US to downsize drones amid growing outcry over civilian casualties

Responding to outcry over civilian casualties, the Pentagon is preparing to deploy a new generation of drones the size of model planes, with miniscule warheads that can allegedly be delivered with pinpoint accuracy. The Predator and Reaper drones now in use typically carry 100-pound laser-guided Hellfire missiles or 500-pound GPS-guided "smart bombs" that can reduce buildings to smoldering rubble. The new Switchblade drone weighs less than six pounds and are supposedly designed to kill a sniper on a rooftop without destroying the building. (LAT, June 11) The announcement comes days after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on a visit to Pakistan said: "Drone attacks do raise serious questions about compliance with international law. The principle of distinction and proportionality and ensuring accountability for any failure to comply with international law is also difficult when drone attacks are conducted outside the military chain of command and beyond effective and transparent mechanisms of civilian or military control... I see the indiscriminate killings and injuries of civilians in any circumstances as human rights violations." (AFP, June 7)

See our last post on the drone wars.

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How Obama came to terms with killing civilians

According to various accounts, e.g. in Mother Jones, Daniel Klaidman's new book, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, provides an eye into the process by which the idealistic new president came to peace with drone terror—particularly the so-called "signature strikes," which target groups of unknown people on the odds that some of them might be terrorists. Klaidman offers this now widely quoted anecdote:

Instead of hitting the CIA's intended target, a Taliban hideout, the missile had struck the compound of Malik Gulistan Khan, a prominent tribal elder and member of a pro-government peace committee. The strike killed Khan and four members of his family, including two of his children...

Steve Kappes, the CIA's deputy director, offered a blunt explanation. "Mr. President, we can see that there are a lot of military-age males down there, men associated with terrorist activity, but we don't always know who they are." Obama reacted sharply.

"That's not good enough for me," he said.

Notes Mother Jones: "[A]s Klaidman's book explains (and as we can see from the sharp increase in drone strikes) Obama eventually came to rely on signature strikes as a key part of his counterterrorism policy. Nevertheless, the president learned early on that supposedly detailed intelligence can be incredibly, tragically wrong, with irreversibly lethal consequences. Given that reality, why should the vague assurances that the strikes usually hit the right targets be good enough for the American people now?"

Obama, of course, has dramatically escalated the drone program that he inherited from Bush, and seems to have completely overcome his squeamishness about killing civilians. This is a textbook case in what Leopold Kohr called the "law of diminishing sensitivity"—by which the scale of atrocities reduces the perpetrator's sense of guilt. Once you get over the initial shock of killing innocents, you can do it again and again and again, without a pang of conscience...

"Disposition Matrix" new Orwellian buzz-word

"Disposition Matrix," eh? Is that like  "Overseas Contingency Operation"? From the Washington Post, Oct. 23:

Plan for hunting terrorists signals U.S. intends to keep adding names to kill lists
Over the past two years, the Obama administration has been secretly developing a new blueprint for pursuing terrorists, a next-generation targeting list called the "disposition matrix."

The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations. U.S. officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the "disposition" of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.

Although the matrix is a work in progress, the effort to create it reflects a reality setting in among the nation's counterterrorism ranks: The United States' conventional wars are winding down, but the government expects to continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years.