America’s crises and secret killings

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

For some time now the United States has been mired in conscience-wracking crises. The latest was last week’s mass killing by a young man with a high-powered gun of 19 children and two teachers inside a classroom in Uvalde, Texas – while responding policemen stood by outside, under an order not to rush in promptly.

Per one listing, the crises involve the following: climate change, systemic racism, toxic masculinity, online disinformation, gun violence, police violence, the next Trump coup, the latest COVID variant, the death of democracy.

“This is the liberal crisis list,” observed New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on Monday. “The conservative list is different.” In the US media today, he lamented, Americans are “constantly cycled from one crisis to another, each one seemingly existential and yet seemingly forgotten when the wheel turns, the headlines change.”

Coincidentally, on the same opinion page with Douthat’s column was an essay, authored by Phil Klay, a US war veteran and university professor, titled “When America kills in secret.”

“One of the many strange things about being an American citizen these days,” Klay wrote, “is that there’s a whole lot of killings done in our name that our government deliberately keeps secret.”

“What does it mean to be a citizen of a state that kills for you but doesn’t tell you about it? Are you still responsible?” As premise of these questions, he explained that veterans of the US wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, when asked if they had killed anyone, used to respond: “If I did, you paid me to do it.” Back then, Klay wrote, “the actions of our military were much more visible.”

The US military’s main efforts in that period (2005-2009) were conducted in the open, he pointed out, and his job then, as public affairs officer in the Marine Corps, “entailed courting journalists to embed with our units to see what they were doing.” President George W. Bush had to defend and explain his administration’s policies, as political pressure mounted on US policymaking “to keep it tethered to the will of the American people.”

But for political and military reasons, the nature of the war shifted. The pace of the war accelerated: The Joint Special Operations Command missions in Iraq soared from six a month in 2004 to 300 by 2006, Klay noted. They “rehauled” the whole process of “finding targets, fixing them in place, finishing them, exploiting and analyzing the intelligence collected and then disseminating that intelligence to the agencies and commands able to most rapidly act on it.”

“When Americans think about the killings we do overseas, we often think of the mechanism,” he wrote. “A drone delivering a bomb strikes us as a bit creepy. A member of the Navy Seals bursting into a bad guy’s compound strikes us as heroic.”

Klay provided certain details on how the killings were carried out in Colombia’s long-running civil war that ended in a peace agreement in 2016.  Starting in 2007 America helped kill dozens of guerrilla commanders. The CIA trained Colombian teams to use lasers to guide smart bombs to their targets.

Example: When US spy agencies were able to trace the location of a senior Colombian guerrilla leader inside a camp in Ecuador, American national security lawyers ruled it was “permissible” to use air strike against him “as an act of self-defense.” The US provided the Colombians with smart bombs to kill their target. To cover their tracks, they also dropped conventional bombs.

“The decision to provide US support, made and justified by officials and lawyers whose names we still don’t know, in a complex conflict most Americans have no idea the (US) has been heavily involved in, set off a diplomatic crisis between Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia,” Klay revealed.

Even after the Colombian civil war was ended in 2016, the US continued to support killing operations targeting a big drug gang.

“This style of warfare has always been secretive,” Klay noted. But as the US shifted to more reliance on drones and airstrikes and special operators, that “secretive side of warfare became a larger share of America’s global military presence (200,000 troops in more than 150 countries).”

Under Trump’s presidency, even greater secrecy cloaked the expanded operations: the defense department “wouldn’t disclose troop numbers, details of airstrikes or even give regular press briefings at the Pentagon.”

“The rationale for keeping the US public in the dark is always national security concerns, and there are real risks,” Klay pointed out. For instance, revelations about targeting Russian generals in their war against Ukraine “might invite retaliation” and exposing granular detail on operations “puts sources and methods in jeopardy.” But then, “secrecy also hides issues of public concern from public scrutiny.”

On President Biden’s ordering US troops back into Somalia to maintain an assassination program targeting leaders of the Al Shabah rebel group, Klay wrote: “It’s not clear why the administration thinks Al Shabah, which doesn’t operate much outside the Horn of Africa, represents a threat to the United States.” Moreover, he cited a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s report that the US government’s reports on its strikes “routinely failed to detect civilian casualties, investigate on the ground, identify causes or errors in targeting, or discipline anyone for wrongdoing.”

As regards Biden’s September 2021 speech at the United Nations where he declared, “I stand here today for the first time in 20 years with the United States not at war,” Klay wryly noted: “It’s not just a pleasant falsehood it’d be pretty to believe.  It’s something more corrosive.”

“War – the killing of other people on citizens’ behalf – is the most morally consequential thing a nation can do.  As Americans, we should take that responsibility seriously,” he concluded, stressing that both the US Congress and the citizenry should debate it.

“None of that can happen,” he warned, “if year after year, lethal strike after lethal strike, the needs of national security are invoked to hide it from view.”

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