Kill Lists, JSOC, Drones and Arms Sales

Recent revelations that President Obama has been engaging in cyber warfare against Iran’s nuclear program by infecting centrifuges and drawing up kill lists in the White House reveals how conventional warfare and diplomacy have been subordinated to other tools of foreign policy. Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan puts in a nutshell this shift in the use of foreign policy tools: “Drone strikes, electronic surveillance, and stealth engagement by military units, such as JSOC, as well as private corporations, mercenary armies and terrorist groups are more common as tools of US foreign policy than conventional warfare or diplomacy.”*

I. JSOC Dissected

Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin have made keeping track of U.S. covert intelligence a journalistic speciality. In the September 2, 2011 issue of the Post, the two reporters corroborated on a dissection of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which has grown to about 25,000 troops, a number that has flucuated according to mission.

JSOC has the president’s authority to select individuals for its kill list and then to kill, not capture. The CIA has a similar but shorter list. JSOC has its own intelligence division, its own drones and reconissance planes, even its own dedicated satellites.

JSOC officers, when working with civilian government agenices in U.S. embassies, dispense with uniforms and wear no names nor rank identities.

The only significant difference in JSOC management between George W. Bush and Barack Obama is that Bush rarely briefed JSOC activities to Congress and Obama has insisted that they be briefed to select congressional leaders.

Priest and Arkin write that even before Abu Ghraib photos began circulating in 2004, a confidential report warned that JSOC interrogators were assaulting prisoners and holding them in seret facilities. They also detained mothers, wives and daughters. An investigation over a four-month period in 2004 found that interrogators gave some prisoners only bread and water, in one case for 17 days. Prisoners were held in cells so cramped that they could not lie down nor stand up, while their captors played loud music. Still others were stripped, drenched with cold water and then interrogated in an air-conditioned room or outside.

JSOC interrogators were, and still are allowed to keep their detainees separate from other detainees and hold them for up to 90 days.  

In 2009, JSOC executed 464 operations and killed 400 to 600 enemy forces in Afghanistan.

The JSOC roles now include tracing the flow of money from international banks to finance terrorist networks and psychological operations. According to the two reporters, Obama uses JSOC more than did Bush II, repeating a pattern in which Obama follows Bush II policies but pursues them more energetically than did his predecessor.

II Drones: An Outside Agitator Coming to Your Neighborhood

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that the United States has killed on the order of 3,000 people in 319 drone strikes, some 600 of them civilian bystanders, and 174 of those, children. President Obama has ordered 84 percent of these death-dealing strikes. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen are the four countries in which drone strikes are occurring today.

Polling shows that opposition to drone strikes is almost universal in Pakistan, fueled not just by the strikes themselves but by the fact that in some areas of Pakistan, seeing a drone in the sky is almost a daily occurance. It has got to be frightening to realize that anyone of those drones could be targeting you, your family, or friends and associates.

Accuracy of identifying targets is certainly a problem. During the war in Iraq, the International Red Cross found that most of the thousands of Iraqis being held in captivity by U.S. forces had not been charged with a crime. The fact that U.S. intelligence did not have good information on suspected insurgents meant that family members and close friends of suspects were held, because they might supply incriminating evidence or clues to a suspect’s location.

During the early stages of the war in Afghanistan, some suspected insurgents/terrorists were detained on the basis that they had the same or similar name of a suspected insurgent/terrorist. Others were turned in by someone who had a score to settle or to get rid of an inconvenient rival.

Jeff Morley, who writes for Salon magazine, has raised the issue that as the top terrorist leaders are being killed off, the bar might be lowered to attack lower echelon terrorist suspects. It wasn’t long ago that reports surfaced of an argument raging in the White House on targeting the “soldiers” who carry out terrroist plots. Thus, those seen unloading what look like explosives could be hit, along with those frequenting a terrorist hangout. Within the past few days of this writing, 26 House representatives wrote a letter to President Obama demanding to know the legal basis for “signature” drone strikes against suspected terrorist leaders. The signatories also warned that the strikes might be creating more enemys for the United States. This concept, known as “blowback,” contends that covert activities in other lands might be doing the U.S. more harm than good.

Besides the real possibility that U.S. drone strikes might be creating more enemys for the U.S. than they eliminate, Americans should be concerned about aerial outside agitators coming into their communities. Miami-Dade County in Florida and a county in Texas already have certification to use drones in law enforcement activities. Ten other counties have applied for certification. We have already given up too much of our privacy to government surveillance.

III. U.S. Arms Sales Impoverish the U.S. and Recipient Countries

The announcement of a nearly $30 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia was hailed as a hedge against Iranian aggression and as a job creator in the United States. The sale is part of a $60 billion Middle East arms deal over ten years. In the most recent Saudi Arabian arms sale, 84 jet fighters will be sold and another 74 jet fighters now in Saudi Arabia will be refurbished.

Also in the news in the recent past was the Pentagon announcement of the sale of “bunker busters” and other munitions to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). What posble use would the UAE have for bunker busters, except for an implied threat that the UAE will bomb Iran’s underground nuclear facilities if attacked by Iran?

One thing I have not been able to find in the mainstream media’s coverage of these sales is any mention of President Eisenhower’s warning about aiding and abetting the military-industrial complex. Also missing in the coverage is a riposte to President Obama’s claim that the Saudi Arabian sale would create 50,000 U.S. jobs. Economists have clearly established that spending on military weapons production is one of the poorest ways of creating jobs.

On the receiving end, those countries to whom we sell arms are compelled thereby to increase the proportion of their resources devoted to the military. We thus help to impoverish these countries. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union used arms sales to bring the recipient countries to their respective sides in the ideological struggle for world supremacy.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States has assumed the world lead in arms exports by a big margin. The U.S., with $37.8 billion in arms sales, controlled 68.4 percent of the global arms market in 2008. Italy came in a distant second, with $3.7 billion in sales. In “developing nations” in 2008, the U.S. controlled 70.1 percent of the market; Russia was far back in second, with a 7.8 percent market share.

Since 1970, nearly half of U.S. arms sales have gone to an area containing about one-fifth of the world’s population. Sales to the Near East and South Asia go to countries where the leaders are heavily armed and the people have little say in the election of their leaders. So in addition to distributing weapons of war more widely in the world, the United States is tarnishing any image it wants to create as expanding the reach of representative government in the world.

Those who voted for Barack Obama for president, at least in part because he would reduce the prevalence of military arms in the world, have found his embrace of arms sales to be yet another reason to be disappointed in his presidency.

Reducing or eliminating the reach of current U.S. policies on use of JSOC, unmanned drones and arms sales is yet another huge task for a restructured Democratic Party necessary to reverse the direction of the country in so many policy areas.

*Juan Cole, “Shadow Wars,” The Nation, April 30, 2012.


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