Category Archives: War

Psychologist behind torture and interrogation speaks for first time

James Mitchell, one of the people who designed the CIA interrogation program of prisoners after 9/11, has broken his media silence. In a remarkable interview at the Guardian he provided a robust defense of his actions:

“The people on the ground did the best they could with the way they understood the law at the time,” he said. “You can’t ask someone to put their life on the line and think and make a decision without the benefit of hindsight and then eviscerate them in the press 10 years later.”

The Guardian’s headline is actually “CIA torture architect breaks silence to defend ‘enhanced interrogation'” which highlights that they are one of the few major media outlets to use the word “torture.”

I found the comments very instructive (very little love for this guy). But what about this one, given that we’ve just come from an AAG where the organization’s role was criticized:

And this war criminal still holds a professional license to practice psychology and destroy even more lives.

The American Psychology Association must be staffed with similar thinking war-criminal wanna be’s. They refused to rebuke his anti-ethical behavior.

Plenty to think about there.

Andrew Friedman on our “Covert Capital” and “Landscapes of Denial”

Andrew Friedman, who teaches history at Haverford College, has a superb-looking new book Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia (University of California Press, 2013).

While I wait to get my copy, let me reproduce the description on his home page:

Covert Capital is a cultural and spatial history that chronicles how the CIA and other “national security” institutions that defined U.S. foreign policy in the era of global decolonization created domestic space around their own headquarters and abroad. The project argues for an alternate genealogy for U.S. migration by tracing the social, work and family relationships, formed during violent U.S. endeavors, which carried American agents abroad and migrants from Vietnam, El Salvador, Iran, the Soviet Union, Cuba and elsewhere home to the D.C. suburbs. As U.S. empire expressed itself abroad by developing roads, embassies and villages, its subjects arrived in the covert capital as real estate agents, home owners, mall builders and landscapers, constructing places, living monuments and a complex political space that nurtured, reflected and critiqued U.S. foreign policy and global operations after World War II. Ushering the study of U.S. empire into everyday life, the book explores how an imperial U.S. citizenship was lived and disavowed in everyday space, and re-narrates the history of postwar suburbanization as the spatial device that helped produce an imperial citizenry and subjectivity.

You can also read the Introduction on Amazon preview. A sample:

By studying the landscape’s close interweaving of national security institutions, houses for covert agents, and sprawling suburbs, I reveal how the geography of empire established abroad by the United States reproduced itself at home in architecture and spatial relations, and how that home front, in turn, incubated empire.

As a former resident of this landscape, I have to say how much this resonates with me. While “covert capital” may be hyperbole (the “real” DC is literally next door), it’s superb hyperbole to point out that this “war-torn” landscape (the Crystal and Pentagon Cities, Falls Church, Arlington National Cemetery, Tyson’s Corner, Maclean et al.) as we might call it, is a landscape of “denial.” I’d add in all the defense and intelligence contracting that Tim Shorrock has brilliantly exposed (see his photo essay here on the very places Friedman is talking about), and the think-tanks and academic support structures (eg., NSF).


Interview with drone pilot

Huffington Post has a rare interview with a drone pilot, or as he likes them to be called, Remotely Piloted Aircraft.

It’s a little candid, a little dispiriting, and a little propagandistic all at the same time.

Harvard CGA presentation

Last week I was a panelist at the annual Center for Geographic Analysis conference at Harvard University. The panel topic was on privacy and legal aspects of locative media and the geoweb.

My remarks focused on what I’m coming to call “sustainable security” and posited that in many respects we have lost personal privacy and are willing to lose even more for the promise of being safer. Sustainable security seeks a level of security that is sustainable in the long run, and does not accept that all security is good or that it makes us safer.

Are we safer for all the money we spend on security? I suggested three reasons why we might not be (I’ve pasted my ppt below and I believe it was recorded on video).

1. outsourcing is growing the old military-industrial-academic sector, this outsourcing is for-profit, and leads to lack of oversight;

2. geographical research is being enrolled into the securitization agenda, converting “peaceful” research into militaristic purposes;

3. numerous legal provisions which enable the security state undermine civil liberties (not just privacy).

My co-panelists were Kirk Goldsberry (Harvard CGA), David DiBiase (Esri) (my first boss at Penn State) Nicolas Oreskovic, and Sarah Williams (MIT). We might have had some good discussion but unfortunately one of the panelists spoke for at least double the allotted time (we were asked to speak for about 10 minutes).

I would have especially liked to engage more with David, who felt I was being hypocritical in flagging Esri’s government (and DoD) contracting without mentioning the huge sums pulled in by universities (including UKY). This is certainly true–universities like UKY, and George Mason, Penn State and indeed Harvard do take large government contracts (although I was told that Harvard does not allow “secret” research)–but I think the reason to flag Esri is that (along with DigitalGlobe and GeoEye) it is a top ten contractor with the NGA, and as a privately held company does not publish its contracting details with DoD and NGA. (For its part, the NGA has had a special dispensation since 2006 not to report dollar figures it contracts out.) Esri is also a major mover in the GIS/locative space, and government funding of its efforts, and its role in working with DOD combat-support intelligence agencies, is worthy of note.

Nevertheless, as I noted in a tweet reply to David, he is right to wish for a more complete picture of the political economy of the geoweb. This is something I’d like to work on a bit more, and something some colleagues and I have discussed in more length in a paper in submission. 

Data on government spending is available at a couple of different places, eg., and, but for both the source is the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS). According to the FPDS the following government awards have been made:

  • Esri $878m ($479m from DoD)
  • University of Kentucky $260m ($23m from DoD; including four awards over $1m, all from the Army)
  • George Mason University (a previous employer), $185m ($78m from DoD)
  • Penn State (David’s previous employer and my alma mater) $2.8b ($2.5b from DoD)
  • Johns Hopkins (top university recipient of federal contracts) $9.7b ($9.1b from DoD)
  • Harvard University $146m ($29m)

Penn State and Johns Hopkins’ size seriously dwarf the other examples given here. Harvard’s relatively tiny numbers (for an institution with a $32b endowment) are presumably a factor of its refusal to do “secret” research.

It would be worth looking at what these institutions are being funded to do, but here we run into problems of accessibility, absent sending in multiple FOIA requests. (If Esri wants to release financial summaries of its government and DoD contracts, I would be obliged, and give it due credit for transparency.)

These flows of money may seem like a lot, but in context of government and DoD funding they are relatively small. (Perennial government consultants Booz Allen Hamilton has absorbed more than $11.3b of tax-payer’s money; the top government contractor of all time is Lockheed Martin at $393b–how’s that for corporate welfare?)

But surely dollars are only part of the story. There’s also personnel and the rotation of government contractors, such that contractors become government  employees with the power to award contracts (and vice versa). This is partly why so many contracts are awarded on an “uncompeted” or if competed then only done so by a single company.

As I allude to in point 2. above, there are also the circulations of knowledge between various parts of the academic-military-intelligence-contractor “nexus.”  These are harder to pin down but potentially more illuminating. In my case, I am interested in how geography gets put to work.

In other words, how does expertise (concepts and methods) get co-opted (advertently, inadvertently) and circulate?

Take this story in The New Republic for instance. They found

at least 49 people who have simultaneously worked as lobbyists for outside entities while serving as top staff, directors or trustees of 20 of the 25 most influential think tanks in the United States.”

The list includes people who worked on national security issues at think tanks, but simultaneously lobbied for military munitions manufacturers:

[Center for American Progress] senior fellow Scott Lilly, whose beat includes national security issues, lobbied for Lockheed between 2005 and late-2011.

Should this reduce the credibility of Lilly or CAP? What if the financial support gained is not disclosed or only partially disclosed? Would transparency completely fix the problem–is it enough?

We also have this:

This should remind us that there is no such thing as the efficacy of pure knowledge–knowledge has a politics. How can we then develop reputable or consensual knowledge about what constitutes sustainable security (rather than security for security’s sake)? And of what do those consensual knowledges consist?

Harvard CGA slides: Sustainable Security

Derek Gregory video now available

Derek Gregory’s excellent recent lecture at UK in the Social Theory series “Gabriel’s Map: Cartography and Corpography in Modern War” is now available for viewing. (The sound is a bit faint until Derek starts speaking.)



This is the 25th year of the Committee on Social Theory lecture series, and the general theme this year is “Mapping.” In a couple of weeks we will host Neil Brenner, followed by Tom Conley and Swati Chattopadhyay.

Obama memo on killing US citizens

Charlie Savage and Scott Shane have an important story on the Obama administration’s justifications for killing a US citizen, citing yesterday’s leaked memo obtained by NBC News correspondent Michael Isikoff.

The memo fills in important details of the government’s justifications for these killings, while still leaving plenty of terms only very loosely undefined. Perhaps most noticeably, it claims that killings can be performed in the face of an “imminent attack” but that there need not be any evidence of an attack.

According to Savage and Shane, the memo is also not the specific one used in the killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki, and lawyer Jesselyn Radack has noted that it wouldn’t justify that killing. (Awlaki was a US citizen.)

The case for and against drones

Earlier this year, an American philosopher at the Naval Postgraduate School, Bradley Strawser, made what he called “the moral case for drones.” Perhaps realizing that this was a somewhat unusual argument, he received coverage in both the Guardian (also here) and the New York Times. His basic argument was simple, and certainly seriously proposed:

after a concentrated study of remotely piloted vehicles, he said, he concluded that using them [drones] to go after terrorists not only was ethically permissible but also might be ethically obligatory, because of their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.

Whatever you think of this argument on its own grounds, or whether the data are sufficient to assess it, it is not possible to either ignore it or dismiss it. Why not? Simply because it is the prevailing position of the Bush/Obama administrations and policy-makers.

The post-election lull in US drone strikes now appears to be over. Thus, geographers and others will need to once again address this argument. Engaging on the moral calculus of death (for example the claim that drone strikes are more precise than bombing) will strike many as iniquitous. But if it’s not done, then this argument hangs out there. (Good work on this thankless job has been done by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.)

Drones are not yet a major part of warfare in terms of numbers or in munitions deployed (around 9% of the latter are from UAVs). No one thinks that number will go down. So here are the top three counter-arguments against armed drones, leaving out objections on personal moral grounds for the moment:

1. They contribute to an increasing militarization of everyday life, not just “over there” but domestically too. Police departments, companies–even universities–are applying for waivers to use drones, and we may soon see America’s skies  occupied by state and/or private drones, either for surveillance or weaponized. Additionally, everyday life becomes weaponized, not just our activities and practices, but the knowledge we produce as well. Here I’m thinking of the enrollment of scientific and scholarly knowledge (“cloak and gown,” military-academic-industrial complex), area studies, overseas expeditions, etc.

2. Drones make military activity more likely. As Derek Gregory points out, in an important post, they are cheaper and less likely to involve domestic troop injuries or deaths (because operated remotely). (By “domestic” I don’t just mean the USA; there is no reason to suspect that China et al. won’t develop weaponized drones capable of flying overseas.) This argument, like the first, requires a supplement to detail exactly why or when “military activity” may be counter-productive. Ie., many people are of the opinion that it is justifiable if it produces certain ends, security for example.

A related point made by Gregory is that they carry out this military activity by stealth and are therefore less accountable. Part of the reason for this stealth is that drone activity is taking place far from the battlefield or even in countries with which the US is not at war.

However, this is an argument that could be rebutted. Perhaps these factors are really part of the same point–what if drone strikes were only in places with which the US was at war and the order for their use went up through a proper chain of command? What if the Obama administration published an official list of drone strikes every time (or, for more political distance, tacitly endorsed an approved agency or contractor to do so)?

3. Thirdly then, I would like to explore the argument that drones–as part of a larger strategy of countertorrism, foreign intervention, special ops, and signature strikes–are not “sustainable.” Here I mean sustainable in the sustainability science meaning of not being possible to continue because they will decrease human well-being. There are two issues worth pointing out here. First, we are talking about not just a single technology and activity (drones), but an assemblage. Here I’m talking as much about an integrated military strategy of which drones are a part (occupying the skies from low-altitude to satellite constellations), and especially understanding satellite/drone imagery and surveillance not so much as a product, but as data files and calculative “code space.”

Second, does sustainability science give us worthwhile data measurement proxies and leverage that allow us to get beyond on the one hand objections to war on personal/ethical/moral [religious] grounds, and on the other acceptance of it because it leads to security? Neither of these arguments appear to me to be particularly fruitful, because you can’t do anything with them. Would sustainability/resilience/well-being provide such an avenue? Perhaps no more than climate science and the IPCC has, but surely no less than either. In a time when the US spends $1T a year on security, surely we can ask, is that even sustainable?

Geographic knowledge and war

Today at the ASPRS meetings, Jerry Dobson, Professor at Kansas University, President of the American Geographical Society (AGS) and Jefferson Fellow at the Department of State, repeated a claim he’d first made in 2010:

So, you know, we hear a lot of people now agonizing over Iraq and Afghanistan and saying, “How did we get it so wrong?” But, it’s not just Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s Korea, it’s Vietnam, Beirut, Somalia, and so forth. We have this century of first half story victories, second half more quagmires than victories. What changed? Was it the valor of our troops? No, they’re as outstanding as always. Was it the training, or equipment, or technology? No, those are better than ever. Policy, strategy, foreign intelligence? We’ve been playing a dangerous game of blind man’s bluff and that corresponds with the American purge of geography. America abandoned geography after World War II and hasn’t won a war since. Now, that’s debatable based on what’s ‑‑ how you define a war and how you define a victory, but it makes a point. Sometimes that was because geographic ignorance drove the initial decision to choose war over peace, and sometimes because geographic ignorance led to poor intelligence, strategy, tactics, and diplomacy.

(The Department of State video of this talk is available here.)

The fact that he repeated this claim belies any idea that this might be a spur of the moment phrasing–Jerry actually seems to really believe this stuff.

Part of his argument is that geography has died since reaching a peak under Isaiah Bowman. In fact, this is backwards–geography is richer and more vibrant today than under Bowman. And you can’t help but feel has died is not so much geography, as Dobson’s preferred form of it; America-centric, with imperial overtones. The other part is that Dobson clearly states that geographical knowledge helps the US “win” more wars and that that is what geography is for.

Second, and somewhat confusingly, Jerry argues that this “death of geography,” this lack of geographic knowledge, has led to increased militarism due to geographic ignorance. The trouble with this argument is that it’s less than half right. It omits the fact there there is no such thing as pure efficacious knowledge, but in Foucault’s useful phrase, power/knowledge. Knowledge and power–in this case political goals–are intertwined. So knowledge is not a panacea, and in fact is often in the service of military endeavors, as is well-known.

In fact it’s the “good liberal” argument he made at AAG 2012, in dismissing Karen Morin’s new book, Civic Discipline and defending the work of the AGS. In his remarks  (published this week in the Geographical Review), he says:

She faults Daly for “his alignment with a  subsequently declining geographical society.” But  Daly died in 1899 and the AGS soared through the 1920s. Did she really mean to say that the AGS with Isaiah Bowman was less impactful than the AGS under Daly? What does she mean by “declining,” anyway? We survived. We’re still doing great things. She says “unfortunate obstacles in the later twentieth century. . . damaged [our] stature within the geographic community.” If that is true, how can the AGS still have three former presidents of the Association of American Geographers, one former president of the National Council for Geographic Education, and one former president of the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers on its council? And, what were those “obstacles”? The only one I know is that we ran short of money and had to reduce our expenditures accordingly. Does she fault us for the decline in philanthropy that swept through corporate donors from the 1970s on? Would she disparage Daly for his close ties to business and then disparage us for shedding ours beyond what we intended?

This misses several things. Most importantly, I take it that it’s clear that Morin is referring to the AGS “obstacles” of the Bowman Expeditions and Mexico Indigena. This factually and definitely has “damaged the AGS’ stature.” The AGS is much shrunken, and recently had to give up its offices in Manhattan and move to a small office in Brooklyn. (One positive outcome: due to lack of space they finally had to yield up their archives to a proper facility at Univ. Wisconsin-Milwaukee–a boon for researchers. It was there this summer that I found an interesting trail of letters from Bill Bunge to people around the world on behalf of Fred Schaefer.)

Dobson continues:

Civic Discipline demeans the life and works of one of the greatest geographers and humanitarians who ever lived. It maligns one of geography’s most venerable institutions. Morin damns with innuendo and baseless accusations. She relies exclusively
on popular social theories and ignores other plausible explanations. She neglected to ask those who know Daly best.

By this last phrase, Dobson means himself. In a remark which drew much laughter at the AAG session, but which is unfortunately not printed here, Morin paused to say that she would no more ask the AGS President about 19th century geography than she would ask Michael Palin about the RGS! [Palin is the  Past-President of RGS]. You go where the archives are, and in this case, the AGS no longer has the relevant papers (they have discarded and sold a lot of stuff off over the years), or they lie elsewhere (NYPL).

Dobson’s claim that Daly was a great geographer and humanitarian is starkly at odds with the fact that he let off (Daly was a judge by trade) the state militia who had shot into an unarmed crowd, killing 22 people and injuring 45, as Neil Smith points out in his contribution.

Returning to the theme then, it is not a case of the good liberal throwing knowledge at a problem and expecting liberal outcomes. Knowledge for whom? For what? The Bowman Expeditions are a dead letter because they are construed as producing knowledge for the military in the hope that they’ll invade and bomb less frequently. Is it working?

Final note on this: Dobson is going to lecture on “ethical issues in geography” next week, wherein he will demonstrate the “public’s boundless embrace of geographic technologies.”

Navy SEAL in bin Laden raid unmasked

A Navy SEAL who was part of the raid on bin Laden’s headquarters has apparently written a book about his exploits. Although it was written under a pseudonym, media reports have already identified the author.

The book comes at a time when concern about leaks is at a fever pitch in Washington and in the White House. The Obama administration has been especially tough on whistleblowers (defined as those who wish to report wrong doing, malfeasance or waste and have a reasonable belief their superiors will not act upon the evidence). However, since the book was not cleared by the DoD or the CIA speculation is that it may contain classified information (or if not, be a very short book).

This raises the question of whether this is leak, a leak which the administration winks at (a large amount of very derring-do information was leaked by the administration after the raid) or something else. Will they prosecute or quietly reward the author? (Added: On the other hand, the book may turn out to be highly critical of the WH.) As Glenn Greenwald writes in the Guardian, this is also in the context of judicial refusals to provide records of the raid. Are those refusals now overtaken by leaked information?

The book is being published on the symbolic date of September 11, just a couple of months before a presidential election.

Derek Gregory on the everywhere war and bombing from above

While I think it is both premature and excessive to see this as a transformation from governmentality to ‘militariality’ (Marzec 2009), I do believe that Foucault’s (2003) injunction – ‘Society must be defended’ – has been transformed into an unconditional imperative since 9/11 and that this involves an intensifying triangulation of the planet by legality, security and war. We might remember that biopolitics, one of the central projects of late modern war, requires a legal armature to authorise its interventions, and that necropolitics is not always outside the law.

Derek Gregory “The Everywhere War

Gregory will be speaking at this week’s Shock and Awe Conference in London on Bombing from Above.