[Author, left and interviewer, right, at Ramstein West Underground Parking Complex.]
“…as far as the local sheriff is concerned, it could be a suicide bomber…”
It would be nice to think there’s an easy answer, a simple, somehow safe solution to the very real threats posed by those whom we choose to call terrorists. Should we be surprised, and even relieved such a solution has presented itself in the form of drones? It’s a weaponized wish come true. From the safety an underground bunker on American soil, we’re able to target and kill those who would harm us half a world away. It’s a neat narrative that allows us to check that concern off our list and get on to the next crisis.
But as Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept from the title onward in The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program, it is not simple. Based on newly-obtained documents from a source who used to work in the drone program, The Assassination Complex contemplates the moral calculus used to turn brutal assassinations into almost anonymous battlefield casualties. Scahill and his staff offer a scathing, precise vision of just what is being done, and why it is happening. This is compelling reading for any citizen who wants to trust their government, written with understated power. It’s not simple by any means. It is by any measure riveting and important.
Edward Snowden provides a scene-setting introduction that explores the nature of leaked information. Jeremy Scahill then provides a chilling précis, and after that, prepare to be plunged into an Orwellian nightmare. There’s a “find, fix and finish” protocol put in place for the chosen targets. There’s a damning lexicon of euphemism. Targets are given “baseball cards” that summarize their crimes and the means by which the accusations against them are ranked. “Guilty until proven innocent” and “trial by jury” are left far behind. Trying to sort this out without the skills of Scahill and collaborators would be impossible. They manage to cover each aspect of the program in a manner that allows readers to put together the pieces of an ugly puzzle.
Readers who “want to believe” in the moral authority of the Obama Administration are going to have to re-focus their desires on something more realistic, like UFOs and aliens. The evidence that Scahill and his co-creators offer is undeniable. Not only is the drone program a morally bankrupt means to spin assassination, it’s been a program that has caused more problems than it ever solved. We manage to create enemies by killing innocent bystanders (in some cases, at a rate of 9 in 10) and we also eliminate potentially valuable sources of intel. All this while behaving just s fiendishly as any pocket dictator you might wish to name.
But the bad news does not stop at the ineffectual nature of what’s being done. The means by which we accomplish this are disturbing enough, and headed back home. It turns out, that as Scahill told me in our interview, “We’re not killing people, we’re killing cell phones.” The app installed on every phone is “Send a Drone to Destroy This Phone.” Will you thank the authors for making you regard your smart phone as a target for a Hellfire Missile? The jury’s out on that one.
The Assassination Complex benefits from superb design. Simon & Schuster and Scahill’s team have crafted a book that is as powerful the PowerPoint presentations that the CIA and the NSA use to illustrate the “kill chain,” which is to say, who lives and who dies. There are a lot of moving parts to integrate so that we, the readers can put together the big and very scary picture.
Here’s the most interesting aspect of The Assassination Complex: even before you finish the book, you’ll realize that when you bought it, your name and this book got paired in a data mart somewhere. You’ll start by putting your phone in “airplane mode.” But you’ll be suspicious, and with good reason. Then you’ll turn off the phone. The Assassination Complex will have created a new narrative for you. Simple will be a thing of the past, or maybe a myth.
You can hear my interview with Jeremy Scahill by following this link to the MP3 audio file. But you cannot unhear it. Or, you can listen here.
You might as well. If you’re reading this line, it’s too late, no matter how private or Tor-ified you think your browser history might be.