The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program
By Jeremy Scahill and The Intercept staff
Review by David Wineberg
In 2001 there were 16 names on the Known or Suspected Terrorist list. In 2013 there were 469,000 and there are now north of 680,000. These are people singled out for extra security at airports, like Senator Ted Kennedy who was prevented from boarding several flights, and a cub scout named Mikey Hicks, who got the treatment the first time when he was just two. It also includes the president of Bolivia and the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament. Membership in a terrorist organization is not required. Once on the list, directives request every conceivable scrap of information, even biographical data on co-travelers. Mere death is not an acceptable reason for removal from the list, and neither is acquittal by a jury. To get off a list, all 19 American security agencies have to agree, and the subject will not be informed. And that’s just one list. So begins The Assassination Complex.
The book is really well constructed. Its prologue is a view from above by Edward Snowden, who compares the treatment he received with the slap on the wrists to General Petraeus for basically the same thing, the first foretaste of the tsunami of hypocrisy to come. The first stories butter us up with the way civilians are targeted by agencies like TSA, and all the astounding kinds of data they collect on over a million people, most of whom are specifically not even suspected of belonging to terrorist organizations. Then we get into drone killing. In story after story, the methods, the operations and the effects on individuals, families and whole countries comes into stark relief.
Extrajudicial killing is a routine daily practice, with hundreds of civilians killed for every suspect targeted. This includes children, pregnant women, American hostages and whole families. Weddings have been particularly fruitful. American drones have deployed all over Africa and the Arab crescent, and now all kinds of other countries from France to China want to replicate the glorious freedom to kill at will with drones. Since the US has proven the way to get to pretty much anyone is to track them through their telephone SIM card, everyone on the planet is fair game, and there is absolutely no need to be sure of the target. One suspect’s mother was bombed to death because her son lent her his phone. Oh well, try again.
This is an updated collection of stories from The Intercept, an investigative journalism website that clings to ideals like press freedom against the monolith of the US government, which is totally against having to admit any of what it is doing. The book is also beautifully laid out, with dramatic red accents at the beginning and end of every story, and lots of photos and graphics integrated right where they are discussed. The stories are succinct, though they could have been edited to remove duplication.
The epilogue devotes itself to showing Barack Obama as a complete hypocrite, outdoing George W Bush in ignoring the constitution and human rights, using his own words, before (“Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency”) and after being elected (“Courts have no role reviewing the president’s war on terror killings”). It is garden variety hypocrisy; once in power, they all revert to type, removing rights, invading privacy and limiting freedoms. In the “war on terror” suspects of any kind have no rights whatsoever. Everyone is a potential suspect, and you have no choice but to play.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.