing more toys for war…we should be developing thoughts for peace!
+4 # Bev 2012-05-15 07:09
Truly a sad day when we create hell on the planet instead of Peace.The only way this can be stopped is for enough Americans to wake up, stand up and declare "Enough!". And we must act now!
0 # John Locke 2012-05-17 17:27
Absolutely, I gave you a thumbs up fot that comment
+2 # cordleycoit 2012-05-15 07:48
Since we all are targets will we get to pick our executioner? Since all critics are by nature terrorists we ought to at least have some sort of choice. Like the union hang man who only hangs union workers from a union built scaffold. Sort of killer who like the the resident of the White House has someone to wash the blood off his hands every morning. Or the caffeine crazed gamer living in the bunker in Colorado Springs? Another Choiceless choice.
+3 # Terrapin 2012-05-15 08:46
Predator Nation ... the title says it all.

"Placed in the hands of evildoers, those weapons and powers could create a living nightmare; ..." These weapons ARE in the the hands of, and in service to, The Evil Doers.

Perhaps if we were not busy amuseing ourselves to death ...
+3 # She Cee 2012-05-15 13:50
We have become the worst terrorist nation in history. We have become a fascist state because the people living in this country believe all that the powers that be and the media tell us is the truth. They don't have the sense to pay attention to what has really been happening.

Sadly, I feel we are beyond the point of no return. We will either be finished off by the madness and greed of those who have all the power, not only in this country but in the world, the nuclear fallout from Fukishima, or climate change, which will render the earth uninhabitable.

As for Iran (or any other nation), none will ever attack us or any of their neighbors because they would in turn be obliterated by the response. In my opinion, only the crazies who run our wars would ever do anything so foolish.

What a way to go?
+2 # bluepilgrim 2012-05-15 14:39
It bothers me. I look at the photo (from the USAF) of the drone and it's shelter, ans other photos of drones, and damned are beautiful.
I want to look at these things and be revulsed by them, disgusted by the evil of them -- but the damned things are beautiful.

The lure of the dark side is strong.
+2 # byard pidgeon 2012-05-15 14:47
I expect Israel to be the next nation to develop drones, if they haven't already done so.
Of course, they will never admit to having drones, just as they never quite admit to their nukes, but Iran will likely be their first target for their unacknowledged drones...once they have them...maybe next week?
-1 # gpick 2012-05-15 15:20
Fellows; Do you honestly think it is more moral to send an army and kill the enemy at huge cost to American human lives and treasure, as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, or send in a Reaper or predator? May be the old fashioned way is best when both sides sent in an exceptionally gifted fighter with sword and however killed the other was the victor? Was that more moral than the current technology? Or the saturation bombing raids in Europe where thousands died? I happen to think that the Predator is the most moral weapon since stone age men killed each other with large stones.
+1 # paulrevere 2012-05-15 18:26
You need to face a bear in the wild or a mujahadeen fighter in the mountains...two REAL causes and experiences of which it is quite apparent, that your slackjawed appraisal is very seriously devoid of.
+3 # Archie1954 2012-05-15 15:20
I'm afraid the creme de la creme curdled a long time ago. The mess the US is in today is a direct result of thet.
+4 # paulrevere 2012-05-15 18:10
Immoral, unethical, heartrending sociopathic slaughter BY THE CONSENT OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE...WE MUST BE SAFE!!


I scream every time I realize that my hard earned tax submissions are being applied to ANY willy nilly slaughter...and this chicken$h$t method takes the the cake!!

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