Longform’s Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.


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The Killing Machines

Mark Bowden • The Atlantic

Considering the moral and legal justifications for drone warfare.

Sometimes ground assaults go smoothly. Take the one that killed Osama bin Laden. It was executed by the best-trained, most-experienced soldiers in the world. Killed were bin Laden; his adult son Khalid; his primary protectors, the brothers Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti and Abrar al-Kuwaiti; and Abrar’s wife Bushra. Assuming Bushra qualifies as a civilian, even though she was helping to shelter the world’s most notorious terrorist, civilian deaths in the raid amounted to 20 percent of the casualties. In other words, even a near-perfect special-ops raid produced only a slight improvement over the worst estimates of those counting drone casualties. Many assaults are not that clean.

In fact, ground combat almost always kills more civilians than drone strikes do. Avery Plaw, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, estimates that in Pakistani ground offensives against extremists in that country’s tribal areas, 46 percent of those killed are civilians. Plaw says that ratios of civilian deaths from conventional military conflicts over the past 20 years range from 33 percent to more than 80 percent. “A fair-minded evaluation of the best data we have available suggests that the drone program compares favorably with similar operations and contemporary armed conflict more generally,” he told The New York Times.

When you consider the alternatives-even, and perhaps especially, if you are deeply concerned with sparing civilians-you are led, as Obama was, to the logic of the drone.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

How Laura Poitras Helped Snowden Spill His Secrets

Peter Maass • New York Times Magazine

A profile of documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who last January received “a curious e-mail from an anonymous stranger requesting her public encryption key.”

It was dusk, and there was loud cawing and hooting coming from the jungle all around. This was mixed with the yapping of five or six dogs as I let myself in the front gate. Through a window, I saw Poitras in the living room, intently working at one of her computers. I let myself in through a screen door, and she glanced up for just a second, then went back to work, completely unperturbed by the cacophony around her. After 10 minutes, she closed the lid of her computer and mumbled an apology about needing to take care of some things.

She showed no emotion and did not mention that she had been in the middle of an encrypted chat with Snowden. At the time, I didn’t press her, but a few days later, after I returned to New York and she returned to Berlin, I asked if that’s what she was doing that evening. She confirmed it, but said she didn’t want to talk about it at the time, because the more she talks about her interactions with Snowden, the more removed she feels from them.

“It’s an incredible emotional experience,” she said, “to be contacted by a complete stranger saying that he was going to risk his life to expose things the public should know. He was putting his life on the line and trusting me with that burden. My experience and relationship to that is something that I want to retain an emotional relation to.” Her connection to him and the material, she said, is what will guide her work. “I am sympathetic to what he sees as the horror of the world [and] what he imagines could come. I want to communicate that with as much resonance as possible. If I were to sit and do endless cable interviews – all those things alienate me from what I need to stay connected to. It’s not just a scoop. It’s someone’s life.”

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Meet The Dread Pirate Roberts, The Man Behind Booming Black Market Drug Website Silk Road

Andy Greenberg • Forbes

A profile of a virtual kingpin.

In February 2012 a post appeared on Silk Road’s forums proclaiming that the site’s administrator would henceforth be known as the Dread Pirate Roberts, a name taken from the dashing, masked protagonist in the fantasy film The Princess Bride -tellingly, a persona that is passed down in the film from one generation of pirate to another. He soon began to live up to his colorful alter ego, posting lofty manifestos about Silk Road’s libertarian political ideals and love letters to his faithful users and vendors; he’s even hosted a Dread Pirate Roberts Book Club where he moderated discussions on authors from the Austrian school of free market economics. Commenters on the site describe Roberts as a “hero,” a “job creator,” “our own Che Guevara” and a “name [that] will live [on] among the greatest men and women in history as a soldier of justice and freedom.”

When I ask Roberts how he defines his role at Silk Road-CEO? Owner?-he tells me that he considers himself “a center of trust” between the site’s buyers and sellers, a tricky task given that all parties want to remain anonymous. Silk Road has slowly demonstrated to users that it isn’t a typical counterfeit-drug scam site or a law enforcement trap. It’s made wise use of the trust mechanisms companies like eBay and Airbnb have popularized, including seller ratings and an escrow that releases payment to sellers only after customers receive their merchandise.

“Silk Road doesn’t really sell drugs. It sells insurance and financial products,” says Carnegie Mellon computer engineering professor Nicolas Christin. “It doesn’t really matter whether you’re selling T-shirts or cocaine. The business model is to commoditize security.”

Patrick Lux/Getty Images


Melissa del Bosque and Jazmine Ulloa Texas Observer

How the heir to a horse racing empire became an informant on the Zetas cartel.

Quarter horse racing was an expensive passion, especially in the midst of recession. The price of feed had skyrocketed. The drought had wreaked havoc on many horse farms, and some had folded. Most people didn’t ask too many questions when presented with cash. Still, the way Jose Treviño did business was unorthodox. Nayen and the others ran their horses under a dizzying array of limited liability corporations. They also changed their horses’ names, an uncommon practice, making it more difficult to track the lineage. The new monikers weren’t subtle: Forty Force, Break Out The Bullets, Big Daddy Cartel. And there was a front company involved named Fast & Furious LLC, a chilling choice, as it was also the name of an infamously botched U.S. gun-walking operation in Mexico that had allegedly provided Los Zetas with weapons, including the gun later connected to the murder of a U.S. immigration agent.

By fall 2011, Graham was boarding and breeding at least 15 horses for Treviño and Los Zetas, and the maintenance bills were piling up. When Nayen suggested Graham open a bank account so he could transfer money for their upkeep, Graham opened an account at IBC Bank in Bastrop. That account would soon become another money-laundering conduit for Los Zetas. One day Graham received a call from an official at IBC telling him the bank was closing the account: Someone in Laredo had been depositing cash sums in $9,000 increments-just under the $10,000 reporting threshold required by the U.S. government, in an attempt to crack down on money laundering. Closing the account would be only a minor setback for the organization.

Al Bello/Getty Images

The Song Collector

Dorian Lynskey • Aeon

On the popular British folk singer travelling the countryside to record itinerant Irish Travellers.

A few months after this meeting, Robertson suffered a serious heart attack, coming very close to death. ‘I think he travelled back to his elders and retrieved the songs he heard as a child,’ Lee says. ‘That was when he said, OK Samuel, this is how we’re going to do it.’ Robertson took Lee to a fabled highway outside Aberdeen where he ceremonially inducted him into the song-carrying tradition, handing him a ring, a drinking vessel and a talismanic pebble, the last of which Lee still carries with him. ‘Stanley was on another level of spiritual and cultural enlightenment,’ Lee marvels. ‘He spoke Romany and Traveller cant [dialect]. He had psychic abilities that were unparalleled. He knew about astral travelling.’ I sound a note of atheist scepticism and Lee smiles. ‘I was exactly like you,’ he says. ‘For Jews, death is death: there’s no afterlife. But the psychic behaviour was irrefutable. Everything that’s happened to me, he predicted.’

After Robertson’s death in 2009, Lee heard how his spirit continued to visit surviving relatives, who would tell him: ‘Fuck off, Stanley, you’re deid! I cannae sleep!’ For Robertson, singing itself was a kind of psychic communion with the dead. ‘Stanley called it the maizie,’ Lee says. ‘This quality of bringing in the ancestors. The songs don’t exist inside you, they’re around you, and when you sing you breathe the song in from the ghosts that surround you.’

Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Sundance London

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