Friday, March 08, 2013

Ask not for whom the drone flies...

Rand Paul's filibuster haunts me. Haunts the nation.

Most of the time, I don't like the guy. I dislike him for the same reason I can't stand libertarians in general: My number one priority is protecting Social Security and Medicare. Unlike all Ayn Randroids, I understand that unfettered corporate rule would result in a dictatorship worse than anything Stalin could imagine.

And, yes, it's obvious that personal ambition motivated Paul's stunt, at least in part. His presidential hopes appear to be backed by one sector of the GOP leadership -- hence Krauthammer's turnabout on the drone issue. (Another sector of the GOP has a very different attitude.)

Republican strategists have finally started to understand that all of their usual bullshit ploys, from birtherism to Benghazi, won't find any traction outside of WingnutWorld. They have no choice but to try a line of attack based on non-bullshit.

Now that a well-known Republican has done just that, liberals must face up to one supremely galling fact: Rand Paul got it right. Even a prominent Kos blogger admits this infuriating truth.

I think a lot of people (both Democrats and Republicans) have lined up on the drone issue based purely on partisan identification. The endless game of shirts-vs.-skins dictates who stands where, even though politics should be about ideas and values. The Democratic gutlessness on display here has no excuse.

Not long ago, the Republicans were the party of the Patriot Act, drone attacks, torture, renditions and wireless wiretaps. Not long ago, liberals opposed all of these indecent assaults on our human and Constitutional rights. Conservatives, not liberals, are the ones who made an industry of Islamophobia. Pam Geller is no Obot. Red state fundamentalists pay good money hear to fake "former jihadis" prattle on about how, in the days before they found Jesus, they conspired to create the dreaded American caliphate.

If the wheel has turned -- if some conservatives are now telling us that the government uses an endless "war on terror" to justify attacks on our liberties -- then all genuine progressives should swallow their pride and relocate to their Bush-era position, even if, in doing so, they must take a stand against Obama.

Yes, I know full well how infuriating it is to see Rand Paul's filibuster applauded by the same GOP-bots who also applauded Dubya's insane wars. The fact remains: Paul's right.

But not right enough.

He has focused on the idea of the government using weaponized drones within the United States -- a possibility that Eric Holder belatedly addressed in this response (which offers scant comfort because it contradicts what he has said before). But we must also look at the drone program as a whole. We must convince our fellow citizens to get beyond the bigoted view that non-American drone victims are subhumans, presumed guilty by virtue of their faith and skin color.

Have drones made us any safer? By what right do we murder foreign nationals on foreign soil without a formal declaration of war? Isn't it true that our anti-terrorism efforts have only made the U.S. government more detested, both abroad and at home?

The word terrorism encompasses quite a lot of territory -- more than you may realize. In 2009, investigators uncovered a DoD training manual which lists "protests" as a form of "low-level terrorism." 

The ACLU deserves the credit for uncovering this document. (Oddly, most of the sites which mention the document are run by right-wingers who customarily despise the ACLU.) Blogger Dennis Loo later discovered that "low-level terrorism" has become a common designator for protest movements among Defense Department strategists.

I would add that the Benghazi incident probably increased the DoD's perception that a spontaneous protest provides a sea in which terrorists may swim. You can't occupy a park if Uncle occupies the skies.

Let's zoom out for a wider view. The "terror" bugaboo has justified thousands of instances in which a lone "Fox Mulder" type at the FBI has used National Security Letters to grab hold of your private information.
National Security Letters allow the government to get detailed information on Americans’ finances and communications without oversight from a judge. The FBI has issued hundreds of thousands of NSLs and has even been reprimanded for abusing them. The NSLs are written demands from the FBI that compel internet service providers, credit companies, financial institutions and businesses like Google to hand over confidential records about their customers, such as subscriber information, phone numbers and e-mail addresses, websites visited and more as long as the FBI says the information is “relevant” to an investigation.
National Security Letters are a powerful tool because they do not require court approval, and they come with a built-in gag order, preventing recipients from disclosing to anyone that they have even received an NSL. An FBI agent looking into a possible anti-terrorism case can self-issue an NSL to a credit bureau, ISP or phone company with only the sign-off of the special agent in charge of their office.

What’s more, the lack of court oversight raises the possibility for extensive abuse.

In 2007 a Justice Department Inspector General audit found that the FBI had indeed abused its authority and misused NSLs on many occasions.
Such intrusions would have been considered unthinkable not many years ago. The Orwellian blanket smothers us because we did not recoil from its first glancing touch.

All of which means that the time to discuss drones in the United States is now. I'm not just talking about weaponized drones: Your parents would never have tolerated spies in the skies, and neither should you.

And that is why I, a staunch anti-libertarian (on economic issues), must now say -- through clenched teeth and scarlet cheeks -- "Thank you, Rand Paul." Like it or not, he has forced us to have a necessary conversation.

Let me repeat a point made in an earlier post: Do not buy into the infantile right-wing fantasy that we can counter the drone threat by "exercising our Second Amendment rights." In Yemen, fully automatic weapons are almost as common as rocks, yet American drones usually find their targets without hindrance. Guns won't protect you from these machines.

We need laws.

We also need to remind progressives to put principle ahead of party. Liberals must regain their old position -- and if doing so means standing against the Obama administration, so be it. Screech at your representatives. Tell them that the issues of drones, privacy and surveillance will play a huge role in how you vote. Protest while you still can.

(By the way: Senator Ron Wyden gave me brief hope that Democrats could be brought around on this issue -- and then he pulled this crap. Along with Barbara Boxer!)
Drone production as economic stimulus?

The O-bots are as insane as the Rightards in their love for the Waffleman. Rand's diatribe will only serve to strengthen their ties. They'll stick to Obama and his policies like maple syrup to your favorite Sunday clothes.

On the right you have AM radio with its toxic mixture of Christian Supremacy, Manifest Destiny/White-man's burden, and paranoia. On the Left you have Markos and the A-List Bloggers. Both sides have done incalculable damage.

Say good-bye to America as we know it, as we go from republic to company town. From citizens to indentured servants for the corporate aristocracy. Obama sold us out and his reward will be the position of court jester, only he won't know it.
zzedhyThough I hate to give a Rand Paul credit [in my mind he's a whackadoodle] but in this regard he's standing on the right side. I've always thought this drone business is downright creepy--Spies in the Sky. It was just a matter of time before the drones of the ME were winging over American communities, under the ruse of safety/surveillance and if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about crap. We've had a complete militarization of our police forces. We're living under the guise of a democracy, while whistleblowers are considered enemies and protest groups are budding terrorists. Bradley Manning should stand as a stark example of what happens when you draw outside the lines and make a moral decision to expose amoral behavior.

The genie is out of the bottle. The time for debate was yesterday because there's big money in these drone designs and application. The insect swarms should scare the bejesus out of everyone.

So, I tip my hat to Rand Paul, even though he's hardly the ideal messenger.

Mike, I may be a cynic, but I'm not a defeatist. Perhaps that makes me an existentialist. You should keep trudging along even though you have little hope of a positive outcome, because A Man's Gotta Do What A Man's Gotta Do. (A woman, too.)

There are plenty of Dems out there who want to regain the high ground on the issues of drones, torture, Gitmo, surveillance and civil liberties. Yes, too many Dems allow themselves to be scared off by right-wing attacks on their patriotism. Also, they don't want to weaken a president who, like it or not, is the only thing standing between Social Security and privatization, and who IS on the side of the angels when it comes to raising taxes on the rich.

If average citizens apply pressure, Dem pols will turn. They WANT to turn: I am convinced of that. Similarly, the Republicans WANT to go back to their old pro-torture neo-con ways.

A liberal/libertarian coalition on the issue of drones may be workable -- as long as they remain on opposite sides when it comes to taxes and spending.
Joseph, I am not suggesting that you should be defeatist, only that the forces ranged against you (and the world we know of laws, civil liberties and the primacy of the individual within the State) have gone so far that they will not give up without a fight. Look at the UK or Greece to see how entrenched is the controlling political elite and how unflagging they are in pursuing their goals. Iceland showed the way forward by getting rid of the debts and prosecuting the bankers, but I think the US powers have been buried under their own propaganda. They neither know nor care that their people are sleeping under bridges just as long as the Dow is rising. And Israel's ownership of Congress is undiminished. Long story short, they will almost certainly, in my view, start their war against Iran to crush any public debate on the legitimacy on the plutocratic new world order. Still, as Gandhi showed, people in the street are the ultimate power.
Say whut?? and here I thought Obama was the one who organized the Catfood Commission and appointed a virulent SS hater (Alan Simpson) to head it...?
What's worse than being a U.S. citizen being surveilled or attacked by a drone?

Fighting back and damaging a drone, and being declared a treasonist or enemy of the state for doing so.
A few random thoughts from a reader of yours. I hope you'll post this despite it being a mild criticism and lengthy.

I have to take nitpick-y issue with your idea that a corporate dictatorship would be worse "than anything Stalin could imagine." I think that's hyperbolic. Corporate dictatorship would be a living nightmare, but I don't think it's in the nature of corporations to exterminate tens of millions. Too many good consumers would go to waste.

Also, you don't really need to say "anything worse than Stalin could imagine," because what Stalin did is already unimaginable.

Another thing I find irksome: constantly calling blanket surveillance "Orwellian." We're a long, long way from 1984, as bad and creepy as things are. I'm not blaming you for "Orwellian" - it's everywhere. But the casual use of this shorthand weakens our defenses, by numbing us. Few except the North Koreans are caught in a truly "Orwellian" situation, and everyone intuitively knows this. So when they hear "this or that is positively Orwellian!", they might share in the outrage, but inwardly they're being numbed to the reality; they're failing to discern the many degrees of surveillance, and its slow expansion, as indiscernible as the movement of the hour hand. We're nowhere near an Orwellian surveillance state, but we might get to one. Saying we've already arrived leaves people helpless and jaded, and isn't strictly true.

One other issue, to which I hope you'll respond. I'm wondering if the sudden outrage over the drones is a typically American way of clearing the conscience by locating evil in a -relatively- minor transgression. I might be wrong about this.

George W. Bush was the first to kill an American citizen with a drone and only now are we discovering our indignation? It seems arbitrary. Which isn't to say that we shouldn't be outraged, or hell, even more outraged than we are. It's just to say that something mysterious is at work in what and when the public and media choose as the focus for (legitimate) fear and anger.

It can seem like pearl-clutching when we're agonizing over extrajudicial killings! by flying robots! when the killing spree has long - or forever - been a central tool of U.S. foreign policy. It's as if the added element of the unmanned vehicle makes this all unpalatable. Commit murder, yes, but, for the love of God, let us do so with -manned- vehicles!

It's as if the country has suddenly discovered that it - and, even more laughably, the CIA - is capable of monstrous atrocities. This seems too much like the ritual turning over and wiping clean of America's memory, so that every ten years the past crimes are comfortably obscure and absolutely disconnected from the regenerated present. We've gotten better over time - probably, and marginally, and on second thought, maybe not - but the drones are less like a new, radical evil than a continuation of the same old business, with new technology.
Anon, yours was a great comment. Thanks. I wish you had signed it (you need not use a real name), but don't worry.

You're quite right -- "Orwellian" is a cliche. A good writer should avoid the term in most situations. But bloggers write a small essay every day, and there are days when one simply is not at one's best. Especially when an unrelated professional project takes up most of one's time...
It should probably be point out here that drones have been in use in the USA for at least 2 years (probably more in some areas), primarily for "border" control. The border region, however, is considered to be a 100 mile band from any land border. This means the entire state of Florida is a border zone. 2/3 of Americans live in these border zones. They have been patrolled by drones since at least early 2011, so we're talking about closing the barn door after the cows have already gone. Armed drones are where the debate is now. Still, laws are definitely needed........almost as much as education of the majority of Americans who have no clue about any of this stuff.
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