United States: Drone warfare fuels profiteering, spying

March 10, 2012

The Sun Herald in south Mississippi carried a small story on February 21 with far-reaching implications for the capitalist economy and democratic rights.

The multinational corporation Northrop Grumman, manufacturer of aerospace and military equipment, opened a new centre in Mississippi devoted to the development of “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAV), popularly known as drones.

The article gushed over the vast commercial and investment opportunities for Mississippi. It said spending on UAVs is estimated to rise over the next decade from US$5.9 billion a year to $11.2 billion.

Drones are becoming well-known as instruments of warfare, and the Barack Obama administration has expanded their use dramatically. UAVs are primarily used in US military conflicts overseas, but they are also used for civilian purposes, such as monitoring US borders, and a host of other commercial and law enforcement purposes.

Weapon of choice

Pilotless aircraft have become a weapon of choice for the Obama administration, but they were first used in US wars in Bosnia in 1995.

Remotely piloted aircraft were used in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Predator drones have flown surveillance missions, gathering information about targets in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US military began to use armed pilotless aircraft soon after 2003. It has used them with devastating effect in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia.

Israel has used armed and unarmed drones in wars on Lebanon.

Drones are equipped with state-of-the-art computer technology, such as infrared and live video cameras, heat sensors and radar. They can upload vast amounts of data and even eavesdrop on electronic media and mobile phones.

The reconnaissance capability of the drones is vital. But armed with Hellfire missiles, they rain down lethal force on their victims.

They are the feature weapon in covert wars the US has conducted in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and other countries.

Obama, the “anti-war” president, has increased the use of UAVs as a form of covert warfare. Obama ordered the assassination of US-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

The radical Islamic cleric was never charged with any crime, or brought before any court of law. Instead, Awlaki was executed in a Predator drone strike.

Expanding war

Obama has expanded the Afghan war into Pakistan with drone strikes. Pakistani civilians have borne the brunt of this aerial warfare. Obama publicly acknowledged such warfare in Pakistan only earlier this year.

These terror drones — which is what they are — have also claimed the lives of other “dangerous” people such as rescue workers and funeral guests.

A February 4 report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism said such civilian killings in Pakistan have taken place since May 2009. At least 2413 civilians have been killed in Pakistan so far because of drone strikes.

These atrocities are emblematic of the Obama era of covert warfare.

Drones have attacked Somalia since at least June last year. In a country wracked by political instability, economic breakdown and lawlessness, drone strikes are the last thing that could bring a stable, unified, democratic society. But the Obama administration's aim is not democratic changes, but to expand the reach of US military and economic interests.

The US has conducted covert military operations in Somalia since 2001, but drone warfare has increased civilian casualties. It is radicalising a new layer of people, turning them into potential recruits for extremist groups.

Journalists are increasingly bringing the issues of pilotless drones to the attention of the public. Even Fox News pointed out that Obama authorised the use of armed drones in Libya in April last year.

Obama had been at great pains to emphasise that the US took a “back seat” in that conflict. The initial rationale for NATO intervention in Libya was that of humanitarian intervention, the establishment of a “no-fly zone” and the safety of Libyan civilians under threat.

Then-defence secretary Robert Gates rejected suggestions that authorising drone warfare was a form of mission creep — a stealthy expansion of war aims from the initially stated justification.

The “humanitarian” rationale was exposed as a lie when NATO forces used their aerial warfare capabilities to carry out the wholesale destruction of the town of Sirte, an act of collective punishment that resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians.

Senior political analyst for Al Jazeera, Marwan Bishara, wrote on February 21 that the initial justification for NATO intervention in Libya turned out to be false.

Internal surveillance

In mid-February, Obama signed the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act 2012. This prepares the way for the use of UAVs in the US itself.

The Minneapolis-based Star Tribune warned on February 21 that US citizens should get ready for drone flights in their home territory.

The bill’s passage was couched in terms of upgrading the air traffic technology in the country, but it paves the way for a robust expansion of a police state in the US.

Drones will now be used to conduct high-tech surveillance of the population, collect information about their movements, monitor any individuals or groups of interest to law enforcement authorities and intercept electronic communications.

Multinational corporations, such as Northrup Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, lobbied heavily for the passage of the bill.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a lawsuit in January against the FAA. It seeks full disclosure by the FAA about the use of drones for domestic purposes.

The EFF noted that the market for UAVs is rapidly expanding, and more companies are investing in UAV technology.

The EFF cited a report last year by Teal Group corporation, an aerospace company, that reviewed the world UAV market. It found the outlook for UAV technology was very positive, and predicted worldwide UAV research and development expenditure will rise over the next decade from $5.9 billion to $15.1 billion.

In his January 30 Guardian column, veteran journalist and political commentator George Monbiot described the US drone war as a coward’s war.

He pointed out that the more we can distance ourselves from the immediate, lethal and tragic consequences of warfare, the less accountable we are. It further desensitises those involved to the plight of the victims of imperial wars.

US economy

The Obama administration and its corporate supporters are hailing the commercial opportunities posed by the UAV industry in the US at a time of economic downturn.

But his administration has done nothing to prosecute the Wall Street racketeers and financial parasites that caused the 2008 global financial meltdown.

The very people that made billions through financial speculation and wildly inflating finance bubbles are back making money while the rest of the US economy stagnates.

For instance, Greg Lippmann, a former trader at Deutsche Bank, has returned, making millions buying up securities that are based on mortgages — the very practice that contributed to the 2008 financial meltdown.

A February 18 New York Times article said bonds backed by cheap mortgages are “regaining their allure”.

It said: “The attraction is the price. Some mortgage bonds are so cheap that even in the worst forecasts, with home prices falling as much as 10% and foreclosures rising, investors say they can still make money.”

Lippmann is just one example of a trader who bought up collaterised debt obligations during the speculative housing bubble, just before it imploded.

So the bankers who swindled billions in the financial sector, and then were bailed out by the US government, are once again set to continue their reckless and socially destructive practices.

It is hardly surprising that such practices continue. Both the Republican and Democratic parties are bought by, and rule for, a narrow financial oligarchy.

John Bellamy Foster, a professor of sociology and editor of Monthly Review, wrote in December 2006 that the US economy has reached the stage of “monopoly-finance capitalism”. All sectors of the economy have become dominated by giant multinational corporations.

Foster documented the “financialisation” of capitalism. This consists of the rising, and now predominant, mode of economic activity being financial speculation — the sale of financial assets such as stocks, bonds, derivatives, making money out of speculating on making money.

Not only are financial bubbles created, but they become whirlpools of speculation.

The beginnings of the financialisation can be traced back to the 1970s, when the global capitalist system entered a period of long stagnation. Investment in productive activities has declined steeply since then, but trading in “financial products” has boomed, especially since the early 1990s.

Rather than invest in productive enterprises, the main economic activity became investing in financial speculation — insurance, stocks and bonds, credit swaps.

In his December 2006 article, Foster said that, given the huge growth of financial speculative bubbles, it was not difficult “to envision a meltdown of truly earth-shaking proportions”.

Nonetheless, the chairperson of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke said of the 2008 financial crash that he “did not see it coming”.

The imperial wars of the US have to be seen in this context. They are attempts by a system in crisis to defend and extend political and economic power.

For such a system, even the development of new methods of killing large numbers of people by remote control becomes nothing more than another source of profit.

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