Did NSA and JSOC Team Up to Game Obama and Monaco on Yemen Terror Alert?

NBC published a fascinating article yesterday that provided new and interesting details on the events surrounding the escalation of drone strikes in Yemen that took place in response to the “intercepted conference call” that wasn’t a conference call. Matthew Cole, Richard Esposito and Jim Miklaszewski report on the personnel and policy changes that were taking place in the Obama administration as these events unfolded and how these changes had led to a decrease in drone strikes:

Obama announced that he had chosen Lisa Monaco to replace Brennan as his top counterterror official on January 25, and she officially assumed the role of Homeland Security Advisor on March 8. The U.S. launched four strikes on Yemen between January 19 and January 23, just before Obama’s announcement about Monaco, but didn’t launch another until April 17.

“With Brennan going over to CIA and Monaco replacing him, it took time,” said a senior counterterrorism official. “This was a while coming. JSOC (the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command) was pushing for more strikes and more operations but the White House slowed everything down.”

Those three strikes in mid-April were followed by another lull in strikes until mid-May, when there were two strikes just before Obama’s drone policy speech:

In tandem with the drone speech, the President issued new internal guidance to officials that tightened controls on what targets could be hit and who could make the decision to launch a drone.

What followed, sources said, was more frustration from Defense Department officials, and a third, seven-week-long interruption in drone strikes that led to a backlog of identified militant targets in Yemen.

But the “targeting” done by JSOC in Yemen isn’t of the same quality as the information prepared for targeting by the CIA for strikes in Pakistan, according to the NBC report:

In May, around the time of Obama’s speech, senior military officials prepared “targeting packages” for Monaco, with a roster of suspected militants in Yemen that they wanted to eliminate. The “targeting packages” contain background information on the identified targets. The CIA’s packages for Pakistan are often very detailed, while the Defense Department’s research on Yemeni targets was sometimes less detailed.

In fact, the JSOC apparently even admitted that some of these recent targeting packages pertained to lower level targets, but in an apparent use of pre-cogs, they claimed these were going to be important al Qaeda figures in the future and the administration had to deal with the question of “pain now, or pain later” in their recommendation to take out these lower level operatives.

Keep in mind that these meetings to discuss drone targets, also know as “Terror Tuesday” meetings, are populated by high level security personnel from many agencies. Both JSOC, as the target developer for drone strikes in Yemen, and NSA, as the purveyor of information gleaned from surveillance, would of course be present.

As @pmcall noted to me on Twitter, the “intercept” then magically appeared and opened the floodgates for strikes:

Here’s how the NBC article described that:

The targets had already been identified, said senior defense department officials, but the strikes were caught in a national security bottleneck after a change in policy this spring “slowed everything down.” The bottleneck vanished and the strikes were suddenly carried out after the U.S. intercepted communications in late July in which two al Qaeda leaders said they wanted to do “something big.”


A senior administration official denied that there had been any shift in policy. “This threat has changed the conditions on the ground,” said the official. “It’s not a change in guidance.”

Isn’t that interesting and convenient? At the same time as NSA was under tremendous pressure over Edward Snowden’s revelations, an “intercept” comes through that allows folks like Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss to say the equivalent of  “See, it works!” and also frees JSOC of those meddlesome barriers to strikes that Obama and Monaco had erected. Note also that it seems very likely that JSOC used the “evacuation” of the Yemen embassy to also bring in more troops and equipment.

But Graham and Chambliss weren’t the only ones jumping on the propaganda wagon surrounding the accelerated Yemen strikes. Back on Tuesday, we heard from Brian “Bentonite in the Anthrax” Ross on the wonderful success of one of these strikes:

An American drone strike has killed four suspected al Qaeda militants associated with the latest threat that prompted the closing of U.S. embassies across the Middle East and North Africa, according to a senior U.S. official.

“We got the operational guys we were after,” the official said, referring to the four men killed in Yemen.

As is almost always the case when Brian Ross breaks important news on ongoing matters of high significance in national security, he got it completely wrong again (while serving the interests of the most militant parts of the security apparatus). Going back to the NBC article:

The strikes, which began on July 27 and have so far killed three dozen suspected militants, are not retaliatory and so far have not eliminated the threat that led to the temporary closure of U.S. diplomatic posts across the Middle East, said officials.

Ross wants us to believe that we got the four operational guys behind the Yemen threat and yet we learn from NBC that the threat has in no way been neutralized.

When @pmcall tweeted to me about the power of the magic intercept to open the floodgate for the strikes, it reminded me of Jack Goldsmiths’ quote of David Addington regarding the FISA court. Just as JSOC was bothered by those pesky criteria set up by Obama and Monaco on Yemen drone strikes, Addington saw the NSA being pestered by the FISA court:

[Goldsmith] shared the White House’s concern that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act might prevent wiretaps on international calls involving terrorists. But Goldsmith deplored the way the White House tried to fix the problem, which was highly contemptuous of Congress and the courts. “We’re one bomb away from getting rid of that obnoxious [FISA] court,” Goldsmith recalls Addington telling him in February 2004.

What a difference nine years make. Now those bombs that can remove obnoxious legal barriers need only to be threatened.

32 replies
  1. peasantparty says:

    Lisa Monaco, um there be dragons.

    Obamba recently made a statement that she would also be over GTMO releases. You have to watch out for that one. First of all, she is a bigger liar than Clapper, and second of all she is on the move–up the ladder.

  2. orionATL says:

    wait a minute.

    “..The bottleneck vanished and the strikes were suddenly carried out after the U.S. intercepted communications in late July in which two al Qaeda leaders said they wanted to do “something big.” …”

    are they saying the fearful conference call/legion of doom confab was between only two a-q’s? and that these two were engaged in wishful thinking?

    talk about burying the lead :))

  3. orionATL says:

    the quote cited in my comment above appeared st the beginning of the nbc article.

    the following quote appeared well down into the srticle.

    from the nbc article:

    “..But then, in late July, the U.S. intercepted an electronic communication in which two of al Qaeda’s top world leaders, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Nasir al-Wahishi, agreed they wanted to launch a major attack on a Muslim holiday known as Laylat al-Qadr. This year the holiday, also known as the “Night of Power,” fell on the weekend of August 3 and 4…”

    so the two a-q officials in the earlier quote were al-zawshiri and al-wahisi?

    but no mention of any conference call.

    was there a separate conference call between al-z and/or al-w and lots of north african a-q’s?

  4. Jim White says:

    @peasantparty: Oh, I’m no fan of Monaco by any means (or Obama either), but when even the feeble moves by Monaco and Obama to rein JSOC in even a little bit gets gamed by JSOC with a huge assist from NSA, I find that especially upsetting.

  5. What Constitution? says:

    What? The explanation offered for reinstituting aggressive drone strikes rings hollow? It may be that somebody inflated or manufactured the “justifications” offered to engage in this new round of strikes? And their “success” may have been overstated? And there might have been some, oh, ulterior motive involved like a perceived need to divert attention from NSA spying illegalities to “NSA success stories involving spying”? Say it ain’t so. And cue Inspector Renault:


  6. orionATL says:

    it’s very curious, but i was thinking yesterday, as i was following wapo’s john delong story here, that if you wanted to undermine the nsa while appearing to support it, you would do some of the things the whitehouse is currently doing

    – order up delong to talk with wapo

    – publish a doj white paper with revealing documents (rogers doesn’t give docs to new reps)

    – open up fisa court activities a little

    – leave greenwald, the guardian, and wapo alone

    – leave wyden and udall alone while they talk up nsa’s transgressions

    if you take a step back and reflect after all this, you realize the nsa is having a hole dug for them by reporters and analysts like ew.

    how much longer will the obama admin, acutely aware that prez’s popularity is sinking and that, while the economy is central to that, this nsa spying-and-lying business is even more corrosive of personal trust in the prez?

    in this context, olding hands with jsoc may prove to have been one of the dumber moves nsa has made.

    i’m wondering when nsa will be cut loose?

  7. JohnT says:

    If this is true, many heads are going to have to roll

    Either Obama approved, and gave a wink and a nod to go ahead because they had the false flag op in their pocket. Or he’s being played. Either way he at least has to make it look like he’s in charge

    If he doesn’t, this just proves he’s nothing more than a puppet of the MIC/MOTU

  8. john francis lee says:

    Obama is POTUS. He is directly responsible for all the spying, the war crimes, the assassinations of ‘suspects’ the trashing of our constitution … all of it that has gone on and is going on during his administration.

    There is a tendency to identify with ‘poor’ BO’b. To project, somehow, one’s own feelings of helpless and hopeless indebtedness to one’s ‘superiors’ onto Obama. I don’t buy it. He’s a typical neo-liberal nihilist with his eyes – and his wallet – wide open.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    As with the purported mandatory termination of TIA, pursuant to explicit Congressional statute, the world thought the use of pre-cogs was terminated, too. Shit just continues to happen, non?

  10. Clark Hilldale says:

    The obvious (and correct) explanation is that there never was a real “intercept” involved in this case.

    The “intercept” narrative was 100% Info Op.

    Whenever a US official talks or leaks about intercepts, some variety of institutional skullduggery is in play.

    This is not a trifling matter. And would be good for EW readers to consider whenever you hear a news story mention “chatter” or “intercepts”.

  11. orionATL says:

    @Clark Hilldale:

    thanks for that.

    i wish the big time media could keep their eyes on the ball long enough to pursue this issue until it is thoroughly sorted out.

    if the conference call intercept was indeed psy ops, and it smelled like it from the beginning (vagueness and hand-wringing everywhere), then that is a huge hit to credibility, and of import to how this spying colossus matter plays out in the long run.

  12. Ronald says:

    As @pmcall noted to me on Twitter, the “intercept” then magically appeared and opened the floodgates for strikes: @JimWhiteGNV Let’s see military frustrated no drone strikes approved & all of a sudden a magic message intercepted. Full speed ahead again – See more at: http://www.emptywheel.net/2013/08/17/did-nsa-and-jsoc-team-up-to-game-obama-and-monaco-on-yemen-terror-alert/#sthash.5bfOod3M.dpuf

    I gather Marcie and readers think Obama was gamed.
    I don’t think he was gamed. I think drones are what he wanted and prepared for as early as his transition, we have learned — or understood when drones strikes occured on day 3 of his administration.

    If we can’t blame it on Republicans, let’s blame it on those nasty types at JSOC.

  13. Michael Murry says:

    Free Fire Zones. Body Counts. “Progress” and “Success.” We went through this sorry excuse for policy and “thinking” forty years ago in Vietnam. And now we’ve allowed another class of military morons to meddle in the political and economic affairs of the nation? President Obama ought to just resign and go give some speeches for money. He sure as shit doesn’t know squat about managing the self-promoting, brown-nosing, maniacal military lifers who infest the upper reaches of the U.S. government.

  14. Jim White says:

    @Ronald: If you had bothered to be around here enough to read us regularly, you would know that Obama gets nothing like a free pass for his drone policy. The whole idea of the NBC article and this post is that there were indeed interruptions to frequency of drone strikes in Yemen. The bottom line is that it appears that Obama and Monaco did do a few things that slowed down strikes for a bit. My thesis here is that JSOC very likely teamed up with NSA to game those feeble moves that Obama and Monaco had taken. There are NO heroes in any of this, just differing levels of evil and deception. Obama has engaged in much deception over drones, so it’s very interesting to see some deception shot right back at him.

  15. RexFlex says:

    David Addington, Sith lord if there ever was one.
    Truly pathogens of the republic are killing the host.
    We need a little executive branch chemo.

  16. JTMinIA says:

    My read on the two strikes in late Jan under Brennan, followed by the announcement that he was being replaced, followed by a lull, followed by Obama talking about new rules on strikes, is a bit different (if I understand what you’re saying, EW). I take this as Obama trying to pretend that he doesn’t love drone-strikes. This is Obama trying to look like he doesn’t enjoy killing people without losing US soldiers. I can almost see him telling Brennan: “yeah, it might look like I’m replacing you as some kind of rebuke, but I’m giving you CIA in return, so go ahead and do some serious damage between now and the end of the month and then I’ll announce the switch.”

  17. JTMinIA says:

    In other words, I don’t agree with the idea that anyone is teaming up on Obama or gaming him. This is all part of the plan and he is both in control and completely responsible (anyway).

  18. joanneleon says:

    If this is the case, that NSA and JSOC were able to do things to force Obama’s hand on the big emergency embassy evacuations and drone strikes in Yemen, Houston, we have an even bigger problem than I thought, and I already thought we had a huge problem.

    The only thing that makes me skeptical is that Obama benefits from the distraction and justifications for surveillance as much as anyone does, so I’m not sure if he’d need to be gamed. What’s more important to him? Consistency with his announced policy changes in May or getting ahead of this tsunami of leaks that is knocking him over?

    One thing that was really freaking weird is that at the very time that Obama was going off on vacation and Congress was leaving town for 5 weeks or more, the country was in this big emergency, potential terrorist attack, shutting down large numbers of embassies, evacuating people in military planes (and maybe bringing more special forces into Yemen at the same time). A red alert if we ever saw one. But what did the president and Congress do? They went on vacation. Doesn’t sound like they were all that worried, does it?

  19. P J Evans says:

    They got out of Dodge and potential target areas – or that’s one way to look at it.
    Realistically, all they’re needed for is making statements to media about terrorism. They can make those statements anywhere.

  20. JTMinIA says:

    @joanneleon: Wait. Congress is on break? But the rate of laws passed, true oversight, and non-kabuki hearings hasn’t changed at all, so how can they be out of town?

    Oh, yeah. Floor Effect. NVM.

  21. PeteM says:

    I question why we continue to see this type of apologia meme that seems to attempt to deflect responsibility for OBomba’s machinations. He is what he repeatedly confirms he is, a sociopathic bloody murderer.

  22. Pelu Maad says:

    Gee…..the first “black” president undermined by white military males……totally predictable.

  23. Nathanael says:

    Seems to me, based on these arguments, that Obama needs to drone-kill these JSOC guys before they become any more dangerous than they already are… they seem like rising terrorist leaders.

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