TCS Daily

The Scope of Collateral Damage

By Rand Simberg - January 20, 2006 12:00 AM

We seem to have missed out on a significant victory in our war against Islamic fascism this past weekend when the US fired a missile at a house in Pakistan in which the target, Al Qaeda's number two man, apparently wasn't present. Several others, however, were there, so it's a major blow to the enemy. Unfortunately, there may also have been innocents killed in the attack. If the US did kill people and it was not intentional, there is a phrase for this in war -- "collateral damage."

Collateral damage isn't (just) a euphemism for "accidentally killed or injured people or damaged property." It's an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of war, and always has been. Obviously, those who favor the aims of the war will be more sanguine about this than those opposed -- to whom it is just more injustice piled on already unjust and poorly justified activities. As a dramatic example of the former group, during the liberation of Afghanistan, a father who lost a daughter when an American bomb accidentally hit her house famously declared that, though his loss was devastating, he accepted it as the price necessary to rid his country of the brutal Taliban.

While collateral damage cannot be eliminated, it can be minimized. In fact, the US has made great strides (and spent billions of dollars in development and operations) in doing so over the past several decades. The US does this for several reasons.

First, the costs of the collateral damage itself can be high. For example, in the case of Pakistan, there were considerable costs -- not just to the families' lost innocents -- but to the US efforts to win the "hearts and minds" of the Pakistanis, among whom we had recently made great gains with humanitarian aid in the wake of the recent earthquake. The attack will also fuel outcries against America by people predisposed to dislike the US to begin with.

Second, there are psychic costs to thinking innocents may have been killed. Aside from the obvious public relations or geopolitical considerations, Americans -- by and large -- are a decent people.

Third, investment in the development of hitting targets with precision can save money long-term by reducing the expenditure of high-cost munitions necessary to accomplish the designated military objectives.

The progress made in this endeavor over the years is impressive. In order to win World War II, the US had to drop many tons of bombs and fire thousands of shells and millions of bullets. Relatively few of these actually hit their intended targets, and most that did were relatively valueless in either a tactical or strategic sense. But as munitions have become more precise with advances in computer guidance, inertial sensors, and satellite navigation, we have reached a point that we could kill individual tanks with inert cement "bombs" while leaving unscathed cars sitting next to them.

It's worth noting that in this asymmetric war, this is one of the most striking asymmetries -- and one underemphasized by both the media and those opposed to the war (often the same people). The US takes great pains to avoid consequences to innocent non-combatants. American enemies target them, and rejoice when their attacks are successful.

But there's more to minimizing collateral damage than just precision weaponry. It serves no purpose to hit a target with precision if we don't know what the target is and when the target is valuable.

Enter intelligence.

Which brings us to the latest debates over the idea that the Administration is intercepting enemy communications during war, often [cue frightening sound of blaring organ music, lightning striking, crack of thunder] without warrants. Because that is exactly what the so-called NSA scandal is about.

Recall the observation above -- that those who support a war and its goals will be more inclined to accept collateral damage in it than those who don't. The left (and much of the Democrat party and the mainstream media) not only don't support the war, but don't believe we are at war. It's not possible to believe we are at war and at the same time file a lawsuit to get an injunction against the gathering of intelligence against the enemy.

What, after all, is the ostensible concern of the ACLU (and their partner, the Council on American Islamic Relations)? If we take them at their word, it is the civil liberties of Americans to not be wiretapped without a warrant, even if they are communicating with known enemy operatives overseas. They want to protect enemy communications if one end of them is on our own soil, if no warrant has been procured. In other words, they cannot believe that we are really at war.

I write this because -- if we are truly at war -- the notion of having to get a judge's order, or lawyer's permission, to intercept potential enemy communications so as to protect innocent communications would be as absurd as needing a judge's warrant, or lawyer's permission to fire a missile at a target in Afghanistan (the latter of which in fact happened, and we missed the high-value target because the lawyer wouldn't grant permission).

If one believes that we are indeed at war, then when innocent communications are occasionally intercepted as a result of attempts to intercept enemy communications, this has to be considered collateral damage in that war. And as collateral damage goes, it has to be rated as pretty benign, compared to being hit by a bullet or a bomb, or even having your unoccupied house hit by a bomb.

But the greatest irony is that, in their attempt to avoid the trivial (and truly, negligible, compared to what happens to those on the front lines) collateral damage of this war to Americans' right of privacy in their phone calls, they may not only be depriving US war-fighters of critical intelligence that could further reduce the true collateral damage caused by misplaced or mistimed bombs, but actually prolong the war (resulting in the deaths and injuries and property loss of more innocents) by preventing us from hitting the highest-value targets at the most propitious times.

In other words, even ignoring their apparent indifference to or incredulity about the casualties of another attack on American soil, they seemingly value the privacy of communications of a few Americans over the lives and property of the disadvantaged "peoples of color" about whom they often profess to care so much. The biggest collateral damage that they should be concerned about, at this point, is the damage to their own vaunted reputations of solicitude for the powerless and innocent.

But then, maybe those reputations were never as deserved as they thought they should be.


Brilliant! But it doesn't go far enough
This essay is promising, but only begins to explore the changes obviously needed in our system faced with the challenges of open-ended war.

As the author notes, our timid misgivings about having government monitor phone conversations and email are ridiculous considering the menace facing us. But we are still permitting other anachronistic niceties.

Our newspapers and media, for example, are free to broadcast or print anything at all, regardless of the effect on the war. It is time for this to end, and all material with any bearing on the struggle to be submitted to responsible authorities for vetting before it is made public.

Our justice system is full of ridiculous overprotective policies that before 9/11 were tolerable, but now should be history. Thankfully, the President has already moved to bring us into the 20th century with regard to torture: our enemies do it, and so should we. And he has also weighed in by saying that the right of habeas corpus, the idea that the government should have to charge a citizen with a crime when holding him, is another silly relic that hinders the war on terror.

But so much more remains to be done. For example, Congress now believes that if it passes a law, the President will have to execute it, even if he believes it hinders what he as commander in chief has to do. The whole congressional enterprise puts restrictions on our ability to fight terror that are increasingly unacceptable.

Likewise the courts, which put us on the road to suicide by insisting that all citizens, and indeed, all people have rights the president must recognize.

We have a president who has shown he as resolve. He should put us on the road to effective action at once, but acting as commander in chief to suspend the silly 18th century provisions of the so-called "Bill of Rights," and, indeed, the rest of the constitution for the duration of the war.

Yes, doing this would bring whimpers and whines from the democrats, the Michael Moores and ACLU and their ilk, from red diaper dopers and the rest. Some paid traitors in the press would write articles as long as their so-called publications were permitted to function.

But if this were done is a single bold stroke, supported by patriotic media like TCS, the president's hands would be untied. And surely this is what we now need.

As someone who frequently calls the Middle East
I'm completely indifferent to the NSA monitoring my calls. I'm try and remember to say 'Hi!' the next time I'm wishing someone a Happy Birthday.

I mostly call people in Jordan. Now thinking about the path that the calls likely take... Europe, Israel, Jordan... my calls could be, and likely are, being monitored by many people. When you make calls or send emails, you should be aware of how easy it is to be monitored. All you need is a voice scrambler and a tinfoil hat and you're safe though... :)

Don't even get me started about wireless and cell phones.

Forgetting history
If the object of permitting domestic intelligence collection is to facilitate the capture of actual or potential terrorists, it has been to date singularly inept. We've gotten a handful of characters like Jose Padilla, who appear to be unindictable on the basis of the illegality of our evidence against them.

In actuality what happens when you permit domestic wiretaps is that they are used to track political opponents. We've seen quite a lot of this with J Edgar Hoover, and can certainly expect it from the current crowd in power. They will devote the majority of their energy to spying on reporters, peace groups, political opponents and who knows who else. Are we to suppose they don't read John Dean's e-mails?

The target doesn't have to be a Martin Luther King. It can just be innocuous little ad hoc groups of kids against the war. I recall back in the Reagan years, for instance, having as tenants a little ban-the-nukes group who let some cheap office space from me.

They reported a break-in one morning and I went over to find their pathetic valuables (typewriters, a coin jar next to the coffee maker) untouched. What was ransacked was all their files. Paper was everywhere. No way to assess what may have been taken, or by whom. It was obvious who was watching them, and what the message was.

And this was in a period (mid 80's) when it was widely announced that the USG had cleaned up its act. The CIA and FBI were said to be on a leash. I leave it to your imagination to speculate as to why the identities of Americans being spied upon are now to be state secrets, held even from the abjectly permissive eyes of the FISA court.

Compared to the Reagan years we now live under the most heavily politicised regime America has experienced. Let's acquiesce when they demand that we allow them all powers they can imagine. We can feel safe from all harm under their all-seeing, albeit petty, gaze.

Broken Links
Great article, but all the links simply point back to the article.

Brilliant Indeed
I am in complete agreement with your comments that Bush has resolve. The left wing-nuts should get a clue about the danger facing our great country and let Bush get after those crazy terrorists without the tied hands. We won't need a Bill of Rights if the terrorists take over our country.

The need for an effective leader like Bush is reminiscent of the other Great Leader of our age, Kim, who has the controls necessary to keep terrorists from his Nation, North Korea. I am sure that the citizens under Kim's protection are happy with their safety. We could be just as safe as them if only we let Bush have his way.

The Scope of Collateral Damage, Democracy, surveillance, and bombs
The collection related to strategic intelligence and the intelligence community when I was in school back in the late 70's was very clear. President Ford gave strict guidance to the military and CIA that they could not engage in domestic spying on U.S. citizens like what happened with President Nixon. Let us use an imaginary scenario: Someone is listening to a frequency and picks up something they are not tasked to listen to, they must disengage and give reason. Compromise of a U.S. citizen's right to privacy regardless if deliberate or accidental {even if criminal} goes without punishment. It is the price paid for our democracy. Let us make no mistake we are at war and if someone is trying to make us loose the war by illegal means then it is the solemn duty of the government to exercise its powers to search them out and stop them.

In my opinion an American's right to privacy can not become collateral damage in the sense they are punished outside the intelligence task. If they are falsely accused within the scope of that task, then the ones who did the wrong should be punished and complete restitution must be made to the one/s offended.

Regarding collateral damage on any civilian due to weapons in war where people are shot, blown up, and other related unpleasantness, if you can reduce it without jeopardizing the mission, fine. The fact innocent people die in war, is just that, a fact. War is not meant to be pretty. The object of war is to destroy the opposing force enough to win the war. Hopefully, in the destruction of the opposing side, you help their civilians too. Collateral damage with bombs and guns is a necessary evil until we have a greater technology that just kills the bad guys. It is not as simple as a wiretap.

Privacy, National Security
To argue that overseas phone calls are protected by the Fourth Amendment especially during war is stretching the protections beyond the limits of what most Americans will support at this time.

It is paranoia to argue that electronic surveillance will inevitably lead to an autocratic police state. This country has undergone more severe constitutional challenges and is today as free as any nation of the planet. Mostly, the row is about the politics of Bush hatred.

The Scope of Collateral Damage, Democracy, surveillance, and bombs: Continued
Early this morning when I posted my comment I had not yet been sent confirmation which would allow me further provisions to speak. I found information that would add further clarity to this topic in a Department of Justice White Paper, January 19, 2006: "5 To avoid revealing details about the operation of the program, it is assumed for purposes of this paper that the activities described by the President constitute “electronic surveillance,” as defined by FISA, 50 U.S.C. § 1801(f)." Source:

The efforts to reduce collateral damage are counterproductive. We would have lost WWII were it not for the massive collateral damage that our airstrikes inflicted on Germany and Japan. Everytime that we missed a factory and hit a residential area we killed scores of people who worked at those factories. Every Japanese was so convinced that they were going to die that they were relieved when the Emperor surrendered. There is nothing like collateral damage to take the fight out of the enemy.

Waging war takes lots of people, even for AQ. For every AQ operative who is going to blow himself up, there are dozens or even hundreds of people in support of the effort. The family that was killed when we struck the AQ members in Pakistan were just as much legitimate targets as the AQ members were. If we started systematicly bombing every village in that part of Pakistan, how long do you think AQ and Taliban members would be welcome there? And if they remained there, why should our consciences be the least concerned by killing their hosts?

Our own misguided morality combined with our superior technology will be our undoing. We are inhibiting ourselves from utilizing commonsense and highly effective military tactics to destroy our enemies and our inhibition is futher strengthened by our misguided belief that our superior technology has made those tactics unnecessary.

Are better when the assumptions behind them have a connection with reality.

Bush hasn't trampled on anyone's rights.

forgetting the facts
According to those closer to the program than I, the program has been successfull in stopping several large scale attacks.

This program is not domestic spying and has no chance of ever becoming one.
This program is targeted solely at those who communicate with known or suspected terrorists residing outside the US. That is not domestic spying. Those who insist on calling it such reveal that they are more interested in scoring points than in promoting truth.

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