White House staff plays key role in deadly drone strikes — and faces no Congressional oversight

Click to enlargeNorthrop Grumman

The White House staff for national security, exempt from review by Congress, plays a substantial role in the process for killing suspected terrorists, according to a newly released document on drone strikes.

The 2013 document, known informally as the “playbook” for Barack Obama’s signature counterterrorism operations, was released on Saturday by the justice department as the result of court requests by the American Civil Liberties Union. The playbook provides the closest look to date at the bureaucratic machinery of global killing that Obama will pass on to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

The document designates the National Security Council staff as a body of review over “all operational plans” for either killing or capturing terrorist subjects. Once representatives of various cabinet agencies and departments meet to discuss a specific plan, NSC attorneys provide legal input.

…While the NSC staff plays a role in nominating people for inclusion on the so-called “kill list”, it neither makes the nomination nor involves itself in carrying out a strike or raid.

Such plans include the length of time permissible for killing or capturing people in a designated place, the “strike and surveillance” assets to be used, the specific counter-terrorism objectives to be achieved, and a “near certainty” that civilians will neither be killed nor, for non-lethal action, injured while capturing a target. The NSC staff convenes meetings across agencies for nominating any named “high-value target” to the “kill list”, and passes on those considered validly marked for death to a meeting of cabinet deputies. It also receives written assessments of the results of each strike…

The US justice department released a public version of the three-year-old document…after the ACLU persuaded a federal judge in February to decide against the Obama administration’s argument for total secrecy…

Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU attorney who spearheaded the lawsuit for the playbook’s disclosure, noted the power of the NSC…“The Obama administration notably has taken the position that the NSC is not an agency and is therefore beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.”

The NSC now has about 400 employees. None are approved by the Senate. They do not testify before Congress. Their records are automagically presumed to be privileged.

Robots will put millions of American truck drivers out of a job. Sort of soon.

Freightliner self-driving prototype

So far, discussion of self-driving cars has mostly confined itself to tech geeks and urbanists. But if they live up to their promise, autonomous vehicles could have seismic effects on America’s economy and culture. It’s probably time for a wider circle of participants, including economists, politicians, and social scientists, to start grappling seriously with what’s coming.

Let’s take just one example: long-haul trucking.

Millions of Americans drive trucks for a living

Freight trucks (semis, 18-wheelers, tractor trailers, what have you) are so ubiquitous on US highways that we scarcely give them any thought. But they are a big piece of the US economy. According to the American Trucking Association, these vehicles carry 67 percent of the freight that moves within the US — some 9.2 billion tons a year…

All that driving employs lots of people. In 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were about 1.8 million people driving heavy trucks. It is one of the last jobs available in the US that pays something close to middle-class wages…without requiring a college education…

When it comes to self-driving cars, the hardest problems are in urban environments…Freeways and interstates are much easier…Many cars already have the capacity to automatically stay within a lane, sustain cruising speed, and maintain a safe distance from other cars — they are becoming self-driving on highways first. For trucks, that’s most driving.

Also, trucks are big, so they can carry more sensors and cameras, enabling them to achieve better situational awareness. So self-driving trucks are likely to arrive sooner than self-driving urban vehicles…

How soon? Well, it’s already underway. Trucks have reached level 3 on NHTSA’s scale of autonomy…

Maybe it’s two years, maybe five, maybe 10, but either way, the trajectory is toward drivers being put out of business, and 1.8 million truck driving jobs…is a lot to lose in that short a period of time.

Consider: Coal mining has lost around 150 thousand jobs over 30 years or so, around 50,000 in the last five years. And that is considered a social and political crisis worthy of presidential attention.

Truck drivers are a lot more spread out, and 1.8 million, or even half that, is a lot more than 50,000. These will be people…losing well-paying jobs, with few alternatives, and they probably won’t be happy about it.

In a great post about autonomous trucks, blogger and independent researcher Scott Santens advocates for a universal basic income to protect truck drivers and the many others who will lose jobs to automation and robotics in coming decades.

That’s an interesting idea…but it seems unlikely to manifest in the US in the next decade.

Until then, what’s the solution to hundreds of thousands of unemployed truck drivers?

The one-percenters running American freight aren’t dumber than our coal barons. Even if they can afford to – and actual competition forced their hand – they aren’t about to make changes this dramatic overnight. Coal took 30 years to automate. Freight companies will do more or less the same. If our nation ever modernizes rail lines, that will change part of the syle of the equation, but not the result or pace.

The solutions part – is an easy answer as long as our politicians don’t really have to do anything constructive. Education is always the automatic call. Trouble is how much education is required to be a truck driver in the first place? How far out of the way from, say, joining the Army, did the average truck driver have to go to get the gig?

I’ve done everything in modern logistics from loading trailers and running a lift truck – to basic traffic management, scheduling, dispatching, plugging-in materials acquisition – through to choosing markets. Machine operators need more skills than truck drivers and they have been automated out of existence already. Without the two old political parties doing squat.

Yes, education is always the answer. Giving folks the qualifications to move on to more demanding, more complex employment. New acquired skills. But, our politicians and the economic system they represent don’t really care to do anything transformative unless they’re scared crapless.

Populist movements swelled by unemployed truck drivers aren’t likely to embrace political action more demanding than racist rallies led by demagogues like Trump or his Republican peers. They certainly won’t encourage modernization of an education system that’s been cratering since Baby Boomers discovered Freud. So, what I think we will get — at a minimum – is something ranging from today’s basic Democrat reforms extending up through LBJ’s Great Society. If the Democrats have the backbone to join Bernie’s fight to end gerrymandering, that should peak in the next three or four years. Then, Liberals and Progressives can fight it out to see whether American education will be run as a human right in a modern society — or continue as a social bandaid run by a 19th Century guild of teachers and administrators.

Truck drivers have about as much chance of continuing in their set ways as elevator operators.

Tiny rocket company targets 100 launches a year

Preparing for launch
Preparing for launch

Alone in the Mojave desert, the tiny rocket stood barely as tall as a basketball goal backboard. Launch control was a laptop inside a nearby bunker, and the small gathering of aerospace engineers and investors seemed almost like a rocket hobby club as it watched the vehicle soar to about 5,000 feet before parachuting back to Earth. But this scene may have represented something much more than that. With its small-scale test Saturday, the company Vector Space Systems took another step toward upending the rapidly expanding small satellite launch market.

…Within about five years Vector intends to launch as many as 100 of its 13-meter-tall Wolverine vehicles annually, with a capability to put a 50kg satellite into low-Earth orbit. The company aims to fill a niche below the current generation of launchers being developed by companies such as RocketLab and Virgin Galactic, with rockets capable of delivering 200 to 250kg satellites to low-Earth orbit.

So far, it seems like a good bet. On Tuesday morning, Vector announced that it has acquired its first customer, Finnish-based Iceye, to conduct 21 launches of the company’s commercial synthetic aperture radar satellite constellation. “Getting your satellite into orbit is one of the biggest challenges for new-space companies, but there just isn’t the launch capacity right now,” Iceye Chief Executive Rafal Modrzewski said in a news release.

The two companies are already working together. According to Jim Cantrell, chief executive of Vector Space Systems, Saturday’s test flight in Mojave, California, carried a prototype of an Iceye microsatellite core computing and communications systems to see if it would survive launch conditions (it did). Vector’s sub-scale launcher, named the P-20, also tested some prototype upper stage engines…

Vector remains on track for its first orbital launch in 2018, Cantrell said, and the company aims to increase the launch cadence to about 100 vehicles per year by 2020 or 2021. Perhaps the biggest issue is range constraints — making sure the company has clearance from launch site officials. While Vector may do some launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, it will primarily operate from Alaska, which has a much less crowded range. That works out well, Cantrell said, because many of the polar orbits desired by customers are easier to reach from northern latitude launch sites.

Good luck, gang. No need to rely on being the biggest to be profitable.