At Play in the Fields of Obama

How apt and how cynical that the Obama administration would choose the first day of the Olympics to release its “playbook” on the drone assassination program.

Assuming that anybody is paying attention and will tear themselves away from NBC’s packaged games spectacular long enough to read the White House’s redacted report on its lethal drones, the framing of state-sponsored murder as a book of arcane gaming rules almost seems designed to normalize this vicious program in the minds of the sports-addicted public.

We’re so wrapped up in the hyper-nationalism of the Olympics that we’ll be lulled into cheering for the high-tech precision of Predator and Reaper drones as lustily as we cheered America’s first gold medal — for precision rifle-shooting, as it turns out.

The redacted version of the top-secret drone playbook, produced in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, is nearly as convoluted as the rules and scoring for Olympic gymnastics. The Obama administration contorts itself into a pretzel as it purports to explain its rules for killing people by remote technology.

“Any direct action must be conducted lawfully and taken against lawful targets; wherever possible such action will be done pursuant to a blah blah blah blah…. ” helpfully explains one of the first sentences in the Playbook.

We really don’t learn much of anything new in this kill list sports guide, following on the heels of the administration’s estimate last month that it has mistakenly killed around a hundred innocent civilians in its drone campaign. That figure was in marked contrast to reports by other organizations, which put the “collateral damage” number at closer to 800 human beings, including many women and children.

Obama’s Playbook reveals only the bureaucratic procedures for marking a person or group of people for death, and fails utterly to discuss its reasons for doing so. I suspect the core reason that they kill people is simply because they can. They have given themselves that right, and that is all the American public needs to know.

In order to absolve the president or any one particular department or official of personal responsibility, the Playbook requires that each “operational agency” (including the CIA and the Pentagon among several redacted entities) to prepare a report recommending “direct action,” whether it be a drone strike or a capture. Those plans are then reviewed by lawyers from the various agencies before reaching the desk of the chief attorney of the National Security Council. From there, the plans go to the Semifinal Death Squad, euphemized as the “Principals’ and Principals’ Deputies.” These are made up of the heads or deputy heads of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security, as well as the CIA, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Counterterrorism Center.

If all these various people in suits and uniforms unanimously sign off on an assassination, then their recommendation need not go to President Obama for final approval. But, if there is disagreement or dissent, then it’s up to him to personally approve or abort a strike.

And should the “Principals” recommend the assassination of an American citizen, then the Attorney General must also render an opinion before the hit is allowed by the president to proceed.

The bureaucratic guidelines for drone assassinations do not apply in active war zones, of course, where the need for rules varies from general to general, and any atrocities (mistakes) and civilian deaths can easily be blamed on “the fog of war.”

According to the Playbook, only the President has the power to order someone obliterated outside of a combat area, which has previously been loosely defined as anywhere and everywhere. The phrase “American soil” was either redacted or omitted from the Playbook.

Like any sports team worth their salt, they’ve covered all the bases. And through what they (probably CIA Director John Brennan) grotesquely call their “Nomination Package” of potential targets, they also think they’ve covered all their asses. As Obama made perfectly clear in his preliminary drone report, victims have no right to sue him or anyone else in the US Government, should their relatives die or themselves become injured by one of his Predator or Reaper drones.

It’s no coincidence that Obama went especially heavy on the jingoism to praise the American athletes of the Olympics at nearly the exact same moment he released his redacted report on the White House Kill List. War and sports have always been inextricably mingled in national psyches.

In Rio, one thousand American armed personnel and spies have been drafted to guard the sporting venues. According to a top secret intelligence report conveniently “leaked” to NBC, the same corporate media outlet broadcasting the games:

The operation… encompasses all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, including those of the armed services, and involves human intelligence, spy satellites, electronic eavesdropping, and cyber and social media monitoring.

Areas of cooperation include vetting 10,000-plus athletes and 35,000-plus security and police personnel and others; monitoring terrorists’ social media accounts; and offering U.S. help in securing computer networks, the review shows.

George Orwell noted the links among state-sponsored violence, politics and the modern Olympics more than 60 years ago:  

Instead of blah-blahing about the clean, healthy rivalry of the football field and the great part played by the Olympic Games in bringing the nations together, it is more useful to inquire how and why this modern cult of sport arose. Most of the games we now play are of ancient origin, but sport does not seem to have been taken very seriously between Roman times and the nineteenth century. Even in the English public schools the games cult did not start till the later part of the last century. Dr Arnold, generally regarded as the founder of the modern public school, looked on games as simply a waste of time. Then, chiefly in England and the United States, games were built up into a heavily-financed activity, capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions, and the infection spread from country to country. It is the most violently combative sports, football and boxing, that have spread the widest. There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism — that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige. Also, organised games are more likely to flourish in urban communities where the average human being lives a sedentary or at least a confined life, and does not get much opportunity for creative labour. In a rustic community a boy or young man works off a good deal of his surplus energy by walking, swimming, snowballing, climbing trees, riding horses, and by various sports involving cruelty to animals, such as fishing, cock-fighting and ferreting for rats. In a big town one must indulge in group activities if one wants an outlet for one’s physical strength or for one’s sadistic impulses. Games are taken seriously in London and New York, and they were taken seriously in Rome and Byzantium: in the Middle Ages they were played, and probably played with much physical brutality, but they were not mixed up with politics nor a cause of group hatreds.

If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Jugoslavs, each match to be watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators. I do not, of course, suggest that sport is one of the main causes of international rivalry; big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism. Still, you do make things worse by sending forth a team of eleven men, labelled as national champions, to do battle against some rival team, and allowing it to be felt on all sides that whichever nation is defeated will “lose face”.

I hope, therefore, that we shan’t follow up the visit of the Dynamos by sending a British team to the USSR. If we must do so, then let us send a second-rate team which is sure to be beaten and cannot be claimed to represent Britain as a whole. There are quite enough real causes of trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.

So don’t cry for Obama’s drone victims, America. There’s no need to mourn people with no names, no faces, no countries and no stories. Besides, Obama already paid lip service to the tiny, token Olympic “Team Refugee” during his Cult of Sport weekend address to the nation. There’s no need to either humanize or grieve for Those Other People. Revel instead in the glory of the games. Support both the troops and the athletes. Both are symbols and servants in the same community of predatory capitalism, after all.

In literal Orwellian fashion, Obama uses the language of capitalism and war in his weekly address praising the Olympic athletes. He strives to normalize both brutal militarism and class and wealth disparities. Just like a drug pusher, he sells spectator sports as the modern opiate of the masses. And since it’s an election year, and all that the Democratic Party has to offer to struggling people is identity politics, he sells “diversity” right along with the violence. He even renders harmless the poverty and lead-poisoned water in Flint, Michigan:

Our team boasts the most women who have ever competed for any nation at any Olympic Games.  It includes active-duty members of our military and our veterans…. Our roster includes a gymnast from Texas who’s so trailblazing, they named a flip after her.  A young woman who persevered through a tough childhood in Flint, Michigan, to become the first American woman to win gold in the boxing ring.  And a fencing champion from suburban Jersey who’ll become the first American Olympian to wear a hijab while competing.  And on our Paralympic team, we’re honored to be represented by a Navy veteran who lost his sight while serving in Afghanistan and continues to show us what courage looks like every time he jumps in the pool….

That idea – that you can succeed no matter where you’re from – is especially true this year.  We’ll cheer on athletes on the first-ever Olympic Refugee Team: Ten competitors from the Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Syria who personify endurance.

And with that script from the Playbook of Propaganda out of the way, as the bombings in Syria and Libya and Yemen and Afghanistan and Sudan and Pakistan and Iraq continue unabated, President Obama took off for his annual vacation to Martha’s Vineyard to watch the Olympics from the security of a $12.5 million luxury compound.

He may choose to ignore the links among war and politics and sports, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be hitting the links. Because all war and no play would make Barack a very dull president indeed.

Karen Garcia writes at Sardonicky.