Wired’s Danger Room blog has published pictures of what may be the hitherto secret CIA drone base in Saudi Arabia, revealed as part the confirmation hearings for John Brenner as proposed Director of the CIA…
So much has been happening over the US drone warfare program over the last few weeks that it’s hard to keep up.
First, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, instigated an inquiry into the targeted killing programs operated by the USA, largely using drones, and focusing on the issue of civilian casualties. The rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, made it clear that the inquiry would pull no punches and might result in war crimes charges against the US, should evidence be discovered of such crimes.
Second, NBC television in the USA revealed a leaked Justice Department document laying out the legal justification for the targeted assassination of US citizens using drones. The full memo is also available from this link and assembles a tortuous argument about how US citizens can be killed by their own government from above if there an “informed, high-level” official decides that the person has “recently” been involved in undefined “activities” threatening a violent attack against the US and “there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.”
And now, the Washington Post is reporting that the nomination of President Obama’s counter-terrorism guru, John Brennan, to head the CIA, has led to all sorts of revelations and difficult questions for Brennan to answer about the CIA’s targeted assassination program, including the acknowledgement of a secret drone base, at a still undisclosed location, in Saudi Arabia.
A while ago it looked like Obama’s drone strategy was unassailable despite increasing public knowledge via the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and criticisms from groups like the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. Now, this is going mainstream and it’s not looking so good for what former CIA Director, Leon Panetta, called the ‘only game in town’.
The USA has established organized Pacific and Atlantic surveillance UAV squadrons (of 12-24 aircraft each) for the first time, for border and sea lane monitoring. These are a variant of the Northrop-Grumman MQ-4 drones I mentioned the other day, which Japan are also buying. The order establishing the program can be found via Cryptome here. Cryptome has also published the locations of the bases from which they will fly, Ventura Country naval base in California and and Mayport naval base near Jacksonville in Florida.
It is increasingly seeming like UAVs will continue to form the core of Obama’s military strategy, and it seems no coincidence that he has nominated John Brennan, described as the ‘architect’ of his drone policy, to be the new head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Meanwhile, Canada is more likely to have widespread use of drones by police and the private sector before it gets any military models. It was reported just at the end of last year that the Canadian military drone program is now not likely to be in operation until 2017 and the cost has gone up to over $1Bn (Can). This doesn’t seem to have attracted anything like the attention that has been given to the ingoing farago surrounding the Canadian government’s attempt to purchase US Lockheed F-35 fighter jets, although admittedly that is no estimated as being something in the region of 50 times as expensive…
(Thanks to Chris Prince for keeping me updated on this!)
The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched a $40,000 competition ostensibly to see examine the way communication works in Web2.0. The competition will see whether disributed teams working together online can uncover the location of large red weather balloons moored across the USA.
The ‘DARPA Network Challenge’ “will explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems”.
All the headlines for this story have been verging on the amused (even The Guardian). Words like ‘whimsical’ and ‘wacky’ have been common. But it seems to me that this project has many underlying aims apart from those outlined in these superficial write-ups, not least of which are: how easily people in a culture of immediate gratification can be mobilised to state aims and in particular to do mundane intelligence and surveillance tasks (following the failure of simple old style rewards to work in the tracking down of Osama Bin Laden and other such problems), and 2, the prospects for manipulating ‘open-source intelligence’ in a more convenient manner, i.e. distributing military work and leveraging (a word the military loves) a new set of assets – the online public, which is paradoxially characterised by both an often extreme scepticism and paranoia, but at the same time, a general superficiality and biddability.
DARPA, of course, was one of the originators of the Internet in the first place (as it continues to remind us), but the increasingly ‘open’ nature of emergent online cultures has meant that the US military now has a chronic anxiety about the security threats posed not so much by overt enemies as by the general loss of control – in fact, there’s been talk for a while of an ‘open-source insurgency’, a strategic notion that in one discursive twist elides terrorism and the open-source / open-access movement, and the CIA has recently bought into firms that specialize in Web 2.0 monitoring.
It seems rather reminiscent of both the post-WW2 remobilisation of US citizens in things like the 1950s ‘Skywatch’ programs (which Matt Farish from the University of Toronto has been studying) or more specifically, some of the brilliant novels of manipulation that emerged from that same climate, in particular Phillip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, in which unwitting dupe, Raggle Gumm, plots missile strikes for an oppressive government whilst thinking he’s winning a newspaper competition, ‘Where will the Little Green Man be Next?’
So, who’s going to be playing ‘Where Will the Big Red Balloons Be Next?’ then… ?
Wired online has a report that the US Central Intelligence Agency has bought a significant stake in a market research firm called Visible Technologies that specializes in monitoring new social media such as blogs, mirco-blogs, forums, customer feedback sites and social networking sites (although not closed sites like Facebook – or at least that’s what they claim). This is interesting but it isn’t surprising – most of what intelligence agencies has always been sifting through the masses of openly available information out there – what is now called open-source intelligence – but the fact is that people are putting more of themselves out their than ever before, and material that you would never have expected to be of interest to either commercial or state organisations is now there to be mined for useful data.
(thanks, once again to Aaron Martin for this).