Book review: The Assassination Complex: Inside the US Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program

Drones steered by military personnel in Nevada, in the US, routinely and anonymously kill people on target lists half a world away, in places like Yemen and Afghanistan, careless of who else dies in the attacks, says Des Breen.

Jeremy Scahill

Serpent’s Tail, £8.99

IF you are on an American ‘kill list’, or in the vicinity of someone on a kill list, you could be legally executed in a high-tech drone attack without being afforded the checks and balances of arrest, trial, and appeal, says Jeremy Scahill in his book, The Assassination Complex. 

Your death will be overseen from an airbase in Nevada, routed via satellite, and controlled from Ramstein, in Germany.

This could be your fate, though you might be innocent of any crime — to justify your killing, you will be posthumously labelled a terrorist and your murder described as hitting the ‘jackpot’.

This is the shocking scenario exposed by Scahill, one of three founding editors of The Intercept, a website launched in 2013 and dedicated, according to its mission statement, to journalism aimed at “bringing transparency and accountability to powerful governmental and corporate institutions”.

Drones manned from an air-force base in Nevada killed 200 people in Afghanistan between 2012 and 2013, of whom only 35 were targets.
Drones manned from an air-force base in Nevada killed 200 people in Afghanistan between 2012 and 2013, of whom only 35 were targets.

In October, 2015, The Intercept published ‘The Drone Papers’, based on information received from a whistle-blower within the US intelligence community. 

This disturbing book presents that information, along with additional reporting from Intercept journalists, to reveal how both the Central Intelligence Agency and the US military gather intelligence, create ‘watch lists’, and target militants with unmanned aerial vehicles.

An air-force base at Creech, in Nevada, is the heart of the worldwide killing machine. 

Here, personnel dressed as combat pilots — who may never have flown an airplane of any kind — sit in climate-controlled rooms, steering drones, via banks of computer screens, to human targets in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. 

This death-by-video-game world, where US military power is projected across the globe with minimal footprint on foreign soil and little accountability, has expanded worldwide, with control centres in places as varied as Las Vegas and the United Arab Emirates.

According to Scahill, award-winning author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army and director of the documentary, Dirty War: The World is a Battlefield, extrajudicial assassination by UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) has become the combat method of choice in the never-ending war on terror.

A Pakistani demonstrator carries a burning US flag during a protest against drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal region, in Multan, in 2012.
A Pakistani demonstrator carries a burning US flag during a protest against drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal region, in Multan, in 2012.

The drone programme has even reached into the heart of the European Union. 

For years, Angela Merkel’s German government claimed to know nothing about suspicious activities at the enormous American base at Ramstein, taking advantage of the ploy of plausible deniabilty by not looking too hard at what was happening. 

But, in these pages, the long-held suspicion is confirmed that the data for all drone deployments is routed through this base, near Kaiserslautern.

‘The Drone Papers’ have exposed the fact that Ramstein is involved in all drone attacks, whether they originate in Nevada, Pakistan, or Yemen. 

As the source who spoke to The Intercept states: “Ramstein carries the signal to tell the drone what to do. Without Ramstein, drones could not function, at least not as they do know.”

Documents released by the whistle-blower also confirmed, for the first time, the existence of ‘Gilgamesh’, a system by which a drone can mimic a mobile-phone mast. 

If a target’s phone logs on to an observation drone, his presence will be noted and logged; if, however, he logs on to a killer drone, he may have only minutes to live. 

If someone else, like a child, uses the phone — well, tough, that’s collateral damage.

This shadowy world of deciding who lives and dies is beset by childish terminology, reminiscent of a Jason Bourne movie — there are ‘reapers’ and ‘predators’, drones with different technical capacities and designed to carry a variety of weapons and missiles.

The geeky language even reaches into the world of target selection: to target a ‘jackpot’, individuals on watchlists are assigned a ‘baseball card’ — a profile put together by the intelligence services to be presented to the president. 

The policy is that targets can only be killed if they pose a “continuing, imminent threat to US persons”, but, as is

shown in The Assassination Complex, the bloody reality is different.

The figures are shocking: in Afghanistan, from 2012 to 2013, of 200 people killed by drone strikes only 35 were the intended targets, and in one incident in Yemen, in 2012, 12 civilians, including three children and a pregnant woman, were killed, while no militants were hit.

The reality is unreliable intelligence gathering, attacks launched at a whim without fear of consequences, and the deaths of many more innocents than terrorists.

According to the whistle-blower, a blasé attitude has developed in the drone warfare programme: “Anyone caught in the vicinity is guilty by association”. 

They are even termed EKIAs — Enemies Killed in Action — whatever their age or gender. 

This was exposed in January, 2015, when two hostages, American development expert, Warren Weinstein, and Italian aid worker, Giovanni Lo Porto, who were held by Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, were killed by an American drone, despite months of observation and intelligence-gathering. 

Obama apologised to the families and then defended the attack as “fully consistent with the guidelines under which this administration conducts counter-terrorism operations”.

Scahill and his co-writers have dug deep into the leaked documents to excavate the hypocrisy of the White House’s ‘war on terror’. 

The drone programme, started under George W Bush, has increased 10-fold under the current president. 

The number of terrorist suspects has swollen to bursting point — in 2001, there were 16 names on American watchlists, consisting of known or suspected violent militants; by 2016, that figure had reached 680,000 — all of them marked for surveillance and phone-monitoring. How many of them have baseball cards is unknown. 

As a senator, Barack Obama argued that full judicial procedures were required in all cases; he criticised violations of “all the great traditions of our legal system and our way of life”. 

Within a month of his inauguration, he had, according to The Assassination Complex, “trampled all over his principles”. 

In 2012, a drone strike in Yemen, sanctioned by Obama, killed a 16-year-old American, an action later referred to by an anonymous official as a “mistake”.

This book is notable, too, for another reason. The foreword is the first long essay by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency subcontractor, who, in 2013, leaked top-secret information about American surveillance activities. 

He makes an elegantly argued case that the whistleblower who discloses information as an act of resistance in defence of democratic values — not simply as fluff for press consumption authorised by those in power — is a defender of the people. 

He writes: “helping the public servant realise their first allegiance is to the public, rather than the government, is a challenge”, but “when you’re confronted with evidence... that the Government is subverting the constitution and violating the ideals you so fervently believe in, you have to make a decision about where your loyalties lie.”

In the Pashtun language of Afghanistan and Pakistan, drones are called ‘machay’, or wasps, because of the quiet buzz they make when they are homing in on their goal of ending a human life. 

The Assassination Complex, laid out with graphs, photographs and inserts, is an easy-to-read, but detailed exposé of the silence behind a vast killing network, which highlights how the price of war fought at a distance is the murder of innocents.


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