Mark Danner

Death From the Sky: Drones, Terror and The New Normal in US Foreign Policy Fall 2012 Al Quds University

Death From the Sky:
Drones, Terror and The New Normal in US Foreign Policy
Fall 2012, Al Quds Bard, Thursdays 12:30 – 3:30 pm, Room 04
Mark Danner
More than a decade after the attacks of September 11, US foreign policy has taken on a quietly lethal cast. The troops have come home from Iraq and are departing Afghanistan; the angry threats that “you are with us or with the terrorists,” the loud declarations of American primacy – these echo only in the memory. And in the gathering quiet, the work of daily killing has fallen to the elite operators of the Special Forces and the CIA and the quiet robotic efficiency of the unmanned drones. Sporadic news of these attacks are among the few flickering signs that the “state of exception” declared by President Bush persists. Indeed, under President Obama, the exception has been normalized. Americans have come to accept – or largely to ignore – a state of constant low-level warfare that carries on beneath the radar, in which people in far-off lands are attacked and killed remotely – and, when captured, imprisoned indefinitely. This state of quiet war persists even as the broader shape of US foreign policy is subtly altered to take account of a world in which global power is moving steadily but undeniably toward the rising nations of the East. In this seminar, we will examine this “new normal” – its genesis and evolution, the contours of its functioning, its implications for international humanitarian law – and study its place in the evolving foreign policy of a superpower struggling to adapt itself to an increasingly multi-polar world.



Main Class Requirements: This is a seminar — a discussion class – which means the success of the class depends on student participation. The most important requirements are that students*Attend all class sessions”¨

*Participate in discussionsӬ

*Do all reading and writing assignments

A student’s record of attendance and participation in class discussion, together with the thoroughness of his or her preparation, will determine the success of our class and contribute the better part of the final grade.

Schedule. All classes will begin promptly at half past twelve on Thursday afternoon and finish at two fifty. Note that our first class will now meet on September 27.

Reading. This seminar is about both history and the here and now, which is to say, it is about what was news and “what’s in the news.”  Our seminar centers on current events and you need to make sure you are well apprised of those events day to day. This means a primary requirement is to keep up with current news about foreign affairs by reading the New York Times, Washington Post and other current news sources; The Economist and Newsweek are also recommended, as is regular viewing of CNN and Al Jazeera. I’d urge you also to take advantage of the major foreign affairs websites, such as Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs, and also more specialized sites such as Small Wars Journal and various others. We encourage you to distribute articles of interest you find to your colleagues in the class.
Apart from the listed books, our reading will center on a number of articles and reports drawn from the historic and the contemporary press — newspapers, magazines, television, websites; you will receive these articles either in photocopy during class or by means of links sent via email. Some readings are listed in the draft syllabus below, but keep in mind that the assignments may shift, depending on ongoing events.

Writing. Students will undertake a number of short in-class assignments, for which they are meant to draw on the assigned reading and on class discussions. There will also be a final research paper of 12 to 15 pages which will take up one of the issues discussed in the seminar and explore it using original research. Note that a one-paragraph sketch of your topic for this paper is due on November 22 and the actual paper is due on December 13. To bolster the clarity and vigor of your English prose, I strongly suggest a close reading of two works: George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language” — easily available online – and Strunk and White’s little manual, The Elements of Style.

Office Hours: I will hope to meet with each of you individually during the course of the term. We will make these appointments on an ad hoc basis. I am best reached via email, at My writing, speaking and other information can be found at my website,

Recommended Reading: Books

Though the bulk of our reading will be drawn from articles, as listed in the Tentative Syllabus (below), we will also look at some excerpts from the following books.

Daniel Klaidman, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency (Houghton Mifflin, 2012)

Peritz and Rosenbach, Find-Fix-Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns (Public Affairs, 2012)

Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare 2001-2050 (TomDispatch, 2012)

Charles W. Sasser and Matt J. Martin, Predator: The Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pilot’s Story (Zenith, 2010)




September 27, 2012  — Introduction: Drones, Counterterror and the New American Way of War


Drone Footage Excerpt from Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers


Sarah Leo, “A Picture of War: The CIA’s Drone Strikes in Pakistan,” Bureau of
Investigative Reporting, September 10, 2012

October 4, 2012 — Debating the Obama Strategy: Can We Make ‘Killing From Above’ Legal?


Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” New York Times, May 29, 2012

David Cole, “A Secret License to Kill,” The New York Review, September 19, 2011


Francine Prose, “Getting Them Dead,” The New York Review (blog), June 6, 2012

Ismael Khan & Scott Shane, “Qaeda Operatives Killed in Drone Strike, Officials Say,” The New York Times, September 25, 2012

Bill Roggio, “2 al Qaeda leaders reported killed in Mir Ali drone strike,” The Long War Journal, September 25, 2012

Scott Shane, “Report Cites High Civilian Toll in Pakistan Drone Strikes“ The New York Times (blog), September 25, 2012.

October 11, 2012 — From Counterinsurgency to Counterterrorism: The New American Way of War

***NOTE: On this day Mark will be in the US covering the Presedential Election, and Casey will hold a screening of The Battle of Algiers, with a discussion to follow.


Michael Scott Doran, “Somebody Else’s Civil War,” Evatt Foundation,

Chris Woods and Jack Serle, “August 2012 Update: US Covert Actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia,” Bureau of Investigative Reporting, September 3, 2012

Michael Hastings, “The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America goes to War in Secret,” Rolling Stone, April 16, 2012.

John Sifton, “A Brief History of Drones,” The Nation, February 7, 2012

Andrew Bacevich, “The New American Way of War,” LRB Blog, 13 February 2012

Chris Woods, “Obama’s Five Rules for Covert Drone Strikes,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, September 6, 2012


After viewing the film, we discussed the film through the three time periods in which it exists: 1956 (the year of the battle), 1966 (the year the film was released), and 2012 (the year we are viewing it).  This framework allowed us to discuss the relationship between revolutionary strategy and terrorism as well as state repression, and the different forms these three have taken since Algiers, through Saigon, and finally to Waziristan. The discussion had a strong focus on Col. Mathieu’s ‘necessary means’ argument – essentially, that until the French press (and public) can agree that the occupation should end, they can’t complain about torture.  For the students, this seemed to be one of the strongest connections between the film and our discussion of drones so far.

October 18, 2012 — The Argument for Drones: Strategic, Practical and Moral


Thomas P.M. Barnett, “The New Rules: Drones and the Resymmetricized Battlefield,” World Politics Review, June 19, 2009

David Bell, “In Defense of Drones: A Historical Argument,” The New Republic, January 27, 2012

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Security Speech, at Northwestern University School of Law, March 5, 2012.U.S.

Scott Shane, The Moral Case for Drones, N.Y. Times, July 14, 2012, at SR4.

Michael W. Lewis, “Unfounded Drone Fears,” The Los Angeles Times, Oct. 17, 2011

Greg Miller, “US Missile Strikes Said to Take a Heavy Toll on Al Qaeda,” The LA Times, March 22, 2009

October 25, 2012 — Can Drones — and Secret War — Be Democratic?


Peter W. Singer, “Do Drones Undermine Democracy?“ The New York Times Sunday Review, January 21, 2012

Gareth Porter, “US-Pakistan: CIA Secrecy on Drone Data Hides Abuses,” Inter-Press Services, June 12, 2009


Class was not held on this day.

November 1, 2012 — The Moral Cost of Drones


Tom Junod, “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama,” Esquire, July 9, 2012,

Murtaza Husain, “Is Drone War Moral?“ Salon, August 6, 2012

Avery Plaw, et al., “Do Drone Attacks Do More Harm Than Good,” The New York Times, September 26, 2012


Our discussion was shaped by explicitly posing the question at the core of this class: What is wrong with Drones?  Immediate reactions included, 1. lack of transparency 2. civilian casualties 3. impossibility of surrender 4. lack of defined vocabulary 5. murder not war/ endless war 6. lack of democratic oversite 7. reciprocity.  Each of these points was challenged by a counter based in our reading – in particular we focused on the national security speech given by Eric Holder in March 2012.  Through his own words, we identified the three criteria for a US strike on an American Citizen (al-Awlaki) – 1. He poses an imminent threat, 2. Capture is not feasable, 3. The act is consistent with the relevant Laws of War (necessity, distinction, proportionality, humanity).  Each of these criteria was tested against the reports at our disposal.

November 8, 2012 — Are Drones Self-Defeating: The Political Cost


Kilcullen and Exum, “Death From Above, Outrage Down Below,” The New York Times, May 17, 2009

Micah Zenko, “How Many Civilians Are Killed by U.S. Drones,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 4, 2012.

Steve Coll, “Kill or Capture: Obama’s Troubling Targeted-Killing Policy,” Comment, The New Yorker, August 12, 2012.

Chris Woods, “A Journey Into Moral Depravity — US Congressman Dennis Kucinich on Covert Wars,” Bureau of Investigative Reporting, June 29, 2012

Rosa Brooks, “Take Two Drones and Call Me in the Morning,” Foreign Policy, September 12, 2012

Mark Danner, “The Politics of Fear,” The New York Review of Books, Nov 22, 2012.


We began class by discussing the result of the recent Presidential election, through the lens of Mark’s “The Politics of Fear.”  This led us into a discussion of the question “what sets Obama’s FP/national security apart from those of his predecessors?,” which drew heavily on Junod’s piece in Esquire (and his argument surrounding the release of 600 guantanamo prisoners, in particular.).

We then broke into groups in order to prepare for a debate focused on the position: “The US should halt all drone strikes indefinitely, starting tomorrow.”  Morika and Majd argued in favor, while Jacob and Esra argued against.  Each group gave an opening statement, and then exchanged points and retorts.  At the conclusion of the debate, Casey asked each group a probing question, for which they were given five minutes to prepare a response.

The class ended with a brief and general discussion of “what would happen if all drone strikes ended tomorrow.”

November 15, 2012 — Drones & the Law: When Is Targeted Killing Legal?


Scott Horton, “Laws of Armed Conflict,” Harper’s, April 20, 2010

Jack Goldsmith, “Fire When Ready,” Foreign Policy, March 19, 2012.

Mary Ellen O’Connell, “When are Drone Killings Illegal,” CNN Opinion, August 16, 2012.

Israeli Supreme Court Ruling on Targeted Killings, HCJ 769/02 Pub. Comm. Against Torture in Isr. v. Gov’t of Isr., December 11, 2005.

Al-Aulaqi v. Panetta, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit challenging U.S. targeted killings.

Gabor Rona, “US Targeted Killing Policy Unjustified,” JURIST – Hotline, Feb. 24, 2011.

Philip Alston, The CIA and Targeted Killings Beyond Borders, NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 11-64.

November 22, 2012 — The Legality of Targeted Killing, II


Patrick Lin, “Drone-Ethics Briefing: What a Leading Robot Expert Told the CIA,” The Atlantic, December 15, 2011

Barbara Ehrenreich, “The Fog of (Robot) War,” TomDispatch, July 10, 2011

William Saletan, “Drones Are For Sissies,” Slate, March 23, 2009

Greg Miller, “Increased U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan killing few high-value militants,” The Washington Post, February 21, 2011

Alex Pearlman, “Drones: ‘Killer robots’ wage Israel-Gaza violence,” November 19, 2012

Arieh O’Sullivan, “Israel grapples with blowback from booming drone industry,“ October 16, 2012


In class spent the majority of our session (which was held at Ziryab in Ramallah) discussing the recent conflict in Gaza, for which a ceasefire was signed the previous evening.  We looked at some footage of Israeli drones, including the clip of Ahmed al-Jabari’s death released by the IDF on twitter.  We discussed the social media strategy of the citizen journalists in Gaza, in comparison to that of the Israeli establishment, and noted that both camps had placed an emphasis on drone activity in their reporting.  Finally, we ended with a discussion of what the future holds for Hamas/Israel relations, and the potential for an Oslo-esque agreement.

November 29, 2012 — Collateral Damage: When Is A Civilian Not A Civilian?

Note: On this day, a one-paragraph summary sketch of your final paper — a 12- to 15-page research paper taking up one of the issues that we have discussed in this seminar – is due. The summary should be several sentences — no more than three sentences – describing roughly what you plan to write about and giving a sense of what your research goals are: What question do you seek to answer, or to explore, in the paper?


Chris Woods, “Analysis: Obama embraced redefinition of ‘civilian’ in drone wars,” Bureau of Investigative Reporting, May 29,2012

Monica Hakimi, “A Functional Approach to Targeting and Detention,” Michigan Law Review, June 2012.

Noah Schachtman, “Suicide Drones, Inside the New Army Arsenal,” Wired, November 12, 2012.

Scott Shane, “Election Spurred a Move to Codify US Drone Policy,” New York Times, Nov 24, 2012.

Our discussion began with a discussion of each student’s final paper ideas.  Majd identified a broad interest in the CIA roll in US drone warfare, and eventually narrowed his focus to the transformation of the CIA since 9/11.  Jacob began by outlining a paper focused on US Foreign Policy toward Non-State Actors, and suggested that a step forward may take the form of formal recognition of these actors (al-qaeda, for instance).  After seeing his thesis challenged in our discussion, it was suggested that he might focus on the question at the root of his initial idea: How do insurgencies end?  Ezra was having trouble identifying a subject she was sincerely interested in, and was looking for suggestions.  After a brief discussion, it became clear that she had an interest in the depiction of drones in the media and popular culture (youtube, memes, etc.)  Last, Morika had a clear thesis coming into class, focused on the constitutionality of extra judicial killings of american citizens.  She will focus on the FOIA request surrounding the Awlahi case, as well as the Eric Holder speech we read for class.

In the second half of class we attempted to answer the questions: ‘Who are we killing?’ and ‘Who should we be killing?’

November 30, 2012 — Makeup Class 1, Zyriab

David Ignacius, “A hint of deterrence in US drone war strategy,” The Washington Post, Oct 5, 2011.

December 3, 2012 — Makeup Class 2, Esra’s house


David Cole, “It’s Time to Stop Killing in Secret,” The New York Review of Books, Nov 28, 2012.

Dan Klaidman, “Kill or Capture,” Introduction and Chapters 1-3.

Charles Sasser, “Predator,” Section 1.


‘The Iranian View’ – Video


After a delightful dinner prepared by Esra’s mother, we again discussed the concept of imminence, and the impact its definition has on US drone policy.  We attempted to collectively conceive of a framework (legal or otherwise) that could restrain US drone activity, and found that the concept of imminence was critical to that process.  In the end, we were left frustrated by the difficulty of outlining such a framework, which often appeared either unrealistic (beyond the pale of US policy) or unsatisfying (ineffective at restraining the reality of US drones use).

December 6, 2012 — Drone Warfare and the Future Battlefield


David Axe, “The Secret History of Boeing’s Killer Drone,” Wired Danger Room, June 6, 2011

Kenneth Anderson, “What Kind of Drones Arms Race is Coming?“ The Volokh Conspiracy, Oct 9, 2011

Greg Lindsay, “The DIY Terminator: Private Robot Armies and the Algorithm-run Future of War,” Fast Company, August 1, 2011

December 13, 2012 — A Proposed Drones Policy


George F. Will, “A case for targeted killings,” The Washington Post, Dec 7, 2012.


In the first half of class, we discussed Klaidman’s Kill or Capture, which we’d just finished reading.  We struggled with the critical question: what, if anything, could have been done differently by the Obama administration in order to fulfill the promises of the anti-Bush, anti-Guantanamo foreign policy platform he ran on.  We looked at the effort to close Guantanamo, and concluded that it is conceivable that an administration with a clearer plan and a stronger commitment to its purported goal could have succeeded in closing the Cuba prison.  We also discussed the character of Rahm Emanuel, whose personality and political outlook had a tremendous effect on the trajectory of Obama’s first term, at least according to Klaidman.

In the second half of class, we looked at the proposed drones policies each student had prepared for discussion.  Jacob argued for a policing framework, in which the AUMF has been abandoned, peacetime is realized, and drone strikes are reserved for use on individuals who are in the act of committing a lethal attack on the US, and are in a territory whose government has explicitly requested the aid of the US military.

Majd suggested drone strikes should be limited by the judiciary branch, requiring a US judge to approve requests for targeted killings from the military.

December 20, 2012 — Final Research Paper Due

A paper of 12 to 15 pages taking up one of the issues that we have discussed in this seminar and exploring the issue using your original research.

Resolved: Drone Warfare Is a Moral Way to Prosecute a War — An In-Class Debate. In this exercise, the class will be divided into thirds, with one third arguing for the proposition, one third against it, and one third serving as judges who will listen carefully, ask follow-up questions, and determine the winning side.

Required Reading:

John Yoo, “Assassination or Targeted Killing After 9/11,” NYLS Law Review.

Barack Obama National Archive Speech, May 21 2009.

Jeh Johnson Oxford Union Speech, Nov 30 2012.


Dick Cheney’s Response to Obama National Archive Speech, May 21 2009.


We began our final session of the semester with a discussion of John Yoo’s defense of targeted killings.  Mark gave an overview of Yoo’s background in the legal world, and the class weighed the merits of his points against other condemnations of targeted killing we had read throughout the semester. Next, we began our concluding debate of the proposal “US drone strikes should be suspended indefinitely.”  Esra and Jacob argued for the proposal, while Majd and Casey (in Morika’s absence) argued against.  Eyas, a student from another of Mark’s classes, sat in as a judge.
Esra and Jacob argued that the continuation of drone’s strikes is simply the current form of endless war, and that taking a stand against drone’s is really taking a stand for peace.  Majd and Casey cited a decline in civilian and American military casualties since the program had begun, and emphasized that the cost of drones would eventually lessen the burden of military spending on the american taxpayer.  In the end, Eyas stressed that both sides had argued effectively, and only narrowly ruled in favor of Majd and Casey.  At least according to our small court in Abu-Dis, it seems drones are here to stay.