This morning’s Observer column:
“Guns don’t kill people,” is the standard refrain of the National Rifle Association every time there is a mass shooting atrocity in the US. “People kill people.” Er, yes, but they do it with guns. Firearms are old technology, though. What about updating the proposition from 1791 (when the second amendment to the US constitution, which protects the right to bear arms, was ratified) to our own time? How about this, for example: “algorithms kill people”?
Sounds a bit extreme? Well, in April 2014, at a symposium at Johns Hopkins University, General Michael Hayden, a former director of both the CIA and the NSA, said this: “We kill people based on metadata”. He then qualified that stark assertion by reassuring the audience that the US government doesn’t kill American citizens on the basis of their metadata. They only kill foreigners…
LATER In the column I discuss the decision-making process that must go on in the White House every Tuesday (when the kill-list for drone strikes is reportedly decided). This afternoon, I came on this account of the kind of conversation that goes on in Washington (possibly in the White House) when deciding whether to launch a strike:
“ARE you sure they’re there?” the decision maker asks. “They” are Qaeda operatives who have been planning attacks against the United States.
“Yes, sir,” the intelligence analyst replies, ticking off the human and electronic sources of information. “We’ve got good Humint. We’ve been tracking with streaming video. Sigint’s checking in now and confirming it’s them. They’re there.”
The decision maker asks if there are civilians nearby.
“The family is in the main building. The guys we want are in the big guesthouse here.”
“They’re not very far apart.”
“Anyone in that little building now?”
“Don’t know. Probably not. We haven’t seen anyone since the Pred got capture of the target. But A.Q. uses it when they pass through here, and they pass through here a lot.”
He asks the probability of killing the targets if they use a GBU-12, a powerful 500-pound, laser-guided bomb.
“These guys are sure dead,” comes the reply. “We think the family’s O.K.”
“You think they’re O.K.?”
“They should be.” But the analyst confesses it is impossible to be sure.
“What’s it look like with a couple of Hellfires?” the decision maker asks, referring to smaller weapons carrying 20-pound warheads.
“If we hit the right room in the guesthouse, we’ll get the all bad guys.” But the walls of the house could be thick. The family’s safe, but bad guys might survive.
“Use the Hellfires the way you said,” the decision maker says.
Then a pause.
“Tell me again about these guys.”
“Sir, big A.Q. operators. We’ve been trying to track them forever. They’re really careful. They’ve been hard to find. They’re the first team.”
Another pause. A long one.
“Use the GBU. And that small building they sometimes use as a dorm …”
“After the GBU hits, if military-age males come out …”
Less than an hour later he is briefed again. The two targets are dead. The civilians have fled the compound. All are alive.
Ok. You think I made that up. Well, I didn’t. The author is General Michael Hayden, who was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2009. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror, from which (I’m guessing) the New York Times piece is taken.