The Dronification of State Violence, Part V: A Well-Oiled Killing Machine, and the Rule by Nobody

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A Well-Oiled Killing Machine, and the Rule by Nobody

NSA, Fort Meade, Maryland

The creation of the drone target is an intensely bureaucratic process. Understanding the various processes behind what Gregory McNeal calls a “well-oiled killing machine”[1] is therefore vital in mapping the character of modern state violence. Max Weber first characterized bureaucracy as a system of rules and regulations, as well as techniques of rationalization and legal authority.[2] It is a powerful form of social control and once established is extremely hard to dismantle. In turn, bureaucratic power becomes generative of secrecy, as it seeks to deflect public criticism. According to a Washington Post study of state secrecy in 2010, an estimated 854,000 people work on programs related to counterterrorism, intelligence, and homeland security in 10,000 locations across the United States.[3] At the start of 2012, President Obama defended the CIA’s targeted killings in FATA, saying, “It is important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash. It’s not a bunch of folks in a room somewhere just making decisions.”[4] Obama was only partly right.

The kill-list creation process has four main stages: identification, vetting, validation, and then nomination.[5] An individual is identified both by his status with an “organized armed group” and his effectiveness within a network. This is a form of “effects-based targeting,” in which an individual’s social system is mapped, including a detailed assessment of the person’s locations and relationships with other people; in short, an individual’s “pattern of life”[6] is captured. All of this information is stored within an Electronic Targeting Folder (ETF), which is part of the previously mentioned “disposition matrix” database. This procedure, in effect, resembles a law-enforcement model of archiving “criminal” behavior. The target is then “vetted” and “validated” by a range of intelligence agencies, which analyze the tactical and strategic gains and losses associated with elimination. Much of this process is now centralized through the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). Finally, in the “nomination” stage, a vote takes place during a meeting of National Security Council deputies—on what is colloquially known as “Terror Tuesdays.”[7] Here, a range of lawyers and officials, together with the president, view PowerPoint presentations of each potential target.

A destroyed target by IAF fighter aircrafts is seen at Pokhran

Once an individual is “signed off,” the actual job of killing begins. The process starts by “fixing” the target to a geographic site. The location determines the next step: assessing the likelihood of “collateral damage.” Both the CIA and military follow a “Collateral Damage Methodology” (CDM) that allows analysts to visualize the blast zone of a proposed strike. This process has been computerized with “FAST-CD” (for Fast Assessment Strike Tool—Collateral Damage)—a piece of software that uses computerized models for collateral damage estimates. Additionally, a “Population Density Reference Table” helps estimate the density of a population within a blast zone. If collateral damage is “unavoidable,” then final authorization for strikes goes to a pre-determined authority for “proportionality assessment.” If the “Casualty Estimate Worksheet” number exceeds the value of the Non-Combatant Casualty Cut-Off Value (NCV), then a step known as Sensitive Target approval and Review (STAR) is triggered. In such a case, either the secretary of defense or the president must sanction the STAR target. This proportionality assessment is contingent upon the objective. For example, in Afghanistan, where “winning hearts and minds” is official counterinsurgency policy, collateral damage is to be scrupulously avoided. In Pakistan’s FATA, the situation is slightly different: there the CIA is engaged in a counterterrorism operation in which winning hearts and minds is external to the strategic aim of degrading the al-Qaeda network.

Collateral damage chart

There are two problems with this system that we wish to draw out: the status of “accountability” and “thought.” The CIA’s drone strikes are often criticized because they are not subject to the same level of scrutiny as military strikes. For Phillip Aston, former UN Special Rapporteur, “In a situation in which there is no disclosure of who has been killed, for what reason, and whether innocent civilians have died, the legal principle of international accountability is, by definition, comprehensively violated”[8] As the ACLU writes, “We’re seeing the CIA turn into more of a paramilitary organization without the oversight and accountability that we traditionally expect of the military.”[9] And finally, for Derek Gregory, “Accountability is limited enough in the case of a declared war; in an undeclared war it all but disappears.”[10]But the “secret” nature of the targeted killing program is not the only place where we locate the failure of accountability. For while accountability to an external party is important, there is far more endogenous failure of accountability—and that is the displacement, or diffusion of responsibility. From Electronic Targeting Folders that contain “imagery and floor plans of likely locations of the target,” to a Collateral Damage Methodology that is “grounded in scientific evidence derived from research”and data that is “subjected to physics-based computer modeling,”[11] the bureaucratic, rational, even scientific nature of targeted killings replaces individual thought with machinic certainty. And this does not directly translate into accountability in any meaningful way—after all, who is accountable? The software? The analyst? The drone? In a sense, “accountability” has been reduced to a quantitative measure, a Yes–No binary that emerges at the end of a complex bureaucratic equation. Bureaucratic accountability under such conditions is self-serving, based on “insular ways of thinking.”[12]

Screen Shot 2013-10-17 at 12.02.04

The personality of the analyst, the pilot, or even the president, is largely irrelevant; the system overrides individual autonomy. As Kennedy writes, “Violence and injury have lost their author and their judge as soldiers, humanitarians, and statesman have come to assess the legitimacy of violence in a common legal and bureaucratic vernacular.”[13] Indeed, John Brennan, Obama’s former counterterrorism czar and now director of the CIA, accelerated the institutionalization of these bureaucratic techniques during the 2012 U.S. presidential election to ensure that any future president would be locked in.[14] As one former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center summarized, “When we institutionalize certain things, including targeted killing, it does cross a threshold that makes it harder to cross back,” adding that, “We are looking at something that is potentially indefinite.”[15] Such an evaluation rests on the assumption that all bureaucracies are weighed down by an incredible amount of inertia and habit. Harold Koh, former legal adviser of the Department of State, confided to a friend that preventing a targeted killing “would be like pulling a lever to stop a massive freight train barreling down the tracks.”[16] Here, the problem of accountability is magnified. Not only is accountability reformatted to a quantitative exercise, it is collectivized to such an extent that no single individual in the kill-chain is directly responsible: “With so many people involved in the targeting process, the collectivity itself may have caused an error while the public has no individual to hold to account.”[17] This “anonymizing effect” alienates hundreds of bureaucrats from the killing fields. War, law, ethics—all of these fields are becoming purely technical concerns.

Adolf Eichmann trial

For Hannah Arendt bureaucracy is a prima facie danger to democracy.[18] With no sovereign center, no source of responsibility, no ownership, an insidious “rule by Nobody” takes grip. In her words, “Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.”[19] She also used the well-known phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the unthinking complicity of Adolf Eichmann in the “Final Solution” in Nazi Germany. For Arendt, the real horror of the SS official was not located in an inner sociopathic evil; it rested in his willingness to follow bureaucratic procedure all the way to the gassing chambers: “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.”[20] At every step, his judgment took place within the interior of a techno-efficient rationale as he renounced thought to logic, and became a cog in the machine. For Arendt, this type of “ideological thinking,” guides “the whole structure of totalitarian movements and governments.”[21] The ascendance of scientifically minded “thinkers” in such governments deeply troubles Arendt—and her historical analysis is surely no more relevant than it is today with the scientific rigor of contemporary targeted killings: “The trouble is not that they are cold-blooded enough to ‘think the unthinkable,’ but that they do not think.”[22] It is not simply that in a bureaucracy everybody is a slave to the machine, but rather, they are slaves to technical know-how, to scientific ethics, and bureaucratic accountability: “thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.”[23]

In short, bureaucracy does not stand outside of state violence. And it is this twist that complicates understandings of what a bureaucracy is: no longer the “pen arm” of the sovereign opposed to the “sword arm.” Rather, both act in concert to fuel a deadly and alienated rule by Nobody: a bureaucratic machine that is part human, part robot.

Next section: The Endgame: The War of All Against All (The Dronification of State Violence, Conclusion)


[1] McNeal, Gregory, S. 2013. Targeted killing and accountability. Forthcoming in The Georgetown Law Journal. Available at SSRN, p.4.
[2] Weber, Max. 1994. Political writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[3] The Washington Post. 2010. Top secret America.
[4]Quoted in Zenko, Micah. 2012. How the Obama administration justifies targeted killings. Council on Foreign Relations.
[5]These procedures are listed in greater detail in McNeal’s 2013 comprehensive study, from which we draw.
[6] In so-called “signature strikes,” dangerous or suspicious patterns of life can trigger a targeted killing, even if the identity of the target is unknown. See Shaw 2013.
[7] Becker, Jo. and Shane, Scott. 2012. Secret ‘kill list’ proves a test of Obama’s principles and will. The New York Times.
[8] Quoted in Jordans, Frank. 2010. UN expert: Drone attacks may be illegal. MSNBC.
[9] Quoted in Miller, Greg, and Julie Tate. 2011. CIA shifts focus to killing targets. The Washington Post.
[10] Gregory, Derek. 2011a. The everywhere war. The Geographical Journal 177: 238-250. p.241.
[11] McNeal 2013, p.44, 65, 68.
[12] Ibid, p.115.
[13] Kennedy, David. 2006. Of Law and war. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 169, emphasis added.
[14] DeYoung, Karen. 2012. A CIA veteran transforms U.S. counterterrorism policy. The Washington Post.
[15] Quoted in Miller et al. 2012, emphasis added.
[16] Klaidman, Daniel. 2012. Kill or capture: the war on terror and the soul of the Obama presidency. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. p. 202.
[17] McNeal 2013, 115.
[18] Arendt, Hannah. 1969. On violence. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
[19] Ibid, p. 81.
[20] Arendt, Hannah. 2005. Eichmann and the Holocaust. London: Penguin. p.20.
[21] Arendt, Hannah. 1968. The Origins of totalitarianism. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. p.472.
[22] Arendt 1969, p.6.
[23] Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p.3.

This entry was posted in Biopolitics, Brennan, Hannah Arendt, History of Drones. Bookmark the permalink.

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