The Long Island Press Drone

Trusting me with a drone is no more ridiculous than allowing the executive branch to unilaterally determine which civil liberties and human rights to recognize, as if an option exists.

This column appears in the July 2013 edition of the Long Island Press.
Follow the author on Twitter @jedmorey

I need my own drone. Not me personally as a citizen (that would be ridiculous) but as a publisher.

A Long Island Press drone (available for sponsorship) would enable us to give timely traffic reports, provide up-to-the-minute surf conditions, look for fugitives and measure the size of the daily sewage leaks from our ever-failing sewer and storm water infrastructure.

The possibilities are endless. Aerial views of town employees driving official vehicles home after work. Spotting sharks too close to shore. You get the idea.

If the American public has little problem with police departments and the FBI using Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology and seems indifferent to disclosures that the National Security Agency (NSA) is harvesting massive amounts of its personal data, then it shouldn’t have a problem with journalistic enterprises enhancing their capabilities with drones. Seems logical to me. Though, admittedly, I’m having troubling locating the drone application form on the Federal Aviation Administration’s website.

Recently, my wife and I joined three members of the Long Island Press staff at the premiere of Jeremy Scahill’s documentary film, Dirty Wars—the companion piece to his new book of the same name. The film has been opening to packed houses around the country so I made certain to procure tickets in advance, for fear of being locked out of its debut. When the lights dimmed the five of us comprised exactly 50 percent of the audience.

Well done, Long Island.

Instead of being chagrined by this lack of intellectual curiosity among my fellow Islanders, I chose to view this remarkable display of apathy in a positive light.

Since many of you missed it, I’ll give you the upshot of the film. Dirty Wars shines a light on the secret, corrupt and illegal wars being conducted against nations we are not at war with. Scahill’s meticulously researched, first-hand accounts of the devastation being wrought by the excessive utilization of drones have put the Obama administration in an awkward position. The recent NSA spying revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden in The Guardian further compound the administration’s problem with respect to human rights and civil liberties. The fact that the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama has brought more charges of espionage (a charge that potentially carries the death penalty) against Americans than all other presidents combined speaks volumes about Obama’s desire to silence critics and whistleblowers alike.

Further, the fact that the administration was forced to admit to killing four U.S. citizens (that we know of) with drone strikes abroad doesn’t seem to have rankled too many of my fellow Long Islanders that much, either. So, like I said, I’m taking this as a tacit show of support for the Press acquiring its very own drone for “surveillance” purposes.

There is one more thing. Because I am licensed by Nassau County to carry a weapon and am the owner of the Press, it’s only logical that my drone should be treated as an extension of me and should also be armed. You know, just in case. Rest assured that I would only use it to strike “high-value targets” who threaten our way of life here on Long Island. And, of course, before using my drone for surveillance purposes or (insert flowery euphemism for assassination here) I would seek approval from my secret hand-picked cadre of advisors from the Press.

That’s how the government programs work. And everyone is cool with that, right? CIA Director John Brennan comes up with a targeted kill list; runs it by a whole bunch of people in the executive branch, then asks the POTUS for permission to pull the trigger. That’s, like, so many people (from one branch of government) who have to determine (rubber stamp) who gets killed remotely in countries that we’re not at war with (except as designated by the executive branch under a perverted interpretation of authority granted under the AUMF law—look it up.) Surveillance in this country goes through just as arduous a process. The NSA has to ask the secret FISA court for permission in secret to secretly wiretap anyone so long as everyone involved keeps it a secret. Just in case, as Edward Snowden confirmed for us, the NSA has been secretly listening to everything we’ve been saying for quite some time now. They even made secret agreements with outside contractors to build secret facilities to store any and every piece of data secretly collected from around the world.

Arduous indeed! This is the process the president recently called “transparent.”

Because commercial licenses for drones have been suspended until the FAA issues new guidelines for their use, I’m invoking my privilege under the First Amendment to procure and operate my drone. How so? My drone is essentially like having a super-reporter on staff. Therefore its actions and the data it collects should be protected as free speech. (If unlimited campaign contributions are protected as free speech, this argument can’t be too far off-base.)

We are numb. Since 9/11 we have stood by passively during the greatest erosion of domestic civil liberties since the Alien and Sedition Acts and allowed our government to commit atrocities in faraway nations that have succeeded more in fostering antipathy toward our country than the purported purpose of protecting the homeland. Corporate media have furthered the government narrative instead of being a bulwark against it, thus normalizing egregious and unconstitutional behavior in the name of national security. Trusting me with a drone is no more ridiculous than allowing the executive branch to unilaterally determine which civil liberties and human rights to recognize, as if an option exists.

The overarching point that must be understood is that the Obama administration has amplified the assault on our rights in a way that would make Richard Nixon blush and Dick Cheney chortle villainously. The president has discarded every protection granted to the citizenry of the United States—and by proxy the world—that he is sworn to cherish and uphold.

Unfortunately, my ridiculous example of purchasing a drone is about as serious as the discourse taking place in the media regarding Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning. These two men understand what is at stake right now more than every corporate shill actor hired to read news that has been vetted and approved by the government and corporate masters they serve.

Extreme Alliance: Finding Common Ground with Manning and Snowden

Where others have failed to shed light on the dark shadow our military casts over the world, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have succeeded by demonstrating the courage to reveal our ignominy and speak truth to power

The exclusivity of the axiom that Democrats eat their own has been challenged in recent years by Republican infighting. Libertarians, having fully asserted themselves into the modern conservative movement, have fractured the Republican base and splintered allegiances that have endured for decades. Progressives have all but broken ties with the Democratic Party over a host of issues from single payer healthcare to drone strikes and regularly engage “Obamabots” in Twitter wars. But the blockbuster cases of PFC Bradley Manning and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have perhaps delivered the most bizarre ideological twist of all.

Libertarians and progressives have united on the issue of civil liberties, with Manning and Snowden as the source of the gravitational pull. It’s a tepid alliance of strange bedfellows that grows stronger with each passing day. Although lesser-known to consumers of mainstream media, the cases of Barrett Brown, Jeremy Hammond, Aaron Swartz, Jesselyn Radack and Thomas Drake have also helped to galvanize the furthest reaches of the American ideological spectrum.

This alliance of extremes comes from a deep understanding of the current risks that we face as Americans; an understanding of things rarely addressed with any depth or consistency in corporate broadcast and print media. Savvy and literate seekers of information who eschew corporate media know these risks by their legislative acronyms. AUMF. FISA. NDAA. Moreover, they know how they combine to infringe upon our rights as citizens in a manner that is unprecedented in U.S. history.

Some Americans are familiar with the appalling tributaries that stem from them. Drone strikes, rendition, warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention, domestic communication management units and the overzealous prosecution of whistleblowers. Yet the neoliberal propaganda machine has been in overdrive for decades hammering into us ideas such as American “exceptionalism” (our lives are worth more than all others), corporations are people and money should be protected as speech. The have taught us to believe that our desire for privacy implies that we have something to hide, whereas their need for secrecy implies a sense of noblesse oblige.

Normalizing these absurdities by openly defending them through corporate propaganda channels has dulled our senses as a people. We are the walking dumb. The politically illiterate.

The government relies on its ability to manipulate the public by keeping it in a constant state of fear. Every generation has its Bogeyman beginning with the earliest days of the republic. In school we are taught to embrace the principles of the Declaration of Independence to the extent that they suit the prevailing American narrative. Ignored in school is the racist and imperial dogma found in these words from the same document: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

For years now I have reported on the relationship between the American government and sovereign Indian territories. Therefore, America’s paternalistic attitude toward the rest of the world is entirely familiar. The U.S. government views the world as one giant reservation system filled with dispensable people who receive handouts directly proportionate to the natural resources they possess. Failure to comply with our demands is to risk sanctions or occupation. The world has witnessed the unbroken wave of devastation the U.S. wrought in Indochina, the Middle East and Northern Africa, South America and Central America. The American war machine is fully autonomous, perpetual and indiscriminate.

Where others have failed to shed light on the dark shadow our military casts over the world, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have succeeded by demonstrating the courage to reveal our ignominy and speak truth to power. It’s why the ideological fringes of our nation see the greatness in what they have done. Progressives and Libertarians, regardless of their differences, do not revere authority. They question it. And while the conclusions they draw on several issues differ dramatically, neither easily accepts the official government narrative regarding Manning and Snowden, which is they recognize these men as heroic.

As for the rest of America, the government’s actions, no matter how barbaric or unconstitutional, are cloaked in the flag and sold as necessary tools in the “War on Terror.” To reject this notion as a citizen is to risk being alienated and branded a traitor. We have been brainwashed to believe that to “support the troops” somehow means sacrificing our youth abroad in the pursuit of oil and permanent war. Americans are so far removed from our activist roots that most are unable to see that today’s Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are yesterday’s Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo. That today’s Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Alexa O’Brien are yesterday’s Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Seymour Hersh. That today’s Barrett Brown and Cindy Sheehan are yesterday’s Daniel Berrigan and Martin Luther King, Jr..

As a nation we tend to swallow the wholesale premise that all government actions are for our own good and that they must be employed in secret for our safety. But the secrecy the government defends is not only from the citizens it is accountable to but from the institutions designed to protect us from authoritarianism. To wit, our judicial system no longer has authority over wiretapping. Congress no longer has any oversight over the military. The Fourth Estate no longer enjoys the absolute protection afforded by the First Amendment. And dissidents no longer enjoy the freedom to peaceably assemble without intervention from law enforcement agencies with military arsenals.

Americans suffer from political amnesia. Forgotten are the Indian “removal” policies, Jim Crow laws, Japanese internment camps, the Kent State massacre, McCarthyism and Watergate. Therefore we have also forgotten the protections established to prevent these things from happening again. For those more concerned about whether Edward Snowden visited his mother enough or quibbling over Bradley Manning’s sexual orientation, allow me to demystify the above acronyms and explain what it is they are fighting against.

AUMF: Authorization for Use of Military Force. Immediately following 9/11 Congress granted extraordinary authority to the Bush administration to conduct a global war on terror. It was under this authority that the United States conducted illegal invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan—nations with no connection to 9/11. It was also under this authority that the Bush administration began employing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s), more commonly known as drones, to hunt members of Al Qaeda in the mountainous regions of Pakistan. Both Presidents Bush and Obama expanded upon this authority to include Yemen and Somalia. These strikes are illegal, unconstitutional and immoral. They are not targeted, discriminate or judicious, despite the assertions of the Obama administration. We are terrorizing, and subsequently radicalizing, citizens of nations that we are not at war with.

FISA: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Originally enacted as a result of the Nixon administration’s abuse of eavesdropping, FISA was designed to establish a protocol for U.S. surveillance activities that required the government to obtain judicial approval prior to any such operation. The Bush administration broke this protocol and secretly authorized the NSA to eavesdrop without warrants. Even after the New York Times revealed the program, Congress amended the act in 2008 and officially granted the administration the authority to continue warrantless wiretapping with oversight from “secret courts.”

Secret courts. Secret. Fucking. Courts. In America.

Both the Bush administration and the Obama administration have publicly insisted that U.S. citizens have never been targets of any such program. Now we know this was a lie. Snowden’s recent revelations by the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald have demonstrated that quite the opposite is true and the surveillance state is worse than anyone had predicted.

Spying is big business as evidenced by the fact that there are 1.6 private contractors working for the government in surveillance operations for every one government employee performing the same function. Our information has been outsourced to corporations that are writing and lobbying for the legislation that allows for it. Therefore, even those who defend the actions of the government must then concede that they are defending the actions of private corporations. It’s imperative that we see beyond the argument that if you’ve done nothing wrong then you have nothing to hide. It’s false logic because it falls apart in reverse. If this program was honest and constitutional, there would be no reason to lie about it, cover it up then threaten to silence anyone who attempts to speak out about it.

NDAA: The National Defense Authorization Act. The NDAA is an act that Congress is required to pass at the beginning of each fiscal year to organize funding and codify policies and procedures carried out by the military. Activists refer to NDAA as shorthand for an amendment authored in secret in December of 2011 by Senator John McCain regarding indefinite detention. Renowned journalist Chris Hedges brought suit against the government arguing that the language of this provision was so broad and vague that it theoretically allows for military detention of U.S. citizens, something the government vehemently denies. Nevertheless, instead of amending the language to quell any fear surrounding domestic military intervention against U.S. citizens, the Department of Justice has vigorously defended the inclusion of this provision in federal court.

The indefinite detention provision of the NDAA expands executive authority granted under the AUMF from those suspected of carrying out the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to anyone suspected of supporting terrorists. Nowhere does the government provide the definition of a terrorist or what might be considered “support.”

In May of 2013 the Pentagon introduced yet another wrinkle to this very dangerous equation. The Department of Defense altered a rule in the US Code titled “Defense Support of Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies” that grants the military the ability to quell civil disturbances and temporarily control a situation in the event authorization from the President of the United States is impossible to obtain. Nowhere does the DoD define what constitutes a civil disturbance, how long this temporary authority might last, whether or not civilians can be militarily detained without due process or under what circumstances the president would be “impossible” to reach.

Welcome to the Banana Republic of America.

Tie together the extraordinary authority the government has granted itself under these three provisions and the gravity of our predicament becomes painfully obvious. The government has the authority to listen to our conversations without obtaining a warrant. It is not only tracking every move you make online, it’s storing this information and building a profile from your actions. Any journalist who interviews someone the United States considers a terrorist threat can be seen as supporting this person. The military has the legal authority to quell any gathering it considers a “disturbance.” The military and domestic civilian agencies such as the CIA have the ability to carry out assassinations abroad regardless of whether we are involved in armed conflict in these territories. It can “disappear” anyone inside or outside of the United States for any reason.

These are the real threats to our liberty. To view them as such is to recognize the historical significance of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden and appreciate the service they have performed for the benefit of our republic.

Drone Strikes and the Definition of War

The legality of an unmanned drone strike is subordinate to the morality of it. Further, it challenges our ability to define war; somehow the connection between direct human action and murder codifies the nature of true conflict.

Marines are trained to fire in unison at the enemy. It erases individual culpability by establishing a psychological barrier between the shooter and the target. Sharing the responsibility for a “kill” assuages personal guilt and allows soldiers to better compartmentalize traumatic events, or so the theory goes.

 This type of rationalization is made even more powerful (or palatable) by the remoteness that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as “drones,” provide. For most of the past decade UAVs have hammered away at al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents hiding in the mountainous terrain of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan. And though there was little, if any, talk of controversial drone strikes during the presidential election, the use of UAVs has reached a tipping point in global politics.

The legality of an unmanned drone strike is subordinate to the morality of it. Further, it challenges our ability to define war; somehow the connection between direct human action and murder codifies the nature of true conflict. The struggle to define this type of faceless modern warfare suggests that we are moving away from a discussion of immorality and toward amorality; exactly the point our democratic ideals of “purposeful” and defensive war devolves into outright nihilism.

The anonymity and precision of drone strikes uses our military resources efficiently while wreaking havoc on our enemies abroad. They also enable the United States to carry out an offensive in a country like Pakistan when we are technically not at war with its government. In fact, we are operating with its tacit approval. For now. But if every strike was carried out directly by human hands, there would be little doubt we are indeed at war as it is conventionally defined. Now, in its second term, the Obama administration is wrestling with whether to declassify the drone program that everyone already knows about because it would put us firmly at odds with international law.

Unmanned drones were conceived and perfected by the George W. Bush administration but they were used far more sparingly compared to the Obama administration. Terrorism, or the threat of it, continues to be the raison d’etat that justifies our aggression and the use of drones. In this, the administrations are aligned. A terrorist killed with little collateral damage and zero American bloodshed is enticing but illusory because the technology is portable and easily replicable. It will undoubtedly be developed and deployed by other nations free to define targets by their own standards.

The tacit approval of drones by the Pakistani government does not erase the fact that we are threatening our national security in the long run; we are establishing an international precedent that we will someday be forced to confront.

To begin, many of the militants we target abroad have sought refuge in other nations such as Yemen and Somalia. And our drones have followed. Yet if the government of Yemen, were it capable and so inclined, bombed a US-based manufacturing plant that produced parts for UAVs, they would technically be justified in doing so by our own standards. If China decided to send drones into Tibet, or if Russia targeted Georgia, the same logic would hold true.


The New York Times reporter Scott Shane revealed in an article Sunday concerns within the Obama administration over what they call an “amorphous” policy; this worry increased prior to the election for fear of leaving an open-ended policy to an incoming Romney administration. According to Shane, victory has allowed the White House to take its foot off of the accelerator for the moment, but it remains an important part of the president’s agenda.

But this kind of sudden realization that current policy might become permanent and out-of-control has become a troubling hallmark of the Obama presidency. Clear evidence of this is found in Obama’s refusal to fight the “indefinite detention” provision in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. Critics fear that the language of this provision was so murky that it theoretically gives the government license to detain American citizens without due process. Instead of eliminating this verbiage and the conflict that surrounds it, Obama attached a signing statement to the bill that directly addresses the detention provision and essentially says that while he is aware of the fear it engenders, he would never use it to detain a US citizen. The very existence of the signing statement, however, is an admission that it is indeed open to interpretation; future presidents are not bound to Obama’s statement, but the law itself.

Understanding the psychology of the Obama administration or establishing a clear policy regarding drone strikes ultimately does nothing to more clearly delineate the nature of modern, human-less aggression. Carl von Clausewitz, who contributed as much to the understanding of our relationship with war as any writer on the subject, suggests in his defining work, On War, published in 1832, that: “The act of War can only be of two kinds; either the conquest of some small or moderate portion of the enemy’s country, or the defence (sic) of our own until better times.”

This was a practical analysis befitting the times that endured to the end of the last millennium. It defined conflict between nations but not necessarily between enemies as they are presently constituted. Post-9/11 warfare has pitted America, which relies on borders and nationalism, against roving mercenaries whose only allegiance is to a higher authority we cannot overcome. Clausewitz allows for wiggle room in his conventional theory, however.

“The third case, which is probably the most common, is when neither party has anything definite to look for from the future when therefore it furnishes no motive for decision. In this case the offensive War is plainly imperative upon him who is politically the aggressor.”

President Obama appears to be hedging his bet by placing a chip on each of the cases above. Furthermore, his reliance upon UAVs is loosely justified by its purported success thus far. But it also presents a persistent and impossible conundrum that assails our conventional understanding of war.

Somehow in this mess, this fog of invisible war, we must extricate ourselves from establishing precedent before it hardens into accepted global policy. If not, this dangerous game of cat and mouse will haunt us as it disperses our enemies while strengthening their resolve. Only by bolstering ties and intelligence in this region through financial support and diplomatic incentives will we assemble a righteous strategy for the future. Moreover, a retreat from this policy preserves our right to punish our enemies authoritatively with the support of our allies, while regaining the moral high ground. 

To walk softly and carry a big stick implies restraint, and restraint implies strength and confidence. These are characteristics closer to what the president exudes, which begs the question as to why he has tethered himself to policies that are so cowardly.