There's Foxconn, there's torrented TV shows, there's patent bickering. But for the use of right and wrong in technology, there's one question that supersedes all others: Should our country be killing ordinary people with robotic soldiers in the sky?
I sat down with Congressman Dennis Kucinich after a briefing on UAV warfare. He makes an argument—one that's hard to shrug off—that lethal drones aren't just bad foreign policy, but one of the greatest ethical failings of our time. "We are shredding our Constitution," he says, about as gravely as you can expect a member of Congress to say those words. His head moves between his shoulders and his hands, and he fiddles with a small laminated map of the Middle East. We need to think about how we're killing.
Congressman Kucinich is sitting in a back room of his 4th floor HQ in the Rayburn Congressional Office Building. His head is palmed, kneading wrinkles, small eyes closed gently. There's a container of rice for lunch from the basement cafeteria that he's told me he won't touch until we're through talking. He's spent this morning leading a public panel briefing on drone warfare—the first of its kind ever convened on Capitol Hill—and now we're going to talk about drones a bit more. The laminated map under his hands is held down on the table between us by a glass paperweight with a three-dimensional laser-etched dove inside, bouncing the littlest sun rays across the room.
It's easy to forget sometimes, but here's the world we're living in: over the past several years, the United States has conducted hundreds of drone strikes under the secret authority of the CIA—which is accountable to no one—resulting in the deaths of several thousand people. These people are killed based on a process that creates a secret list that is disclosed to no one outside of the intelligence community elite, and executed via flying robots, which track humans from above and then blow up them up with Hellfire missiles in the sovereign territory of other countries.
According to members of the panel selected by Kucinich's office, the CIA frequently engages in the practice of "double tapping"—firing a second Hellfire volley after the initial blast, often killing emergency workers and first responders, and clearly violating international law. Reports of CIA targeting "chips" were also mentioned, a shadowy practice wherein the CIA distributes tracking chips to lock in Hellfire strikes, presumably planted on suspicious targets by trusted local informants. Increasingly, though, the panel reported, the chips are now used as a black market currency, allowing tribal Pakistanis to buy an assassination against, say, a local foe, courtesy of the American taxpayer.
Even if the chips are nothing more than a rumor, the mere thought of them, researchers say, has been enough to bloat distrust and paranoia within drone-hunted regions. It's not hard to imagine why.
So how do the American people get out of the dark? What can be done about a CIA that's an unstoppable, untouchable, robotic judge, robotic jury, and robotic, missile-firing executioner?
Kucinich: Congress [must] reclaim the power of the Constitution which it has ceded by its inaction. The use of this technology has put us in a whole new world. Whether that [drone operator] has personally transgressed the territory of another nation is irrelevant, because that is a US drone and it has violated the international airspace of another country. It commits acts of aggression against foreign nationals. It unleashes acts of war abroad without Congress' knowledge or consent. The Constitution Article I was written to have the capacity to adapt to an undreamed of future—it encompassed the thought that the world would change. But there are certain principles in that Constitution that are timeless: No person should be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.
Gizmodo: How is that control reclaimed from the CIA with no cooperation on their part?
Kucinich: It is an appropriate time for the historic mission of the CIA to be reviewed. The CIA does best when it focuses on intelligence gathering. We have had spy planes in the past, it's nothing new. Surveillance is one thing, armed aggression is something else. The CIA should not be involved in any matter which would put it as a second army. It's very dangerous. It's dangerous constitutionally. And it's dangerous in terms of mistakes being made for which there is no transparency or accountability. Combat roles are most appropriately fulfilled by members of the armed forces who are trained in that. One thing is that Congress made need to do is legislatively delineate the role of the CIA, with respect to the use of combat drones themselves.
Congress needs to specifically remind the executive branch that it reserves the right to determine whether or not any offensive weapons should be used within any country for any reason. George Bush may have thought that the authorization for the use of military force was a blank check for the global war on terror. Perhaps there are people in the Obama administration who think the same thing. But it was not, it was specific, it was to respond to the attacks of 9/11, it was not a blank check for war forever. So Congress needs to remind the administration that it cannot wage war with abandon, it cannot continue to expose the United States to counter attacks in the form of increased terrorism attacks which will inevitably come as a result of the free hand that this administration would take in waging war abroad.
Gizmodo: Do you think this technology has come out of the box too much to be rolled back?
Kucinich: No, not at all! It isn't a question of whether the technology is so far out of the box that we can't roll it back, the question is have we put the Constitution in a box and buried it. That's the question.
Gizmodo: So you would support the use of drone surveillance cases under appropriate oversight?
Kucinich: Look, we have to distinguish between surveillance and armed aggression. And there is an obvious difference. The CIA's appropriate role is gather information. Information gathering necessarily will involve a certain degree of surveillance. Subject to laws, not freehand, but subject to laws.
But as I said in our hearing if Congress doesn't claim its authority is just conjectural what the penalties are for someone violating the Constitution. Congress must reclaim it. This is the problem here.
Gizmodo: Do you think there is support within Congress to delineate [the CIA's proper role]?
Kucinich: Yeah, I think it's bipartisan. I think that's part of what emerged in our debate over Libya. Members were aware of our Article I failings. We haven't properly claimed Congress' fundamental role that was laid out very closely by the founders. So here we are, hundreds of years after the passage of the Constitution. We are still looking at "Does it apply?" Of course it applies. "Should we be demanding accountability?" You bet we should. Look, the drones are getting smaller and smaller and the legal capacity will become more and more pronounced. Miniaturization, even nanotechnology comes into play here. We can never be in position where a development of technology outstrips our humanity, outstrips our fundamental human rights, outstrips our Constitution. We should be thinking in terms of technology for peace. We should be thinking in terms of technology for world unity, for human cooperation, for the survival of our species. Not to use the beautiful mechanisms of the human mind to develop more and more ingenious ways to kill people.
Gizmodo: How do we reorient ourselves as a technological society out of new and faster and better ways to kill?
Kucinich: When you can go faster and higher, it's a greater responsibility. Unfortunately we see less and less responsibility involved. It should have profound responsibility. But unfortunately speed and distance and altitude separate us from responsibility. The fact that somebody could be thousands of miles away and be operating a joystick as if it were a video game, surveiling an individual group of people and begin to arm the drone and lock in a target 10,000 miles away and push the button and a missile is launched that ends a human life or lives.
Gizmodo: What do you think that does to our humanity, as a country that wages war that way?
Kucinich: It is not just a target that is obliterated, it is our own humanity. So we are moving into a world and creating a time and space which may become post-human. Food that's genetically engineered. Robots that fights wars. A surveillance society that gathers pieces of information and stores them for use at a later date. Cloning. Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that the greatest technological advances of mankind are processes that all but destroy the societies in which they occur. We have to make sure that we are able to control our inventions. We cannot be in a situation where they become more important than we are. We have to recognize that they are externalities, not intrinsic. We have to understand that there is a moral equation that has to be met. You have to realize that while technology can sometimes have a neutral application, if a technology is being applied in a situation where it is decidedly not neutral we have responsibility. There is a moral responsibly. The question is not whether the technology is moral or not but if we are moral, because we are using it.
So we have an opportunity for tremendous technological advancement. And we shouldn't be afraid of it. Be we have to also control it. And we have to be ready to apply a moral measure to what we are creating so that we are aware at all times of how things are used and how they can be misused. And then we have to make a decision. Do we want to create this? It's not that just that because you can create something, you do. The question is, is this something we should be creating given the impact it can have on the world. We have to think about those things. We have to think about our creations. This power to create: it's a profoundly human power. Its godlike: the power to create.
Gizmodo: Well this seems something that goes beyond legislation. It's the fabric of ourselves.
Kucinich: Absolutely. This is a deeply philosophical question. Congress is not a place where there is much discussion of philosophy. It's a discussion of means and ends. But the backdrops must always be philosophical and moral. In a post-9/11 world we've jettisoned a lot of those concerns out of fear. And that's interesting because it's fear that excites the lower limbic system. The lower limbic system is part of our evolutionary past. And we have to get in touch with our higher intellectual coordinates that come from an evolutionary path of new engineers and not simply be excited at the lower levels of fight or flight. We really are called upon to achieve a new level of our humanity. To evolve. To be more than we are and better than we are. And not simply be locked into a place where we are groping in the darkness trying to grasp the contours of our own creations.
Gizmodo: I wonder though how we could have a reflection like that when so much is obscured from the public.
Well its being less obscured now because people are talking about it. People are writing about it. People are reporting on it. And the more that happens and the more that's exposed people have to say "Well yeah." Americans need to be given a chance to reflect.
Gizmodo: I have a hypothetical for you. I'm sure you are aware of the video that was posted on YouTube of the Hamas assassination. The helicopter attack. It reached two million views and was put up there in a bragging way "Look who we killed." Which a lot of people found off-putting. Do you think we might be in a different situation of drones in American society if that footage were made public? If we had to confront the scenes of people we killed?
Kucinich: Well you know that's why this question of the Apple drone app becomes important. It would be interesting if people could actually come to understand what's happening here. This isn't stagecraft. This is bloodlust. That's nothing new under the sun really. If you were to read Beowulf you'll see that there was a concept of war guilt. Necessarily it involves seeking retaliation for somebody who kills one of your own. The Old Testament, an eye for an eye really meant measure for a measure. Now were seeing a disequilibrium in the use of force. We are really at a point where non-symmetrical attacks are going to becomes dispersed as people seek revenge for the loss of their loved ones and family. You have to realize these consequences for what we are doing. They may not be felt for this Congress, this administration or even in this decade—but they will be felt. For every action there is a reaction. There is just no way to get around it. When we act we have to encompass what the reaction will be. Otherwise we are adrift.
The Obama administration isn't going to budge a micron when it comes to the business of secret robot killing. The CIA is, well, the CIA—secret killing is its bread and butter. But the tragedy of people who either shrug, "Drones, sure"—or don't even know the campaigns happen—is a massive one. Our America is one ignorant of its robot war, the most advanced, secretive, and concerning in military history. Humans have simply never killed each other this way before. And it's too secret for us to know almost anything about.
But the notion of inscrutable extrajudicial death from above rubs you the wrong way, talk about it. Think about it. Tell someone else about it. Argue about it. Disagree with me. Disagree with Congressman Kucinich. Maybe you don't find CIA drone strikes disturbing. But to conduct a war by tiny robots and put it out of mind, silent, like a bad spring break? That's something that should make us all ill.
Photos via USAF, Dronestagram, Gary Williams/Getty