Droning Out Any Opposition
By Dennis Loo (3/12/13)
After first telling Sen. Paul that the president had no restrictions on his power to order lethal force upon even American citizens on American soil, Attorney General Eric Holder revised his answer last Thursday in order to induce Sen. Rand Paul to end his filibuster of John Brennan’s confirmation as CIA Director.
The semantic gambit worked. Paul discontinued the filibuster and Brennan got his post.
Overlooked in all of this is the significance of Holder’s revision.
Holder told Paul in his revised statement that the POTUS would only order a drone attack on an American citizen on American soil if that individual was “engaged in combat.”
What does Holder mean by “engaged in combat?”
I can think of two possible interpretations.
The first possibility is that he could mean that the individual in question picks up a gun and starts to shoot at people.
If this “enemy combatant” is shooting at someone, however, how is lethal force in the form of a drone going to end this shoot out without killing or maiming the people the “enemy combatant” is shooting given that the blast perimeter of a drone is as big as a house?
If Holder is not referring to a drone but to more ordinary horizontal face-to-face lethal encounters, then why would the POTUS have to get involved in the first place? Wouldn’t this just be handled the way that most violent confrontations are now handled, with the police or FBI killing the suspect(s)?
What is the purpose behind discussing what the POTUS can do on his own, without being held to any standard, and deciding on his own say-so that someone should be killed? Isn’t the point here that the POTUS is saying he has the right to order that someone should die without anyone contradicting or challenging him or her?
Sen. Paul at least resisted a little which none of his other Senate colleagues did, but he did not object to non-Americans being killed and who will be killed by executive fiat and are innocent of any crimes, including at least 176 children, and he gave up the fight over a “clarification” (as Reuters put it) that guarantees nothing. And Paul is experienced and smart enough to know that.
The difference, apparently, between non-Americans killed by drones and Americans killed by drones is that non-Americans don’t have to be actively engaged in combat to be droned out, while Americans killed by the POTUS on American soil have to be brandishing a weapon or actively engaged in combat.
But perhaps I am being too literal. Perhaps what the AG means is that if someone has shown by their actions and/or their statements that they regard themselves as “in combat” with the U.S., rather than literally wielding a gun or bomb, then the POTUS can order the drones to rain down on his or her head.
Which brings us to the question of how the White House defines someone as a terrorist – i.e., someone who is “engaged in combat.”
Here is where I have some very bad news.
The de jure (legal) and de facto (working) definition by our government of what “terrorism” means is now so broad that anyone doing anything can be construed as a “terrorist.” A “terrorist” is now someone who interferes figuratively or literally with the powers that be. The measure and interpretation of that interference is entirely up to the judgment of those same powers that be. They are the sole judges for it. There is no independent criterion whatsoever.
Let’s begin with the Department of Defense. The DoD for its part regards legal protest as the equivalent of “low-level terrorism.”
"It is DoD policy, as found in DoDI 2000.16, that the DoD Components and the DoD elements and personnel shall be protected from terrorist acts through a high priority, comprehensive, AT program. The DoD's AT program shall be all encompassing using an integrated systems approach."
The first question of the Terrorism Threat Factors, "Knowledge Check 1" section reads as follows:
Which of the following is an example of low-level terrorism activity?
Select the correct answer and then click Check Your Answer.
O Attacking the Pentagon
O Hate crimes against racial groups
The "correct" answer is Protests.
A copy of this can be found on the last two pages of this pdf.
This comes from the DoD’s annual exam for all DoD employees, 2009.
I discuss the question of terrorism extensively in Globalization and the Demolition of Society, particularly in Chapter Four. Here are some relevant excerpts:
Terrorism is the Axis Around Which Post-9/11 Politics Revolve
The term terrorism has been used so indiscriminately in public discourse and so freighted with intentional fright that it needs to get a haircut, take a shower, brush its teeth and put on a fresh set of clothes so that it can appear in decent company and be of some use. The stakes involved and the need for intellectual and emotional clarity could hardly be greater.
Let’s consider how the US government defines terrorism. Inherent in these definitions are clues to part of the problem we face as a people with this “war on terror.”
The FBI defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
The key word in the FBI definition is “unlawful,” not “coerce” or “intimidate” since governments, as well as terrorists, use force. It isn’t violence, intimidation, or coercion per se that makes something terroristic: it is whether or not that force can be rationalized as lawful or legitimate. If it’s seen as legitimate, then violence is not terroristic, no matter how unjust, excessive or random. The question here then is: what makes something “unlawful?” The rules of engagement for soldiers in war and the procedures promulgated by law enforcement (police, FBI, ATF and so on) are essential to legitimizing state use of force – otherwise, the public could see the actions of soldiers and law enforcement as arbitrary and capricious. The intentional irony here is that in the fog of chaos the very existence of these rules legitimates their violation in the breach.
Police use of force can be rationalized as being in the public interest since it’s carried out under the color of law. Likewise, when military forces bomb and kill civilians in times of war we are told that war is a messy business and “mistakes” are inevitable. In the huge gray areas of real conflicts, the existence of tidy procedures provides a convenient fiction that justifies varying degrees of random savagery. Legitimacy or illegitimacy is not an inherent property of the act or acts; legitimacy or illegitimacy are subject to interpretation.
The U.S. State Department defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience" (Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d)).
The State Department’s definition is better than the FBI’s, but it implicitly excludes state-sponsored terror since the agents of such terror are state actors.
Britannica Dictionary defines terrorism this way:
“Terrorism, n. the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective. Terrorism has been practiced by political organizations with both rightist and leftist objectives, by nationalistic and religious groups, by revolutionaries, and even by state institutions such as armies, intelligence…”
This is better still, but neither it nor the State Department’s definition specifies that a key characteristic of terrorism is its indifference to the injury or death of innocent victims or even terrorism’s deliberate targeting of innocents.
Finally, here is the USA PATRIOT Act’s definition for a new crime dubbed “domestic terrorism:” “acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws … [if such acts] … appear to be intended …to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.”
Obviously, by this definition, any act of civil disobedience and any political protest could be readily categorized as “domestic terrorism” since they are all designed to influence the government’s policy. Someone, after all, can always trip and get hurt. Lobbyists, obviously, intend to influence government policy. The PATRIOT Act’s definition for “domestic terrorism” is so broad that it robs the term terrorism of all real meaning and makes it instead a catch-all label that can be used against almost any dissenters or advocates of policy that those in power do not appreciate. Environmental or animal rights activists, for example, do not target people. What they engage in might more properly be described as sabotage. Yet because a spray can might blow up while a saboteur is using it to deface a Humvee, for example, they could be (and have been) classified as “ecoterrorists” or “domestic terrorists.” If truckers, to use a different example, were to engage in a strike action or demonstration in which they used their trucks to block traffic in D.C. for an hour or more, this could arguably be seen as dangerous to human life and be treated as terrorism. Indeed, a group of demonstrators in Salt Lake City a few years ago were prosecuted as “domestic terrorists” for interfering with commercial businesses retail sales on the street where they were demonstrating. Simply put, the PATRIOT Act’s definition of terrorism renders the term meaningless except as an amorphous bogeyman.
At the 2008 Republican National Convention held in St. Paul, Minnesota, local, state and federal police – including a complement of police from a number of other cities throughout the country - carried out pre-emptive raids and used unprecedented covert and overt force against protestors. One observer described it as “Abu Ghraib brought home.” I wrote an essay at the time entitled: “Shock and Awe Comes Home to Roost:”
"Al-Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America and he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights.” – Sarah Palin at the RNC
“[T]he looser ‘preemptive strike’ rationale being applied to situations abroad could migrate back home, fostering a more permissive attitude on the part of law enforcement officers in this country.” – FBI Special Agent Colleen Rowley
“We followed our [RNC] Welcoming Committee members to many cities around the country. We consulted with the terrorism task force in those cities. We received information, etc. [Did you have infiltrators?] Yes, we did. [Were they paid?] Yes.” - Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher
“[S]ix or seven officers came into my cell… one officer punched me in the face…And then they slammed—and I fell to the ground, unconscious. And the officer grabbed me by the head, slammed my head on the ground and re-awoke me …to consciousness. I was bleeding everywhere. … They put a bag over my head that had a gag on it. And they used pain compliance tactics on me for about an hour and a half. They pressed—they separated my jaw as hard as they could with their fingers…. They …bent my foot backwards. I was screaming for God and like screaming for mercy, crying, asking them why they were doing this.” - Elliot Hughes, member of the RNC Welcoming Committee, arrested at gunpoint days before the RNC, charged along with the other RNC8 Defendants with “conspiring to riot in furtherance of terrorism.”
* * *
The police state actions before and during the RNC are not a dystopic America but the real America of 2008 and a harbinger of even worse to come. Beneath the carefully staged and tightly cordoned off circus of “democracy” at the convention rots the corpse of the Bill of Rights:
Of what significance can a person’s right to see the charges leveled against them be when there’s a war on terrorists to be waged? What need do people accused of crimes have to see who has accused them – are they not guilty by virtue of being accused? What end is fulfilled to allow the accused to cross-examine their accusers? Why waste the court’s time with such absurdities? What purpose does it serve to have perfectly good evidence ruled inadmissible, so what if it was extracted employing electric shock and waterboarding? These people are guilty, guilty, guilty! Why just look at them: do they not look guilty? What more evidence do we need? 9/11! 9/11! 9/11! We must wring the truth out of them, whatever it takes, the preservation of freedom demands it! Planting police undercover officers in the ranks of these protestors and provoking them into doing illegal or violent acts, even if those undercover officers have to do it all themselves, is necessary to protect the precious rights we enjoy as Americans. Country First! Anyone who dares tell us that we must not violate Constitutional rights in order to protect Constitutional rights deserves waterboarding! Strap him down! Give me that bucket of water! I’ll show him who’s free!
Having said all of this, there is a way to parlay the term terrorism usefully, since terrorism does exist and is a problem. How do we prevent it being used as a ruse by which to repress one’s political opponents? Terrorism properly defined is
The systematic use of force against persons or property with the intent to induce a general climate of fear in a population in order to produce a particular political objective. Such actions are carried out with either deliberate indifference to the fates of, or involve the conscious targeting of, noncombatant individuals.
I include the explicit mention of innocent civilians in my definition because terrorism differs from political violence in that it is designed to induce fear by the injury or death of innocents.
This definition bypasses the question of legitimacy since, as everyone knows, “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” By circumventing the question of legitimacy, it allows us to impartially define whether something is terrorist or not. Of course, it isn’t really possible to offer a definition that everyone will accept. Some people will refuse on principle to adopt a definition that includes the actions of their own government.
The fact that governments and international organizations are now defining terrorism so broadly tells us something about how vulnerable they believe themselves to be and/or how much independence they are now asserting that they should have from the people, declaring themselves off limits when they choose to to not be subject to the entreaties of those they do not want to hear from. Some of those who try to determine government action are acceptable and not terrorists, corporate lobbyists, for example, have more influence than ever, while others are to be excluded and criminalized for daring to try to influence “their” governments.
One more example:
Individuals acting as undercover investigators and who have videotaped the treatment and abuse of animals at U.S. farms and food processing facilities have been charged as “terrorists” under the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. State legislatures are considering passing their own versions of this federal “ag-gag” bill.
I suppose if they try to drone out an undercover investigator videotaping a food processing facility through a window we will find out how surgical these drones are, because if the drone also harms any of the workers in the food processing facility or any of the animals or equipment therein, this would also make the drone operators potentially guilty of “terrorism” for harming or creating fear among those animals and/or people.[i]
[i] From Will Potter, “FBI Says Activists Who Investigate Factory Farms Can Be Prosecuted as Terrorists,” December 20, 2011:
The 2003 FBI file details the work of several animal rights activists who used undercover investigation to document repeated animal welfare violations. The FBI special agent who authored the report said they “illegally entered buildings owned by [redacted] Farm… and videotaped conditions of animals.”
The animal activists caused “economic loss” to businesses, the FBI says. And they also openly rescued several animals from the abusive conditions. This was not done covertly in the style of underground groups like the Animal Liberation Front — it was an act of non-violent civil disobedience and, as the FBI agent notes, the activists distributed press releases and conducted media interviews taking responsibility for their actions.
Based on these acts — trespassing in order to photograph and videotape abuses on factory farms — the agent concludes there “is a reasonable indication” that the activists “have violated the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, 18 USC Section 43 (a).”