“I was the CIA director. We lied, we cheated, we stole…We had entire training courses…”
– Former CIA Director and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
The concept of whistleblowing seems simple on its face: a government employee recognizes that crimes are being committed by the agency they work for and reports them so that the public is made aware that their tax dollars are being misused by those in charge. But what happens when large parts of the operations of an entire agency (such as the CIA), or even the entire executive branch of government, are grounded in immoral behavior? Is it possible to effectively “blow the whistle” on the entire sprawling apparatus? Or is that conceptually impossible, given that the government reserves for itself the prerogative to issue judgments on what it does?
A system of checks and balances in the United States is said by its defenders to be preserved through having three separate and independent branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. If a governor enacts a law which some citizens believe violates the Constitution, then they can sue the governor, and a judge will issue a verdict on the matter. If the citizens do not win the suit, they can still appeal the ruling by taking the case up again in a higher court. Eventually, the most contentious disputes wend their way up to the Supreme Court, where debate comes to an end and a final judgment is made. This system allows some degree of checks and balances on lower court judges whose political biases may impede objective assessment of the matter in question. Of course, Supreme Court justices, too, are human beings who have been appointed by politicians, so bias cannot be altogether eliminated. But because the nine Supreme Court justices are never appointed by the same president, there is some hope that perspectives will be balanced, and at the very least, dissenting justices in the minority are able to articulate the grounds for their dissent, so that if ever the matter reaches the high court again, it can be informed by those concerns.
Legality and morality, however, are two different things, as much as we may wish for the former to reflect the latter. Expressing moral dissent from what is being done by the government becomes far more difficult when the perpetrators are granted by law the ability to commit moral atrocities, as in war. During wartime, the standards of civil society are completely flouted, permitting the premeditated, intentional killing of human beings, even of soldiers who have been coerced to fight, and even of completely innocent civilians, provided only that the perpetrators claim to have good intentions. Antiwar activists continue to question the “just war paradigm” presupposed by modern military practice, but the complete abolition of war remains a lofty ideal, given the less lofty financial dynamics propelling the war machine forward.
As difficult as it is to take issue with war itself, many veterans throughout history have done just that, having once witnessed firsthand the stark disparity between wartime rhetoric and reality. It is even more difficult to criticize government killers when they operate under a cloak of secrecy. If final judgments regarding alleged wrongdoers are exclusive to the very institution or branch being criticized, then the system becomes microcosmic of tyranny, for the head of the institution effectively writes the “laws” for his subordinates. One example of this was the military’s own assessment of events captured in the video footage Collateral Murder, which was shared by Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning through Wikileaks. In that harrowing film, Reuters journalists are killed by U.S. soldiers hovering above them in a helicopter. After assessing the episode in response to public outrage over what transpired in New Baghdad, Iraq, on that day, the Pentagon concluded that the soldiers had in fact acted in accordance with military protocol. Manning did the public a great service by revealing a shocking truth about what the U.S. military regards as acceptable behavior.
Notwithstanding the oft-recited claim that the United States is a pillar of democracy, there are sizable portions of the U.S. government which are beyond the reach of effective criticism for the simple reason that they are shrouded in secrecy on grounds of national defense. Notably, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the part of the Pentagon’s wide-ranging initiatives paid for using the ever-expanding Black Budget operate with effective impunity. The pretext of “national self defense” is used to prosecute and sometimes destroy the lives of those who dare to demur from the sorts of immoral activities undertaken by government entities allegedly for the good of the nation. In many cases, what are really being defended are the agencies themselves and the comportment of their compliant employees.
The reason given for the assiduous pursuit of whistleblowers in such cases is identical to the alleged reason for the secrecy: that to reveal anything about what is underway is to compromise national security. When whistleblowers expose what look to be war crimes, they are said by prosecutors specifically to endanger the lives of those implicated in the allegations—both regular government employees and cultivated sources. Indeed, the mere possibility of endangering the perpetrators—even when there is no evidence of any harm done by the leaks—usually suffices for the prosecutors of whistleblowers to win their cases. The irony, of course, is that the reason why the revelation of unsavory government activities to the public is dangerous to the perpetrators is manifestly that the acts in question are immoral and will be denounced by most any right-minded person who is made aware of them.
Before the twenty-first century, crimes such as the assassination of suspected enemy spies were committed both by the CIA and by the Pentagon. There was very little, if any, congressional oversight over secretive assassination programs throughout the Cold War, and the small number of congresspersons privy to the details evidently agreed with what was going on. Nonetheless, in the 1970s, the Church Committee and the Pike Committee did manage eventually to rein in the CIA and the Pentagon run amok during the Vietnam War, when hatred and fear of communism led government administrators to devise morally dubious programs such as Phoenix, which resulted in widespread civilian carnage. A moratorium was put on assassination by President Ford in 1976 through Executive Order 11905, and it seemed that the self-correcting system had worked to some degree—albeit not in time to save the lives of thousands of human beings.
During the Global War on Terror waged in response to the events of September 11, 2001, the moratorium on assassination came to an end. Far from being regarded as taboo, such killing was normalized and came eventually to be openly acknowledged and even vaunted to the public. In effect, the intentional, premeditated execution of specific individuals—formerly known as assassination and considered illegal under international law—was rebranded as targeted killing and embraced as a new standard operating procedure of what was enthusiastically billed as smart war. By using remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), or lethal drones, it would no longer be necessary to risk troops’ lives, which was naturally good news to politicians who promoted the drone program without thinking about the consequences for the people on the ground, nor the global effects later on down the line, when other governments began to deploy lethal drones in achieving their aims.
“Taking the battle to the enemy” was deemed necessary for national self-defense, and now, the marketing line went, it could be done without sacrificing any U.S. soldiers’ lives. There might be a bit of so-called collateral damage here and there, but as usual it would come to be ignored or brushed aside as one of the inevitable consequences of “the fog of war.” By portraying targeted killing as a rational way of minimizing combat losses, the whole notion of what counts as permissible warfare was transformed, seemingly irrevocably, given that the United States and Israel set the precedent. Over the course of the war on terror, thousands of people have been killed, and many times more maimed and terrorized, using missiles launched from drones hovering above Yemen, Syria, in Northern Africa, and beyond, in programs administered by the CIA rather than the military. The fact that drone strikes “outside areas of active hostility” (where no U.S. troops were on the ground to protect) were made the province of the CIA to initiate and supervise was diaphanously intended to evade meddling congressional attempts at oversight.
By now, lethal drones have been purchased by governments all over the world, who are free to use these weapons to dispatch anyone whom they designate as the enemy, no matter where they may be. First in line among non-U.S. heads of state to emulate President Obama in intentionally hunting down and assassinating citizens located abroad was U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron used lethal drones in 2015 to execute British citizens located in Syria, despite the fact that capital punishment is forbidden by U.K. law. Had Cameron indicted and tried his victims in Britain, then they would likely still be alive, even if found guilty in a court of law. Rather than prosecute his targets as citizens entitled to due process, Cameron waited until they traveled to Syria before extrajudicially assassinating them.
Where formerly it was considered illegal (under the Geneva Conventions) for a soldier to execute an unarmed enemy soldier point blank, in the Drone Age it is said to be perfectly permissible for an operator located thousands of miles away from a “battlefield” devoid of allied soldiers to push a button and eliminate a suspected enemy combatant, along with anyone who happens to be around him at the time. Still reeling from the shock of what transpired on September 11, 2001, politicians and the populace alike were essentially tricked into believing the manifest absurdity that a soldier located in a trailer in Nevada could be said to kill in self-defense a person who not only was not provided with the right to surrender nor prove that he was not a terrorist, but in fact was not even armed. Understandably, some of the enlisted soldiers lured into working in the U.S. government’s interagency drone program have deeply regretted their participation and abandoned the profession.
A few of the persons privy to the details of the drone program have spoken out, including Daniel Hale, a former signals intelligence analyst who was recently sentenced to nearly four years in prison for violating the Espionage Act. Hale, who worked in the drone assassination program in Afghanistan, stole and shared a trove of top-secret documents, which were published online by Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept as “The Drone Papers,” and in book form as The Assassination Complex. The documents confirmed what other apostate drone operators had already claimed: that the U. S. government, far from achieving “near certainty” about their targets before dispatching them with missiles launched from drones, in fact defined all victims of drone strikes as Enemy Killed in Action or EKIA, provided only that they were military-aged males. Instead of needing to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before executing these suspects, the entire program has been based on the preposterous premise that such persons are guilty until proven innocent. Under this assumption, lengthy hit lists have been drawn up for years by analysts using circumstantial evidence such as SIM card data from cellphones of suspected terrorists. No matter that some of the military-aged males incinerated by drones may have worked as taxi drivers, delivery persons, etc. If their number was derived during a data sweep from the phone of a person already suspected of having terrorist organization connections, then they became “guilty until proven innocent” by transitivity. In “crowd killing,” entire groups of men of unknown identity have been eliminated under the assumption of guilt by association.
The atrociousness of this inversion of justice, which took place during Barack Obama’s presidency and resulted in the deaths of thousands of unnamed persons of color, is difficult to exaggerate. The fact that Hale, in an eleven-page handwritten letter which he sent to the judge presiding over his trial, has explicitly taken issue with President Obama’s public statements on the drone program makes it seem very unlikely that President Biden will pardon the whistleblower—although I certainly hope that I am wrong about this. The problem in this case is that to pardon Daniel Hale would be to acknowledge that either President Obama lied to the public when he said that drone strikes were only carried out when there was “near certainty” that no civilians would be harmed, or else he was incompetent, having no idea what was being done by his drone program czar, John Brennan, and those whom he supervised. A classic Charybdis and Scylla.
Daniel Hale is obviously not a spy, for his avowed intention in disclosing top secret documents was only to alert the public about what was going on in the drone program under a bogus pretext of national self defense. What he revealed is not that a few rogue operators have killed innocent people with impunity, but that the entire drone program is premised on the assumption that it is perfectly acceptable to execute anyone anywhere on the basis of purely circumstantial evidence. In addition to cellphone SIM card data, drone video footage and the testimony of bribed informants on the ground are also used to add names to hit lists. But in the third world countries where these drone strikes have been carried out, the destitute locals who provide HUMINT, or human intelligence, obviously have compelling financial incentives to locate targets for the people paying them.
To acknowledge that Daniel Hale was right to act on his conscience and inform the populace that they were being lied to is simultaneously to assert that the entire drone program is fundamentally misguided, indeed just as wrong as murder—because that is what it is. Hale correctly recognized the financial incentives driving the employees of the “killing machine,” with private military companies (PMCs) rewarded for identifying as many “terrorists” (in reality, suspects), as possible. All of the employees involved in the hunting down and killing of suspects using lethal drones outside areas of active hostilities have been embroiled in a taxpayer funded large-scale program of mass murder. Yet this killing has been rendered banal to most citizens, in large part because the mainstream media outlets decline to discuss the matter at all, deferring as they always do to the Pentagon under, again, a pretext of national self-defense.