Is It the CIA–or the Saudis–Who Want Signature Strikes in Yemen?

This is, IMO, the most telling line in this entire article on the CIA’s request to use the signature strikes in Yemen that proved so problematic in Pakistan:

The JSOC has broader authority than the CIA to pursue militants in Yemen and is not seeking permission to use signature strikes, U.S. officials said.

After all, in Pakistan, where only the CIA flies drones, David Petraeus has sharply limited the use of signature strikes. But in Yemen, where both JSOC and CIA fly drones (and operate on the ground), JSOC sees no need but Petraeus does.

Consider what that means in conjunction with this:

The CIA, the National Security Agency and other spy services have deployed more officers and resources to Yemen over the past several years to augment counterterrorism operations that were previously handled almost exclusively by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command.

The CIA began flying armed drones over Yemen last year after opening a secret base on the Arabian Peninsula. The agency also has worked with the Saudi and Yemeni intelligence services to build networks of informants — much the way it did in Pakistan before ramping up drone strikes there.

That is, these signature strikes would be operating from a base in Saudi Arabia (or is it in Oman), with informants developed, in significant part, by the Saudis (ya think)? And this authority, if granted, would permit the killing of people whose identities the CIA did not know.

The Saudis have, in the past, asked for Predator drones specifically so they could use them to attack the Houthi rebels in Yemen. They have blamed the Houthis and other unrest in Yemen on Iran, their rival for hegemony in the Middle East. At least according to what the Yemenis claimed to their Parliament, Saudi intelligence was involved in the disastrous strike on al-Majalah.

Now maybe this crazed plan wasn’t dreamed up by the Saudis.

But it sure sounds like a backdoor way for the Saudis to access control over drones and their targets in Yemen, without the CIA double-checking their work.

Mind you, the article suggests that even former CIA Saudi station chief John Brennan is likely to oppose this idea.

The CIA might be able to replicate that success in Yemen, the former intelligence official said. But he expressed skepticism that White House officials, including counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan, would approve the CIA’s Yemen request.

So maybe I’m completely wrong that this is a way to give the Saudis more control.

Still. There are a lot of other reasons this is a terrible idea, many of them readily apparent just from the many contradictions in this piece. But the degree to which it outsources more control of our already counterproductive drone program to the Saudis is certainly one big reason, IMO, why it’s a terrible idea.

Update: Since I’m talking about Saudi Arabia’s interests in Yemen, I ought to point out this news.

On March 28, a Saudi diplomat named Abdullah al Khalidi was kidnapped by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the port city of Aden, Yemen. AQAP’s gunmen captured al Khalidi, who served as Saudi Arabia’s deputy consul in Aden, as he was getting into his car outside of his residence.

Sometime thereafter the Saudi embassy in Sanaa received a call from an ex-Guantanamo detainee named Mishaal Mohammed Rasheed al Shadoukhi. According to Saudi government sources cited by Asharq Al Awsat, al Shadoukhi assured the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Ali Al Hamdan, that al Khalidi was “fine and in good health.”

Al Shadoukhi issued several demands, including the “release of all female prisoners” who are in Saudi custody and connected to al Qaeda, the release of various other detainees held by Saudi authorities, and a ransom payment that is to be negotiated.

Al Shadoukhi also told the ambassador that the Saudis could send an emissary to Jaar, a southern Yemeni town controlled by al Qaeda and its allies, if they want to discuss al Khalidi’s “case” with his kidnappers further.

Al Shadoukhi is one of the many Saudis who went through “deradicalization”–a process which seems to have resulted in some double agents and some people aware that the Saudis were recruiting double agents.
Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

16 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    A couple of related thoughts:

    “…The JSOC has broader authority than the CIA to pursue militants in Yemen and is not seeking permission to use signature strikes, U.S. officials said…”

    One could possibly read that quote to mean that JSOC need not seek permission to strike at whatever targets it chooses under whatever targeting process it uses.

    Is this Title 10 versus Title 50 rules of engagment (ROE) that allows the US military to provide “assistance” at the request of the Yemeni government?

    Such US military “assistance” has a long and bloody history. Remember that the US forces fighting in Vietnam were deployed and commanded there by something called MACV – Military Assistance Command Vietnam.

    Secondly, Greg Miller again confirms what I’ve been jumping up and down about. Namely, that there are more real US military operations taking place in Yemen than is publicly discussed, and certainly without a seemingly required Congressional Declaration of War. Greg’s confirmation is in his preceding paragraph:

    “…Which U.S. entity is responsible for each strike remains unclear. In Pakistan, the CIA carries out every drone strike. But in Yemen, the United States has relied on a mix of capabilities, including drones flown by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, as well as conventional military aircraft and warships parked off the coast…”

    (My Bold)

    Lastly, along with the missing Congressional Declaration of War, I would also highlight the fact that in using the US military, the Obama Administration avoids those pesky covert operation notification requirements that the CIA is duty-bound to provide to the Gang of Eight and the Congressional Intelligence committees.

  2. MadDog says:

    And to the basic premise of your post EW, I think you are on to something with that Saudi connection.

    Given all the policy disconnects that have been the Saudi-American relationship recently with many of the changes collectively called the “Arab Spring”, “making nice” with the Saudi’s desires to help deal with their longstanding Yemen irritant that has afflicted the Saudi’s soft underbelly, I can easily see your point about former Saudi CIA Station Chief Brennan putting his thumb on the scale.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: I also think we’ve lost our ability to say no to the Saudis, to an even greater degree than the Israelis. Back in 2009 we were desperately asking the Saudis if they were going to stay on the dollar. We’re probably more desperate now (though the slow painful death of the Euro makes it more advantageous for the Saudis). So I assume a lot of what they ask for they raise the dollar and–voila! The country which supplied the most hijackers gets to hijack our war on AQ.

  4. bmaz says:

    @MadDog: Well, Jeremy Scahill was basically screaming this on twitter – that there were manned aircraft attacks as well as Tomahawks, among other things.

    One of the aspects that cracked me up is how Greg Miller blithely spews out:

    Last year, a U.S. drone strike inadvertently killed the American son of Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda leader. The teenager had never been accused of terrorist activity and was killed in a strike aimed at other militants.

    Well, uh, “inadvertently” huh? Dunno about that. Not to mention, of course, the supposed “other militant” was not, in fact, killed.

  5. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Excellent points! With the Saudis promising to cover any Iranian oil deficit in the market, it would seem that the Saudis have decided to campaign for Team Obama 2012.

  6. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: Not really. The Saudis aren’t really capable of doing that. They have to say they can so as to force us to push through sanctions which will surely raise gas prices just in time for the election.

    But hey, the Saudis are smart enough to recognize when they have an elephant by the nuts and that’s precisely where they have us.

  7. MadDog says:

    @bmaz: It was also reported that JSOC was the responsible party for that drone strike.

    As I’ve said before, while we may know a smidgen of information on how the CIA’s processes work with regard to their targeting and drone strikes, we know absolutely zero about JSOC’s.

    And remember the different “kill lists”. JSOC had Anwar al-Awlaki on their kill list way before the CIA did on their’s.

  8. emptywheel says:

    Incidentally, I’m actually not sure that Al Shadoukhi really did go through deradicalization, and if he did, it was before the full program rolled out.

    He appeared to be far guiltier than some of the other Saudis who didn’t get freed for years. But a lot of the earliest transferred Saudis were, like Al Shadoukhi, present at the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi, which means he likely was at the Dasht-i-Leili massacre propagated by Rashid Dostum. We seem to have gotten most of the Saudi witnesses out of Gitmo as quickly as we could.

  9. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: I too am skeptical of the Saudi’s promises on filling an Iranian oil deficit, and I agree with you that their promises aren’t something one should bet the house on.

    It makes for great oil market kabuki, and regardless, keeps those petrodollars flowing into those Saudi bank accounts.

  10. John Iacovelli says:

    So basically, U.S. personnel kill people in Yemen that they know nothing about because the Saudis put their name on a list. I’d like to hear how they would defend that in a War Crimes court.

  11. emptywheel says:

    @John Iacovelli: Well, they’d be killing people who look like fighters based on the claim that means they want to target the US.

    Except not that many in AQAP want to target the US–most want their own little country.

    Moreover, much of Yemen is fighting someone, and most of them are fighting their incompetent repressive government.

  12. Frank33 says:

    The agency also has worked with the Saudi and Yemeni intelligence services to build networks of informants — much the way it did in Pakistan before ramping up drone strikes there.

    That was a great Spy Network, in Pakistan. The Pakistan ISI used David Headley, not just for terror. Headley’s “immigration service” apparently continues to function and bring Pakistani “workers” to the USA. The CIA Network was not able to discover that their former agent, Usama Bin Laden had lived in Pakistan for ten years.

    Obviously, CIA failures (or maybe they were not failures) are reasons for adopting Neo-con rules of war. Kill them all and let God sort them out.

  13. PeasantParty says:

    Hmmm. So not only does the CIA work for Large Corporate entities, Oil companies, Bectal/sp, Halliburton, Carlyle, and others; they now work for the Saud’s and JSOC!

    Whew! What a train ride this is. I see a train wreck on the horizon.

  14. rugger9 says:

    @Frank33: #14
    That predates the neocons by a couple of centuries, nonetheless it’s still on point here, as well as the observation about how long our “friends” in the ISI kept OBL away from us. It’s time to let them stew in their own juices, because we cannot reliably tell who our friends are anymore in the region.

    On a side note, is there a Saudi hegemony complex here, that drives the elimination of potential rivals? I know the PRC carries forward the “middle kingdom” banner even now.

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