Saturday, July 26, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

U.S. government tech: Lousy at health care, great at flying death robots

U.S. government tech: Lousy at health care, great at flying death robots

Hey, remember that time when the U.S. had a Predator drone hovering over a suspected terrorist's house in Yemen for four hours, and nothing happened because the 20-year-old junior officer with the missile-firing joystick couldn't log into the damn operating system? How the entire system of fighting al-Qaeda around the world with unmanned aerial vehicles -- planned for years by the Obama administration -- failed to come online? And all the folks over at Fox News laughing and whooping it up, saying all the drone glitches proved that Obama is a fraud as president and that "big government" can't do anything right?

Of course you don't...that never happened. The reality is that when it comes to the science of flying death robots, the United States is the world leader. Our drone systems may not be 100 percent perfect, but they rarely fail. When it comes to killing people remotely from the air, nobody does it better.

Technologically, that is.

Morally, it's a different story.

This week, the human-rights group Amnesty International issued a report that essentially accused the U.S. of war crimes in that way that the Obama administration conducts drone warfare in remote regions of Pakistan.It cited the program's complete lack of transparency and some brutal incidents, such as one strike that killed a 68-year-old grandmother as she was picking vegetables in a field and another that killed 18 farm workers -- none of whom had ties to anti-American terrorism.

“The drones are like the angels of death,” Nazeer Gul, a shopkeeper in the frontier town of Miram Shah, told The New York Times. “Only they know when and where they will strike.” Lest you think the errant strikes are just a regional problem confined to North Waziristan, the group Human Rights Watch issued a companion report finding almost identical abuses in Yemen -- looking in depth at six American attacks and finding that two had killed civilians indiscriminately.

Now, this is a policy fiasco, not only flouting international law but even counter-productive to American interests -- creating hatred and distrust so intense that many experts believe that out-of-control drone warfare is creating more new enemies than the old ones it kills off. But the deep and abiding failure of this Obama administration policy is a human one, not a technological issue.

The critical drone reports aren't getting a ton of coverage on cable-TV news today, not when compared to the glitches and near collapse of the website for the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. Although too much of the discussion has been partisan mouth-foaming, it's still undoubtedly a huge story with a major impact on millions of Americans. If the problems aren't fixed soon, health care reform could be delayed, downsized, or even collapse, which would also kill innocent people, not in the flash of a Hellfire missile but from diseases that would have been detected and treated in the dozens of civilized nations that provide universal health coverage.

The more I pondered the news today, the more I realized that the drone story and the health care story -- on the surface completely unrelated -- are very much deeply intertwined. It's a tale of priorities -- and you have to wonder how those priorities got to be so bass-ackwards.

Those on the political right who are chortling heartlessly about the woes of Obamacare insist it proves their point that government can't do anything right. But we know that's not true when we look at one arm of government -- the military. Like any great global power, American forces have struggled with asymmetrical warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, but no one questions the unparalleled ability of the Pentagon to unleash "shock and awe" and win a conventional war -- because we've made it a priority to do so. In 2011, the United States spent more on its military than the next 13 ranked nations...combined.

And here's another area where no one complains about the ineptitude of government -- spying! Sure, the National Security Agency makes mistakes -- again, mostly human errors -- but we haven't heard about glitches when the NSA launched its PRISM program to monitor Internet activity or its data-mining programs to tracks the phone calls of millions of people. I'll bet there wasn't an interminable wait to log in when the NSA wanted to spy on top officials in Mexico or Brazil.

There were a lot of jokes on Twitter today that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden should be brought in to fix healthcare.gov -- but it's humor dipped in a grim truth. Our best technological minds are too busy finding your email contacts list to help find you a gastroenterologist. The annual budget of the NSA is said to be nearly $11 billion -- not that you'll ever see it.

In that context, the failure of healthcare.gov is staggering. By Pentagon standards, not that much money was thrown at the problem initially ($93 million, to a subsidiary of a firm from Canada...I know, I know) although the final price tag did soar when the first go-round didn't work. Some of the problem is indeed rank incompetence from the Obama administration which should know a thing or two about managing the bureaucracy after five years but instead somehow botched its signature program. But it's also a crowning achievement for a conservative movement that starves funding for anything not labeled Defense or Homeland Security, making good on a promise to shrink government to a size where it can be drowned in a bathtub.

Because you know, a health care website isn't the only thing not working in this country -- there's bridges failing, too. And urban schools. And an energy establishment that gorges itself on fossil fuels while other nations like Germany harness wind and solar and biofuels...because they have different priorities. Today, American can keep chuckling over the woes of Obamacare, oi we can start to get our collective head on straight. Lives are in the balance...from Miram Shah to Camden, New Jersey.

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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