Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Never Ending Drone Wars and NZ

The fatal spying warrant

On May 19, 2014, prime minister John Key formally acknowledged that the GCSB has been, and presumably still is, providing information to the US which is used in the so-called drone wars. He said “it is almost certain” that the GSCB’s information was used “in identifying targets” for drone attacks in Afghanistan and possibly in other countries.
However, he was “quite comfortable” with it and said that everything the GCSB did was within the law.

What sounds like another one of Key’s blanket assurances about the lawfulness of a government agency without knowing anything about it, is in fact a serious admission of involvement by the NZ government in a US government assassination programme.
The issue came to the fore because of revelations that a NZ citizen, Abu Suhaib al-Australi, was killed in Yemen in a drone strike in November 2013, and that Key had issued a warrant to the GCSB to spy on him. Although US officials say that al-Australi wasn’t the main target but rather “collateral damage” (along with 4 other people), it’s likely that the GCSB’s information was used in this killing.

All that was needed to convince the prime minister to issue the fatal warrant to the GCSB to spy on al-Australi was that “he had gone [to Yemen] and gone to a terrorist training camp” and was “reported to be an al-Qaida foot soldier” (TV3, 16 April 2014). Other people say, he was teaching English in Yemen.

Normally, the killing of a NZ citizen by another government without any form of trial would be the cause of moderate to serious diplomatic rows, but in this case it is simply accepted. NZ is so far involved in the “Five Eyes” (the spying agreement between the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and NZ) that the government blindly accepts the US’s jurisdiction over NZ citizens in a foreign country. 

The war on terror out of control

US journalist Jeremy Scahill explains in his documentary “Dirty Wars” how the US government’s “war on terror” has developed its own deadly dynamics, leading to the establishment of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) that has been given a free reign to kill any target that it believes to be a possible threat to US security. According to Scahill’s sources, JSOC wages its own war in some 80 countries without being accountable to anyone.

A particular tool of JSOC is the use of drones. While in the past, US military forces have raided many homes and killed many people, these raids were carried out by foot soldiers who at least had to face their victims before they pulled the trigger. The use of drones has removed this minimal threshold, making the killings even more abstract. Now Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) aka drones are operated from a remote location via video link, without any personal risk to the operator. The threshold to pull the trigger is minimal when the targets are hazy images on a computer screen and the trigger feels just like that of a play-station.

A few years ago, this would not have been possible. But at the same time that the technical quality of computer games has reached a level where the images seem totally realistic, the real war has been abstracted to the level of a computer game. There is simply no distinctive difference between playing a computer game and killing people in Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen. A drone operator can kill dozens of people in different locations during one shift – something that no foot soldier could ever achieve. Increasingly, the US military hires people specifically to be drone operators, without them ever undergoing the regular military training that supposedly includes learning how to distinguish between combatants and civilians.

In October 2013, former US drone operator Brandon Bryant went public about what it felt like being a “sensor operator.” His accounts debunk the myth of the “precise, lawful, and effective” (a US Defence official) strikes. He told the story of watching a child running into the target area and being hit by a missile. After his first ever killing, he watched an injured man bleed to death. When Bryant quit his job, he was given a certificate praising him for killing 1626 people in his 4 years of service.

Since Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama has taken office, more than 2600 people have been killed in more than 400 drone strikes. 

NZ implications

Irrespective of the lack of any evidence that Abu Suhaib al-Australi had done anything that might be considered a “terrorist act”, the assassination of someone without trial should be reason for outrage by the NZ government and the NZ people. NZ does not have the death penalty and normally NZ politicians are very eager to point to the “rule of law” and “due process” in this country and how superior this system is over so-called backward Muslim countries.

Why is it then, that the NZ prime minister finds it OK for a US agency to kill a NZ citizen in a sovereign other country? Why is it that the political mainstream does not raise the issue of NZ’s sovereignty?

The war that never ends

But even the US administration must somehow sense that the assassinations have the opposite effect of what they are officially set out to achieve. In September 2011, the US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who was suspected of being an Islamic militant, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen. Two weeks later his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman was also murdered. Abdulrahman was not even suspected of anything, he had only become a target after his father had been killed. The murder of the father had turned the son into a potential threat that had to be eliminated. A US army whistleblower can be heard in “Dirty Wars” recounting how the list of targets in Afghanistan grew in size after each killing.

This is the paranoid logic of the “war on terror.” A war that has no target or end point must continue forever. And through the Five Eyes, NZ is part of it.

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