The Dronification of State Violence, Part 1: Life and Death in the West Wing

This post is part of a series of sections from a broader paper, which can be found online here. Full citation: Ian Shaw and Majed Akhter (2014) The Dronification of State Violence, Critical Asian Studies, 46(2): 211-234.

Introduction: Life and Death in the West Wing

The White House

“Electronic Targeting Folders” store information on terror suspects from around the planet. These documents exist in a database referred to as a “disposition matrix,” which the bureaucratic knife-edge of the Barack Obama administration’s program of targeted killings. The disposition matrix contains the names of “dangerous individuals” listed against the resources marshalled to kill or capture them, either by drones or Special Forces. This institutional tool harmonizes the kill-lists that exist across the U.S Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of Defense, thereby centralizing the management of life and death in the White House. Equally important, this database embeds targeted killings within the National Counter Terrorist Center (NCTC), codifying what many now believe to be a permanent war. These foreign policy revelations—which came to light in October 2012[1]—were accompanied by information about the White House’s “playbook,” which details the broader guidelines for the use of extrajudicial force across globe.[2] Written by CIA director John Brennan, the playbook outlines the rules and regulations for targeted killings against members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Thus, bureaucrats, rather than soldiers, now spearhead this globalizing “Predator Empire.”[3]

Baseball card kill list

Assassination is now so commonplace that it requires institutional “streamlining.” And to the shock of many, President Obama is intimately involved in the killing fields, seemingly in violation of U.S. legislation that has outlawed political assassination since 1976.[4] The reality is that targeted killings have indeed been authorized, at least since 2001 when President George W. Bush overturned the ban on such killings in the weeks following the September 11 attacks. While CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have increased under Obama—totalling over 330 attacks since his 2009 inauguration[5]—few predicted this level of personal participation. Reports that describe the extent of Obama’s personal responsibility for determining the legitimacy of individual drone strikes[6] position the commander-in-chief as an agonized leader who shoulders the moral burden of the drone war. But the involvement of U.S. presidents in the administration of conflict and the management of population data—using techniques analogous to the disposition matrix—is as old as colonialism itself. Conflicts in the Philippines in the early twentieth century, and particularly in Southeast Asia throughout the 1960s and 1970s, were both precursors to the kind of executive branch biopolitics that reigns today. So as Obama meets in the Situation Room on “Terror Tuesdays” to discuss terrorist targets, he follows in the footsteps of Lyndon Johnson, who used his Tuesday luncheons to decide on where to bomb in North Vietnam during Operation Rolling Thunder.[7]

What marks today’s drone wars as unique is not simply the more sophisticated unmanned technologies that stalk the skies, but rather, the arrangement of institutions and actors that now conduct violence—and the “conditions” that emerge from this constellation. Contemporary targeted killings take place against a background defined by a blurring of the categories of war, solider, and military, on the one hand, and peace, criminal, and police, on the other. The figure of the terrorist increasingly straddles these two classifications: not quite “enemy combatant” and not quite “criminal.” Indeed, one of the defining features of today’s covert drone war is that it targets individuals, rather than nation-states and their militaries. And yet, in this very act of individualization, the discrete battlefield is converted into a boundless battlespace—threatening the foundations of international law. Of course, it is not simply that the planet is becoming a single, homogenous “space of exception,”[8] but rather, that the target is shifting in scale from the territory to the human body, thereby bypassing the sanctity of sovereignty. How exactly did this political geography emerge? In this article we trace one line of descent we find salutary by considering the CIA as a central actor in the genesis of this new cartoraphy. Much has now been written about how the CIA delivers death on a scale usually associated with the U.S. military, but many of these accounts we argue, skip over how and why technologies might be sources of power—in short, they miss the technopolitics, or existential conditions, of drone warfare.

Hannah Arendt

Speaking to this existential framework, in1958 Hannah Arendt wrote, “Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence.”[9] Her point was that the “things” that constitute the world transform our existence and how we relate to each other. After all, how could they not? Yet when it comes to geopolitics and international relations, the voices of powerful state officials tend to dominate the narrative, masking the role of objects in conditioning human existence. In contrast to these types of accounts, we stress how “more-than-human” networks have catalyzed important changes in the conduct of state violence. Science and technology studies, as well as actor-network theory, are both accustomed to an expanded definition of the “social”—one that invites a range of nonhuman actors to the table. Here, the central issue is how technologies impose upon, restrict, and enable human existence. We find that the concept of “bureaucracy” provides a useful platform for capturing these arrangements, particularly the resonance between humans and the nonhuman. By focusing on bureaucracy, we also examine the unaccountable and antidemocratic “rule by nobody” that Arendt associates with the term. In bureaucracy, Arendt sees a tyrannical version of government in which nobody has direct responsibility for anything, and therefore individuals lose their very humanity—their ability to think—to faceless administrative procedure.

For us, the “dronification of state violence” names the distinctly bureaucratic conduct of targeted killings; one that has evolved over decades but finds its apex today in a system that automates sovereign power to such an extent that even the very idea of a “decision” may be misleading. To give a preliminary definition, we define the dronification of state violence as: (a) the relocation of sovereign power from the uniformed military to the CIA and Special Forces; (b) the technopolitical transformations performed by the Predator drone; (c) the bureaucratization of the kill-chain; (d) the individualization of the target.Our starting point is the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, a pivotal moment in Pakistan–U.S. history. The Pakistan–U.S. relationship might seem an odd case study for the examination of state violence since these two countries have never technically been at “war.” And yet, the relationship between the United States and Pakistan is a deep and complex one: defined by the blurring of “civilian” and “military” roles through the ascendency of their respective intelligence agencies, the CIA and ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate). Even if their tangled histories make it difficult to classify the U.S. –Pakistan relationship as either a “rivalry” or an “alliance,” we think this difficulty is precisely indicative of the type of geopolitics to come—a geopolitics defined by the continuing transformation of territory and sovereignty.

The drone is part of a wider constellation of global forces, including migration, the movement of capital, and climate change, all of which complicate the territorial integrity of the nation state. So while we agree that the fundamental theoretical issue is “the historical relationship between territorial states and the broader social and economic structures and geopolitical order,”[10] the historical relationship we trace in this article is between two types of objects and their effect upon U.S. state violence. First, given the bureaucratic nature of modern drone warfare, we think it is vital to investigate the circulation of those documents that enable it. Our focus here is on a genealogy of “presidential directives.” Our second object is the MQ-1 Predator drone, the unmanned aircraft closely associated with strikes in Pakistan. Here, we describe some of the ways this weapon has transformed the CIA. Our purpose is not to reduce targeted killings to these two objects, but to highlight the role they play in the ongoing transformation of state violence. Our analysis thus aims to displace the personality-oriented analyses prevalent in journalistic and security analyses. A focus on personalities, whether Obama or Bush before him, implies that a change in leadership would disable the motors of war—an implication we consider naïve. This is not to say that people don’t matter. Rather, we argue that to fully grasp the transformation of war requires a more-than-human explanation.

Next section:The Dronification of State Violence, Part II: Historical Origins


[1] Miller, Greg. 2012. Plan for hunting terrorists signals U.S. intends to keep adding names to kill lists. The Washington Post.
[2] DeYoung, Karen. 2012. A CIA veteran transforms U.S. counterterrorism policy. The Washington Post.
[3] Shaw, Ian G. R. 2013. Predator empire: the geopolitics of U.S. drone warfare. Geopolitics 18: 536-559.
[4] President Gerald Ford signed Executive Order 11905 in 1976.
[5] The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. 2014. More than 2,400 dead as Obama’s drone campaign marks five years.
[6] Becker, Jo. and Shane, Scott. 2012. Secret ‘kill list’ proves a test of Obama’s principles and will. The New York Times.
[7] Gregory, Derek. 2013. I don’t like Tuesdays.
[8] Agamben, Giorgio. 2005. State of exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[9] Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p.9
[10] Agnew, John. 1994. The territorial trap: The geographical assumptions of international relations theory. Review of International Political Economy 1 (1): 53-80. p.77

This entry was posted in Biopolitics, Brennan, CIA, Empire, Geopolitics and International Relations, Hannah Arendt, Law and Lawfare, Obama, White House Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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