Obama’s Signature

Obama’s signature national security policy may well be the embrace of signature strikes. First in Pakistan–until they killed 38 civilians in Shiga, Pakistan, and had to rethink the strategy–and now, according to the WSJ, in Yemen.

The Obama administration has given the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. military greater leeway to target suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen with drones, responding to worries a new haven is being established from which to mount attacks on the West.

Mind you, the anonymous sources in this story claim this is “signature lite.” Targets need to fit the profile of High Value Targets, sources claim, to be targeted.

But Obama’s (IMO) ill-considered decision is not the most interesting part of this story.

Rather, it’s a detail that directly contradicts with the WaPo’s version of this story (besides the timing, which also suggested the decision had not yet been made, though it may have been made since). The WaPo said JSOC wasn’t all that interested in having these authorities.

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.

WSJ says JSOC did ask.

The CIA and JSOC asked last year for broader targeting powers, however, which would include leeway to conduct what are known as “signature strikes,” in which targets are identified based on patterns of behavior, such as surveillance showing they are transporting weapons.


Recently the CIA and JSOC, citing the fears about an al Qaeda haven, renewed requests to the White House.

Perhaps the most interesting bit, though, is this backwards discussion of how you need to use signature strikes to avoid border incursions against a legitimate defensive issue.

U.S. counterterrorism officials said they are currently tracking several direct threats to the U.S. connected to AQAP. The officials wouldn’t provide further details because that information is classified.


Administration officials said the White House has no plans to allow strikes in Yemen to be as broad as those in Pakistan. CIA strikes against low-level fighters in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, are meant to prevent them from crossing the border into neighboring Afghanistan, where they are waging an insurgency against U.S. and Afghan forces.

“This is distinct from the FATA,” a senior administration official said of Yemen. “We’re using these tools judiciously and carefully to scope this as a counterterrorism effort and not an all-out counter-insurgency campaign.”

Granted, US sources claim that this use of signatures is different than the FATA and Pakistan. But given that I suspect the Saudis may be dictating this change to us, I’m rather interested in the suggestion that border incursions present the need to use signature strikes.

Because these are, after all, happening across the border from the Saudis.

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.

19 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    I have to say that for our bestest and brightest intelligence and military policy makers, the following part of this WSJ article should be a “duh” moment, but of course, these ignoramuses couldn’t tell the difference between their ass and a hole in the ground:

    “…Advocates of expanding the scope of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen say the latest U.S. intelligence shows that AQAP has grown stronger since one of its prominent leaders, American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a U.S. strike in September…”

  2. Frank33 says:

    Thanks for reporting these war crimes and war criminals. This is murder, or rather mass murder by psychopaths. This seems to be a strategy of just kill and kill to create more enemies.

    And why is this secret? Are these Drone Killers ashamed of their deadly work? Do the brilliant “defense analysts” judge this a great success or not? And the proof of the success is too much of a secret to reveal?

    Or is it just murder…

  3. Kim says:

    “This is distinct from the FATA,” a senior administration official said of Yemen. “We’re using these tools judiciously and carefully to scope this as a counterterrorism effort and not an all-out counter-insurgency campaign.”

    So this is an admission that, in FATA, the use is neither careful nor judicious?

  4. MadDog says:

    More info on this story from the AP’s Kimberly Dozier:

    Yemen seeks more anti-terror aid but limits drones

    “…Yemen’s new President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is well aware his forces have lost ground against al-Qaida, and has requested increased U.S. counterterrorist cooperation to combat it, seeking an influx of U.S. military trainers and advisers, the Yemeni officials said.

    Hadi also gave the green light to expanded CIA drone activity, one of the officials said. “We are simply allowing the CIA to increase the pace of their strikes to match the U.S. military,” he said…

    …The Yemeni government also refuses to allow the drones to take off from or land on Yemeni soil. The CIA flies its drones from a new base in a neighboring country, while the U.S. military flies its fleet from other bases, including one in Djibouti.”

    A few thoughts:

    1) I thought the title of Kimberly’s piece ran directly counter to the actual content of her story. I don’t blame Kimberly for that. It’s probably the result of some clueless editor.

    2) Hadi’s comments seems to indicate that the US military strikes were already in the “signature” or “signature light” category, and that the CIA was now being allowed to do the same.

    3) The only 2 countries that border Yemen directly are Saudi Arabia and Oman. The article, an apparent update to the previously close-mouthed “we’ve got a secret” US MSM policy, seems to say that the new CIA base is in one or the other of these specific countries.

    4) For those of us old enough, remember that the start of the US’s involvement in the Vietnam war began with “an influx of U.S. military trainers and advisers”.

  5. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And in the NYT’s version of better-late-than-never reporting:

    “…”This broadens the aperture slightly” for the C.I.A. and the military command, the official said, noting that any targets must be approved by the White House and top administration officials before the strikes can take place…”

    Yeah, right.

  6. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And the WaPo’s Greg Miller gets it right:

    “…The policy shift marks a significant expansion of the clandestine drone war against an al-Qaeda affiliate that has seized large ­pieces of territory in Yemen and is linked to a series of terrorist plots against the United States…


    …The U.S. military has carried out airstrikes using drones as well as conventional aircraft and ship-based missiles for several years…”

  7. harpie says:

    Yemen expert, Gregory Johnsen talks about the need for “precision” …in words AND deeds:

    […] To start, precision is important. The US has to be clear about who it is combating in Yemen. Just because the US doesn’t like an Islamist does not mean that he is a member al-Qaeda.
    One of the things that worries me most about the proposed “signature strikes” that the CIA reportedly requested is the lack of precision in targeting. I worry that the US will hit the wrong people – as it so often has in the past – and end up creating more enemies than it kills. I worry about the same lack of precision in keeping Zindani on the “specially designated global terrorist” list. […]

  8. orionATL says:

    numbers please.

    how many “militants” are there in yemen?

    one dozen? two dozen?

    one hundred? two hundred?

    are we not talking about small groups of disaffected individuals who talk a lot on their cell phones – to yemenis who have been forced to become american agents?

    how are “they” organized? (or are they?)

    how ts we know how committed to al-q “principles” “they” are? (if there are any a-q principles other than a thorough-going dislike of the decades-long u.s. intrusion into the muslim world. keep in mind that al-q’s premier objection was the intrusion of the u.s. military into saudi affairs.

    how much damage to u.s. interests have “the rebels” caused in the last decade? since the cole?

    two bumbling airline bomb attempts. no attacks on the u.s. military (could this all be revenge for the cole?)

    is it really conceivable that this small country could produce any significant al-q “force” that could do any significant damage to the u.s.?

    i suspect that in watching the u.s. military/paramilitary become increasingly involved in yemen, we are watching the u.s. gov’t’s military/paramilitary organizations engaged in make-work,

    desperately searching for something to do – for a new reason to keep on doing something, anything, to maintain war-on-terrorism momentum, as the american public’s appetite for foreign warring continues to wane.

    in addition, it is a presidential election year, with the current incumbent stuck with a record of trivial accomplishments and relying on “protecting the american people” as his, shall we say, signature accomplishment.

    what a military farce – hercules and a mouse in a face-off.

  9. orionATL says:

    to put it differently:

    is the u.s. gov’t’s hysterical concern with al-q in tiny yemen (which has been given the more menacing sobriquet “al-quaeda in the arabian peninsula”),

    not the international counterpart of the u.s. gov’t’s hysterical concern domestically with uncovering lurking “radicalized” young muslim men and putting them in the super-max slammer for umpty-ump years?

    are we not seeing, within and without the u.s., that when our gov’t creates any social structure for national security – doj/fbi or dod/cia – it creates self-perpetuating social structures whose job is never, ever done?

    cf the history of the fbi/cia/dod and the-great-search-for-imminently-dangerous-communists-and-communist-threats conducted for nearly five decades – 1945 to 1989.

  10. emptywheel says:

    @orionATL: AQAP is a very real threat. And they are getting a lot of support in Yemen bc they’re adopting a Taliban/Hezbollah strategy of offering the services the govt SHOULD be offering but is not.

    But I suspect the near-term threat it poses is on strikes in Saudi Arabia.

  11. orionATL says:


    thanks for the tip, maddog.

    having read the wsj article, the obvious question is:

    is this not a civil war? is it not similar to the libyan and syrian civil wars?

    why are we intruding in a civil war?

    is the u.s. intervention about protecting the u.s. from terrorism, or

    is it about maintaining another military base and presence in the oil-basket of the world?

    is the term “al-q” being used here as justificatory (? :) ) cover for u.s. intervention in a civil war, which intervention is intended to keep a u.s. friendly gov’t in power in yemen?

  12. Oriental says:



    the basic question, though, is “a very real threat” to what or to whom?

    not to the u.s. mainland and it’s people directly, surely.

    to “u.s. interests”, possibly.

    but what are those interests? a military base? our oil supply?

    those are different from “terrorism”.

    “oil matters” are not terrorism nor is loss of military bases terrorism.

    what i suspect is going on here is that “fighting terrorism”, which is clearly implied, is being used as a cover for real-politik protecting a change in the status-quo of our oil supply or military bases, compounded with real-politik regarding israel’s and the saudi caliphate’s fates.

    is this wise? i don’t know.

    are we joining a losing cause by supporting long-entrenched gov’t’s who are only nominal allies? i fear that is likely.

  13. orionATL says:

    here is a map of the arabian peninsula. it is small print but has the great advantage of showing the a.p. in the larger geographic context that is the nations involved in u.s. military and paramilitary operations for much of the last two decades:


    the arabian peninsula includes nine nations (and a lot of oil).

    of these nine i believe only yemen has an active al-quaeda presence. saudi arabia had one but drove them out – into yemen.

    over the last decade the saudis, the yemenis, and the u.s. have killed in excess of two dozen aqap “leaders”. one would think that such a successful war of attrition on a small organizations’ leadership would be fatal to the organization as well, but it hasn’t been.

    why is that, i wonder?

    in a separate matter, i note that the u.s. has a large military and paramilitary drone air force – both lots of drones and lots of pilots. in a recent year, the u.s. air force trained more drone pilots than pilots of standard military aircraft.

    if drone warfare is being restricted in pakistan and afghanistan by public disapproval, where else in the world might the u.s. deploy its drone air force to maintain its skills?


    not that there could be much doubt, but the comments marked “oriental” are mine. spellcheck has trying to do this to me for years and finally succeeded.

  14. Procopius says:


    it creates self-perpetuating social structures whose job is never, ever done?

    It’s called Parkinson’s Law and applies to all bureaucracies, but especially those which contribute profit to the 0.01%. As Glenn Greenwald points out, as we increase the drone strikes AQAP gets stronger. Gee, do you suppose there’s some relation?

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