There were three airstrikes in Yemen this week, with the last being a strike in al-Jawf, a province on the Saudi border, that local observers have variously described as a drone strike and a Saudi jet strike.
Keep ongoing confusion about airstrike attribution in mind as you read this Greg Miller article. It purportedly examines how easy it will be to cede CIA control over drones to DOD. But Miller focuses on Yemen, where, as he portrays it, the question of CIA control over drone strikes is inescapably tied to use of the Saudi base to launch them.
As Miller describes, after initially intending to keep JSOC in charge of strikes in Yemen, the Administration shifted to the CIA because of some serious fuck-ups, among them the al-Majala strike, which killed a Bedouin tribe, the May 2010 strike that took out the Deputy Governor of Shabwah province (probably on deliberately bad intelligence), and the May 2011 attempt that allowed Anwar al-Awlaki to escape.
The change was driven by a number of factors, including errant strikes that killed the wrong people, the use of munitions that left shrapnel with U.S. military markings scattered about target sites and worries that Yemen’s unstable leader might kick the Pentagon’s planes out.
But President Obama’s decision also came down to a determination that the CIA was simply better than the Defense Department at locating and killing al-Qaeda operatives with armed drones, according to current and former U.S. officials involved in the deliberations.
The first two of these fuck-ups almost certainly came from the intelligence sharing process. Yet one of Miller’s sources describes it as a problem with DOD’s kinetic skills, the actual targeting of drones.
“I never fully understood why they struggled so much,” the former official said, referring to the Pentagon’s problems. “Of all the pieces, the kinetic piece at the end was what they should have been good at.”
Given the chronology Miller’s story lays out, it was this last strike, the only one that represented an actual kinetic rather than intelligence failure, that led the Administration to decide to go to the Saudis.
Miller then lays out the thin kabuki the Saudis engaged in to claim this wasn’t a new expansion of US military presence on Saudi soil (as if building a 35,000 person infrastructure protection force, developed under the leadership of a US Major General, were not also one). And he describes the deal the Saudis struck: they’re in charge.
The Saudi government imposed conditions, including full authority over the facility and assurances that there would be no U.S. military personnel on site. The operation would be run by the CIA and Saudi intelligence, who for years had jointly operated a fusion center in Riyadh.
But it’s the excuses used to rule out JSOC drones that are most telling. JSOC couldn’t be involved, the kabuki claims, because it would involve a more tedious vetting process.
Feeding targeting intelligence to JSOC drones was not seen as a valid option, in part because doing so would require military approvals that could bog down a process requiring split-second decisions, officials said.
“The military’s culture is very uncomfortable with someone not in the chain of command handing them a target package and saying, ‘Hit this,’ ” said Jeremy Bash, who served as a senior aide to Panetta at the Pentagon and the CIA.
The first CIA flights began in August 2011. Six weeks later, Awlaki was killed in a CIA strike.
Voila! DOD no longer vets drone targeting and Awlaki dies within weeks!
Funny how that worked out.
Miller then lays out several of the advantages CIA purportedly has over DOD. In addition to the longevity of command at CIA’s counterterrorism center as compared to JSOC, he also cites CIA’s involvement in infiltrating terrorist organizations like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Among them is its expertise at penetrating terrorist groups through networks of informants, and the expertise of officers and analysts who tend to stay in their assignments longer than their military counterparts.
Of course, CIA doesn’t do that by itself in Yemen. It does it with the Saudis and the Yemenis. And always has.
Indeed, the Saudis were involved in at least one of the fuck-ups given as reason to switch to the Saudi base. The Yemenis probably dealt us the bad intelligence that killed the Deputy Governor of Shabwah.
Now, I’m willing to entertain the possibility that moving to CIA targeting under Saudi control is mostly about bypassing Yemeni vetting, as I’ve suggested before. But it is also the case that some of our more recent drone strikes took out people, like that Deputy Governor, who had reportedly served as mediators between extremists and the government in the past, so it is not entirely clear that putting the Saudis in charge has resulted in better targeting.
But we are doing what the Saudis asked us to do 4 years ago, giving them drone intelligence, if not drone kills, they can use to target Saudi enemies in the north of Yemen.
It’s fairly clear that CIA will remain in charge of drone strikes in Pakistan at least through the official pull-out of US troops from Afghanistan. But whether or not the CIA — and with them, the Saudis — will retain control of Yemeni targeting is a far more interesting question going forward.
Last week’s Bradley Manning hearing significantly focused on how much the government could hide about its witnesses. A big part of the discussion pertained to how a Seal Team 6 member would testify to finding WikiLeaks material at Osama bin Laden’s compound. But the government also advanced its case to have a list of other government employees testify, at least partly, in secret, mostly in the “harm” phase of sentencing.
Here’s Alexa O’Brien’s transcription of that list (click through for the list). There are a number of interesting names on this list. But the one that popped out at me is Ambassador Stephen Seche.
You see, while Seche was Chargé d’Affaires in Syria mid-decade and more recently was in charge of Near Eastern affairs at State, he will almost certainly testify about how WikiLeaks disclosures of cables he wrote while Ambassador to Yemen “harmed” relations with that country.
Indeed, as the image above shows, Seche wrote one of the most newsworthy cables ever released by WikiLeaks, the January 4, 2010 cable recounting a January 2 meeting between then CentCom head David Petraeus and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The cable is best known for this statement, laying out the agreement by which Saleh would lie about missile and drone strikes and pretend they were Yemen’s.
“We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh said, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke that he had just “lied” by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the ROYG.
But there are several other inflammatory details in this cable. There’s the nugget of our agreement to shift from using cruise missiles to drones.
Saleh did not have any objection, however, to General Petraeus’ proposal to move away from the use of cruise missiles and instead have U.S. fixed-wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory, “out of sight,” and engage AQAP targets when actionable intelligence became available.
Potentially more damning still, there’s the passage that suggests Anwar al-Awlaki was an intended target of the December 24, 2009 attack (a day before the US believed he was an operational and at least a month before it had evidence he was). In addition, there’s Petraeus’ absolutely incorrect contention that only three civilians had died at al-Majala instead of the Bedouin clan we know died.
(S/NF) Saleh praised the December 17 and 24 strikes against AQAP but said that “mistakes were made” in the killing of civilians in Abyan. The General responded that the only civilians killed were the wife and two children of an AQAP operative at the site, prompting Saleh to plunge into a lengthy and confusing aside with Deputy Prime Minister Alimi and Minister of Defense Ali regarding the number of terrorists versus civilians killed in the strike. (Comment: Saleh’s conversation on the civilian casualties suggests he has not been well briefed by his advisors on the strike in Abyan, a site that the ROYG has been unable to access to determine with any certainty the level of collateral damage. End Comment.) AQAP leader Nassr al-Wahishi and extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki may still be alive, Saleh said, but the December strikes had already caused al-Qaeda operatives to turn themselves in to authorities and residents in affected areas to deny refuge to al-Qaeda. [my emphasis]
At the very least, this passage demonstrates how shoddy our intelligence was both before and after we killed a bunch of civilians. But it may also support the case that the first time we tried to kill Awlaki, we didn’t believe he met the standards laid out in the memo that would ultimately authorize his killing: being a senior operational leader of AQAP involved in planning attacks against the US.
In other words, this cable, by itself, may include evidence of possible war and domestic crimes.
And yet the government wants to send Seche to a classified hearing to talk about the “harm” Bradley Manning caused.
While I think it possible that release of this particular cable made it harder for Djibouti to partner with us (recall we moved the drones targeting Awlaki to Saudi Arabia in 2011), the government at least maintains that Yemen continues to allow us to shoot drones in the country.
Yet it seems highly likely the government wants to claim disclosures of crimes like this amounted to “harm” of the US.
But here’s the punchline.
I realized something as I read this Gregory Johnsen post. For all the so-called transparency on targeting we’ve gotten since the AP first revealed John Brennan was seizing control of the targeting process, we still don’t know what went wrong with the al-Majala targeting.
Johnsen captures a significant chronological point about signature strikes in Yemen: the
Both tell basically the same story: portraying Obama as a president who is deeply involved in the details of drone strikes in Yemen and yet, despite his best efforts to limit the strikes, continues to be pulled deeper and deeper into a war he had no intention of fighting.
After the “sloppy strike” in December 2009, Obama “overrulued military and intelligence commanders who were pushing to use signature strikes (in Yemen) as well.”
According to the NYT, he said the US was “not going to war with Yemen.”
After the success of the bin Laden raid in 2011, the US military along with the CIA once again began pushing for “signature strikes” in Yemen. Again, Obama pushed back, wary of getting sucked into a mess in Yemen from which there was no foreseeable exit.
As the NYT describes it, shortly after the al-Majala disaster and “within two years” of the time–understood to be April of this year–that Obama ultimately approved signature strikes in Yemen, “military and intelligence commanders” asked to use signature strikes in Yemen too.
The very first strike under his watch in Yemen, on Dec. 17, 2009, offered a stark example of the difficulties of operating in what General Jones described as an “embryonic theater that we weren’t really familiar with.”
It killed not only its intended target, but also two neighboring families, and left behind a trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more innocents. It was hardly the kind of precise operation that Mr. Obama favored. Videos of children’s bodies and angry tribesmen holding up American missile parts flooded You Tube, fueling a ferocious backlash that Yemeni officials said bolstered Al Qaeda.
The sloppy strike shook Mr. Obama and Mr. Brennan, officials said, and once again they tried to impose some discipline.
Now, in the wake of the bad first strike in Yemen, Mr. Obama overruled military and intelligence commanders who were pushing to use signature strikes there as well.
Between them, the NYT and the Daily Beast published over 10,000 words on Obama’s drone assassination program yesterday. Both stories rolled out the new acronym the Administration wants us to use: terrorist-attack-disruption strikes, or TADS. Neither of them, in those over 10,000 words, once mentioned Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16 year old American citizen son also killed in a drone strike last year.
And while both stories break important new ground and challenge the Administration’s narrative in key ways, the prioritization of TADS over Abdulrahman in them is a pretty clear indication of the success with which the Administration pushed a certain agenda in these stories.
As I suggested at the end of this post, I think John Brennan hoped to use them to reframe recent changes to the drone program to make them more palatable.
Drone Strikes before They Got Worse
Before I lay out the new spin these stories offer on the signature strikes and vetting process rolled out last month, let’s recall what was included in the drone program before these recent changes, in addition to the killing of a 16-year old American citizen.
According to the NYT, the Administration assumed that, “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good” and therefore all military age males in a strike zone could be targeted. A former senior counterterrorism official calls earlier drone targeting, “guilt by association.” Of signature strikes in Pakistan, a senior (apparently still-serving) official joked “that when the C.I.A. sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks,’ the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp.” And one of Obama’s top political advisors, David Axelrod, was attending targeting meetings, injecting a political taint on the program.
Even with all of that, these stories don’t explain how the intense vetting process they describe resulted in the al-Majala strike that made Jeh Johnson think about going to Catholic confession and “shook” John Brennan and President Obama. Or, of course, how we came to kill a 16 year old American citizen.
So all of that was in place before the recent changes to the drone assassination program made it worse. Don’t worry, though, it’s TADS now.
With all that in mind–Abdulrahman and the guilt by association and the three guys doing jumping jacks–let’s look at how these stories reframe signature strikes in Yemen and White House consolidation of the vetting.
Assassination Czar John Brennan’s Drone Shop
Consider the way the articles describe the targeting process. The NYT–relying on a single source, “an administration official who has watched [Obama] closely”–describes a very aggressive vetting process led by the DOD, then nods to a “parallel” process at CIA in countries where it leads the vetting.
The video conferences are run by the Pentagon, which oversees strikes in those countries, and participants do not hesitate to call out a challenge, pressing for the evidence behind accusations of ties to Al Qaeda.
“What’s a Qaeda facilitator?” asked one participant, illustrating the spirit of the exchanges. “If I open a gate and you drive through it, am I a facilitator?” Given the contentious discussions, it can take five or six sessions for a name to be approved, and names go off the list if a suspect no longer appears to pose an imminent threat, the official said. A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan, where that agency conducts strikes.
The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and guided by Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name. He signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan — about a third of the total.
Since for the most part, DOD has managed the Yemen and Somalia strikes, while CIA managed the Pakistan ones, this conflates the vetting for personality strikes targeted at known people and the signature strikes the CIA has targeted against men doing jumping jacks in Pakistan. Somehow, al-Majala and Abdulrahman still got through that vetting process, but the exhaustive DOD one was, for the most part, far more rigorous than the CIA one.
Now compare that description of the DOD vetting process with the one the AP gave on May 21, which it says is “mostly defunct.”
The previous process for vetting them, now mostly defunct, was established by Mullen early in the Obama administration, with a major revamp in the spring of 2011, two officials said.
Under the old Pentagon-run review, the first step was to gather evidence on a potential target. That person’s case would be discussed over an interagency secure video teleconference, involving the National Counterterrorism Center and the State Department, among other agencies. Among the data taken into consideration: Is the target a member of al-Qaida or its affiliates; is he engaged in activities aimed at the U.S. overseas or at home?
If a target isn’t captured or killed within 30 days after he is chosen, his case must be reviewed to see if he’s still a threat. [my emphasis]
That is, that free-ranging discussion, the process by which targets could come off the list as well as get put on it? At least according to the AP, it is now defunct–or at least “less relevant.” Continue reading