Tag Archives: drones

Questions for John Brennan

David Cole, a professor of law at Georgetown, poses twelve essential questions for Obama’s nominee for Director of the CIA, John Brennan.

There are a number of great questions here, including a question about the “legal authorities” behind the classified drone program–a topic recently pursued by Senator Wyden (about the only Senator willing to question the administration’s military/intelligence programs). But the one that I’d most like to see an answer to is this one:

5. It has been reported that, in addition to “personality strikes” against particular known individuals, the administration also uses “signature strikes” against unidentified individuals who show patterns of behavior characteristic of a particular militant or terrorist group. In what situations, beyond a traditional battlefield, is it appropriate to use such strikes? What constitutes a sufficient “signature” to warrant a strike?

In other words, what are the specific “patterns of life” that constitute a perceived threat? And how are these patterns surveilled and made knowledgeable? If we had answers to those questions we would advance our understanding of how geographical technologies and concepts were being used or misused.

In this context, check out this poll by Pew Global on attitudes towards the US drone program around the world:

COIN and the cultural turn

Derek Gregory has a new post about counterinsurgency (COIN) and the cultural turn here. He makes some very good points about COIN and the academic response, as well as providing some useful references:

When I wrote “Rush to the intimate” (DOWNLOADS tab) the new field manual FM 3-24 had just been released, and I was interested in how this – together with changes in pre-deployment training, technology and the rest – described a ‘cultural turn’ of sorts that seemed to be addressed as much to the American public as it was to the American military.

There is indeed something odd about a mode of military operations that advertises itself as ‘the graduate level of war’ (one of Petraeus’s favourite conceits about counterinsurgency) and yet describes a ‘cultural turn’ that is decades behind the cultural turns within the contemporary humanities and the social sciences.

This is an interesting point and one which I feel needs addressing. When military/intel enrolls geography into its doctrine and methodology, there is often a mismatch. As I said in a long post reflecting on the latest GEOINT conference a little while ago, this is either because academia has (wrongly or rightly) given up on something that others find valuable, or because there is a misunderstanding of the potential of our more recent work. Gregory continues:

That said, the discussion of counterinsurgency surely can’t be limited to a single text, its predecessors and its intellectual credentials. If there has been a ‘cultural turn’, then its codification now extends far beyond FM 3-24 (which is in any case being revised); if the domestic audience was an important consideration in 2006, the public has certainly lost interest since then (and, if the US election is any guide, in anything other than an air strike on Iran); and whatever the attractions of large-scale counterinsurgency operations in the recent past, Obama’s clear preference is for a mix of drone strikes, short-term and small-scale Special Forces operations, and cyberwar.

At the moment I don’t feel we in academia have a good enough take on this, or that we’re convincing to policy-makers on why foreign policy shouldn’t be a mix of drone strikes (see eg., “the moral case for drones” here and here by the American philosopher Bradley Strawser) aside from personal opinion informed on ethical grounds.

Or see Matthew Aid, a generally good commentator on intel, and his practically fan-boy adoration of Petraeus, here.

On special ops there are large majorities of Americans in favor of this:

“Do you approve or disapprove of the United States taking military action in countries where it believes terrorists are hiding?”
    Approve Disapprove Approve of
some (vol.)
    % % % %  
  11/6-10/11 65 22 7 6  
“Is it ever okay for the U.S. to authorize the killing of an American citizen in a foreign country if that person is known to be a terrorist, or is that never okay?”
    Okay Never okay Unsure    
    % % %    
  11/6-10/11 53 35 12  

On cyberwar, this is a huge issue for the intelligence community, and one of the central planks of the ODNI & CIA efforts. Not least, because of “insider threat” but also it is framed around threats from China and Russia, especially the former  and industrial secrets.

So I’m just saying that those three things are extremely well entrenched and we need better approaches.

Here are the references he provides:

Ben Anderson, ‘Population and affective perception: biopolitics and antiicpatory action in US counterinsurgency doctrine’, Antipode 43 (2) (2011) 205-36

Josef Teboho Ansorge, ‘Spirits of war: a field manual’, International political sociology 4 (2010) 362-79

Alan Cromartie, ‘Field Manual 3-24 and the heritage of counterinsurgency theory’, Millennium 41 (2012) 91-111

Marcus Kienscherf, ‘A programme of global pacification: US counterinsurgency doctrine and the biopolitics of human (in)security’, Security dialogue 42 (6) (2012) 517-35

Patricia Owens, ‘From Bismarck to Petraeus:the question of the social and the social question in counterinsurgency’, European journal of international relations [online early: March 2012]

The Forever War

Greg Miller, writing the first of three articles in a major series on targeted killing by the US government, has revealed for the first time details of the decision-making calculus of life and death used by the government:

Over the past two years, the Obama administration has been secretly developing a new blueprint for pursuing terrorists, a next-generation targeting list called the “disposition matrix.”

The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations. U.S. officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the “disposition” of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.

There have already been a number of responses to this, particularly Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian, and thousands of reader comments.

One of the key points is how this represents a (continued) shift in priorities, and the acceptance of counterterrrorism as part of the “Forever War” to use a well-known title by Joe Haldeman. The Post story adds:

Less visible is the extent to which Obama has institutionalized the highly classified practice of targeted killing, transforming ad-hoc elements into a counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a seemingly permanent war.

This is now the “new normal”:

Targeted killing is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes that sustain it.

How clearly this is an institutionalization that will continue with whoever the next president is, the story notes how close Obama and Romney are on this issue:

For an administration that is the first to embrace targeted killing on a wide scale, officials seem confident that they have devised an approach that is so bureaucratically, legally and morally sound that future administrations will follow suit.

During Monday’s presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney made it clear that he would continue the drone campaign. “We can’t kill our way out of this,” he said, but added later that Obama was “right to up the usage” of drone strikes and that he would do the same.

I probably don’t need to add nor emphasize that these policies depend upon the “enrollment” of political geographies and human geography concepts to operationalize the “targeted” strikes. For example, note that “pattern of life” analysis (or activity-based intelligence) depend upon social networks.

The story is not unproblematic. It relies on data for drone strikes from the New America Foundation rather than the Bureau of Investigative Journalists (New America has been the subject of critique and conflict of interest).

Yet this is a big story, and WaPo (which has had some shaky reporting on terrorism) is to be congratulated for running it.

Christopher Priest: The Islanders

“People who ran wars needed maps” –Christopher Priest, The Islanders

A few days ago I learned that Christopher Priest had a new novel, which turned out to be The Islanders (All men are islands it adds on the cover but not the copyright page). Actually I heard about it in reference to his remarks about the Arthur C. Clarke not having any worthy finalists this year and speculation that he made the comments because this book was not shortlisted. (Later it was announced that it had won the BSFA Award.)

I obtained the book and have now read it. It’s set in Priest’s Dream Archipelago and is his first “novel” for nine years. It’s written as an apparent gazetteer of the islands in alphabetical order of the official island names, from Aay to Yannet. The islands also have patois names such as “Descent,” “Bearer of Messages” and “Path Followed” which are what is used in the listing at the front, making it hard to look up an island if you need to check something (as you will).

The book is written in a terse, attractive style that I found readable and unusually compelling. If you’ve read Priest’s previous novels, particularly of course the Dream Archipelago collection or The Affirmation, this style will be very familiar to you. Priest’s work deals with the reality of the porousness of the boundary between reality and imagination. That is, like most novels, it is liminal: you are half in and half out of the imaged world. (This itself is a form of twinning; of saying that our knowledge and experience of reality is not independent from the way we imagine it to be, a motif going back to Kant.) This creates new geographical landscapes. I met Priest once at a signing ceremony at a Worldcon (’79?) and garnered a personally dedicated autograph in my hardback copy of Inverted World. The book had a lot of influence on my understanding of space, and along with Philip K. Dick helped provide a mental guide to my studies in cognitive mapping over the next decade, first as an undergraduate at Liverpool, then in the US at Penn State.

The Islanders‘ gazetteer structure, although maintained throughout the book, quickly becomes a number of other things which can be thought of as either short stories or facets of other things. One entry for example, is the story of a young man getting a job as a stage assistant on a distant island, and his run-in with the popular mime performer known as Commis. There’s a death onstage involving a large sheet of glass (there are some parallels here to the Last Transported Man trick in Priest’s The Prestige, although without the “prestige materials” of that book). The nature of these entries varies. The first one we encounter, for the uninhabited island Aubrac Grande or Aubrac Chain (it has no patois name) contains long excerpts from the journal of the scientist after whom it is named, Jaem Aubrac, an entomologist from Tumo University. While on these islands his research team encountered a strange and deadly insect, the Thryme. These can grow to 15-20 cm in length, and roll themselves into a protective ball when approached. They are very deadly, their hairs can penetrate thick gloves, and they have large pincers. If one of these touches or bites you, death is inevitable, although not right away as they appear to lay embryos in you along with a deadly poison.

One review online complained that there is no “big reveal” to the book (I’m trying not to call it a novel). But you should be careful what you wish for! Priest as you may know, has a fascination with magic, doubling and twins, which comes to the fore in his book The Prestige. So any “reveal” will almost certainly be misleading. (Funnily enough there’s a website for a magician by the name of Chris Priest! I’ve not yet ruled out that this is a dummy website put up by the author.)

This fascination comes in part from the fact that Priest himself is the father of twins but I suspect there’s more to it than that. Twins evokes the notion of the double, but in Priest’s work there is is also the sense that the other is folded into the other. That is, to investigate one character is to find the other embedded, and so on (like the yin-yang symbol). This causes multiple identity problems as you can imagine. These are not just of one character to another, but can sometimes “escape” the fiction. As we read The Islanders for example, we learn about Moylita Kaine, who writes to the famous novelist Chaster Kammerston (who provides the Preface for this book). As Kaine matures (nice homage to Michael Caine here, who played a character in the movie version of The Prestige) she soon becomes a published novelist herself. Her first book is The Affirmation, which she dedicates to Kammerston. At this point, I had to retrieve my copy of the Affirmation from the bookshelf (I think this was my first ever hardback purchase, of the British first edition, and I see I’ve inscribed it “15 ii 1982 Liverpool” which means I bought it as an undergraduate, for the then costly sum of £6.25). It does contain a dedication (“To M.L. and L.M.”) as does the Islanders (“To Esla”) which happens to be the name of the writer and social reformer Esla Caurer, who is a central figure in the book.

An important theme of the Islanders is that the Dream Archipelago is not truly knowable as a coherent whole. Only local parts of it can be known and mapped. (There is a parallel here to the history of cartography itself, from large-scale or local mappings into coherent national atlases. Or indeed with other kinds of knowledges that dream of becoming universal, such as Pliny’s 36-volume Natural History, or Herodotus’ The Histories.) Part of the given reason for this in the book are the temporal and visual distortions that occur, particularly near those islands on the Equator. This concept was introduced in The Affirmation, and it means for example that it is not possible to photograph the islands and map them, although partial local maps can be made.

In The Affirmation the protagonist Peter Sinclair holes up in a friend’s country cottage to try and recover from the effects of a damaging love affair with his girlfriend, Gracia. He does the cottage up, painting it a nice clean white, and produces a long autobiographical manuscript. As he writes however, he finds it easier to write metaphorically about a world with a large chain of islands: the Dream Archipelago. London becomes “Jethra.” Soon, he enters the archipelago, where he meets Seri, with whom he begins an affair. One of the features of the Dream Archipelago is that there is a treatment that can make you immortal, a so-called “Athanasian” (from the Greek a-thanatos, not-dying). There is a side effect of this treatment however, which is that you lose all memory of your past life. (This procedure is briefly mentioned in The Islanders.) If you accept the treatment (and only a very few have that opportunity) you have to rebuild your life. In Peter’s case he uses a manuscript he wrote about two years previously. But again, it is written metaphorically, where Jethra becomes “London”…

The impossibility of total mapping in The Islanders immediately casts the idea of a gazetteer in doubt, and indeed Kammeston in the Preface offers the opinion that the “foreknowledge these gazetteers are so keen to impart will always be irrelevant.” Even here however, there is doubt. From internal evidence it appears that parts of the gazetteer were written by Kammeston himself, while other parts are written by his identical twin brother, Wolter. Yet later in the book we attend the death and funeral of Chaster. If he died, how did he write the Preface to this book, which contains his death? Did he write the whole book as a complete fiction (ie., is he Christopher Priest?)

As someone with cartographic interests I very much appreciated the way it is not possible to “map” the islands. There’s even a Meequa Cartographic Institute (MCI) in the entry for the twin islands of Meequa / Tremm, which are known in patois as Bearer of Messages / Fast Wanderer. The Institute uses a large fleet or swarm of drones which it releases several times a day. These drones which are solar-powered, can fly for days on end, and they have proximity sensors that allow them to fly together without crashing. As they fly around the islands, they can therefore collect imagery which can be composited together into a map (This is real, see Vijay Kumar’s GRASP lab and swarm drone demos.) Since the drones are autonomous, and fly independently, Priest introduces the charming idea that they can become “captured” by a particular set of terrain or islands, flying around repeatedly (like an asteroid being captured by the sun’s gravitational field). Some 30 islands are said to have attendant captured drones in this manner.

The possibility of only local maps itself mirrors the book’s overall theme, and one might say of much of Priest’s work in general. There can be no overall summary or apprehension of its content. It is only possible to know things in one local area, but it is also not possible to just add these local areas up into a larger map. There are practical obstacles (most of the drone imagery is of ocean surface or does not match up to other imagery). But more importantly there are philosophical obstacles. Knowledge is ultimately subjective, which does not make it less, but rather more real. Everything is connected, but that doesn’t mean it can be known as a whole. (A Google Earth of the Archipelago would be impossible.) Everything is ultimately in doubt, although for most of the time this doesn’t bother people too much.

A number of links to earlier books are evident for those keen to spot them, such as names of places and islands like Ia, which is mentioned in The Affirmation. However, the main city of that book, Jethra (/London) while mentioned here is not featured in the gazetteer, since in fact it is not in the islands but in Faiand, the main country to the north. But the book can be read on its own if you haven’t read the earlier books.

Priest apparently has apparently already got a new novel in preparation and has done a stageplay of his book The Prestige.

Drones, privacy and “flying lawnmowers”

A couple of notable discussions around drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The Center for Democracy and Technology has some thoughtful recommendations on how Congress can write in privacy protections on the forthcoming drone legalization law (PL 112-95, or FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012).

For example, the FAA can and should issue Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs):

a. Require FAA/DOT to issue PIAs and rules on privacy and transparency for government and non-government use of drones. Provide FAA/DOT with specific authority to conduct these rulemakings and enforce the regulations.

b. Establish clear processes for law enforcement use of drones.

  1. Law enforcement should be prohibited from weaponizing drones.
  2. To use drones for extended surveillance of a particular target, law enforcement should be required to obtain a warrant and provide the target with notice after the fact of the surveillance.

b(1) certainly seems a good idea–imagine weaponized drones in the hands of police. (If you can’t, see here.) b(2) is also an interesting suggestion, certainly about the warrant, which I would agree with, but I can’t see LEAs getting too excited about informing the target afterwards.

What about so-called “drone journalism“? A group of people from the International Journalist’s Network recently met to discuss this topic and get a demo of a small RC drone. Their conclusion was that the current law and technological limits didn’t present a convincing case for drone use in journalism. One guy warned that drones are basically “flying lawnmowers.” A stakeout by someone with a good camera would yield more info (hey we learned this watching The Wire if nothing else).

They recommend… using a tethered balloon instead!