Baitullah Mehsud

American Drone War: Murder and Democracy

In his post on the drone killing of Waliur Rehman Mehsud earlier this week, Jim noted that CIA has sworn revenge for the 2009 Pakistani Taliban supported suicide attack on CIA’s base in Khost.

Sure enough, one of the things Press Secretary Jay Carney mentioned when asked about the strike yesterday was Rehman’s role in the “murder” of 7 CIA officers in Khost in 2009.

While we are not in the position to confirm the reports of Waliur Rehman’s death, if those reports were true or prove to be true, it’s worth noting that his demise would deprive the TTP — Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan — of its second in command and chief military strategist. Waliur Rehman has participated in cross-border attacks in Afghanistan against U.S. and NATO personnel and horrific attacks against Pakistani civilians and soldiers. And he is wanted in connection to the murder of seven American citizens on December 30, 2009, at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan.

Now, I’m sorry that 7 CIA officers died, but let’s consider what it means that the US continues to call the attack murder.

As I noted almost 3 years ago when DOJ first sanctioned TTP and indicted Hakimullah Mehsud, the notion that they should be legally held responsible — in the US, at least — for “murder” is laughable. The Khost attack took place after an extended campaign to kill Baitullah Mehsud, as Jane Mayer recounts.

Still, the recent [in 2009] campaign to kill Baitullah Mehsud offers a sobering case study of the hazards of robotic warfare. It appears to have taken sixteen missile strikes, and fourteen months, before the C.I.A. succeeded in killing him.

[snip]

On June 14, 2008, a C.I.A. drone strike on Mehsud’s home town, Makeen, killed an unidentified person. On January 2, 2009, four more unidentified people were killed. On February 14th, more than thirty people were killed, twenty-five of whom were apparently members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, though none were identified as major leaders. On April 1st, a drone attack on Mehsud’s deputy, Hakimullah Mehsud, killed ten to twelve of his followers instead. On April 29th, missiles fired from drones killed between six and ten more people, one of whom was believed to be an Al Qaeda leader. On May 9th, five to ten more unidentified people were killed; on May 12th, as many as eight people died. On June 14th, three to eight more people were killed by drone attacks. On June 23rd, the C.I.A. reportedly killed between two and six unidentified militants outside Makeen, and then killed dozens more people—possibly as many as eighty-six—during funeral prayers for the earlier casualties. An account in the Pakistani publication The News described ten of the dead as children. Four were identified as elderly tribal leaders. One eyewitness, who lost his right leg during the bombing, told Agence France-Presse that the mourners suspected what was coming: “After the prayers ended, people were asking each other to leave the area, as drones were hovering.” The drones, which make a buzzing noise, are nicknamed machay (“wasps”) by the Pashtun natives, and can sometimes be seen and heard, depending on weather conditions. Before the mourners could clear out, the eyewitness said, two drones started firing into the crowd. “It created havoc,” he said. “There was smoke and dust everywhere. Injured people were crying and asking for help.” Then a third missile hit. “I fell to the ground,” he said.

When CIA finally got Baitullah, they also took out his young new bride.

The people Humam al-Balawi took out at Khost were all, as far as is known, active participants in the drone campaign that created all this carnage. As NYU’s Sarah Knuckey laid out yesterday, the Khost attack is probably murder under Afghan law, but not under international law, which would count CIA drone killers as civilians directly participating in hostilities.

In an international armed conflict (IAC), members of the armed forces have combatant immunity and combatant privilege. Meaning: they can kill the other side’s combatants (if rules on killing satisfied in individual case), AND, they cannot be prosecuted under domestic law (of their enemy, if e.g., they were captured) for a killing that was permitted under IHL. They could be tried by the capturing enemy for any violation of IHL, e.g. war crimes.

But, this immunity only attaches to members of the armed forces. It does not apply to “civilians who directly participate in hostilities [DPH]” (e.g the farmer who picks up arms to fight the Americans one day, the US civilian – yes, including any CIA officer who “directly participates”). So, a CIA officer (not any of them, only those DPH’ing, eg. involved in, say, drone strikes, or night raids) could, under the laws of war, be arrested and tried in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and tried for murder under domestic law. (This is so, even if the “murder” was permitted by IHL). Ditto for some AQ or Taliban member – they have no immunity. Their killing might be permitted by IHL, but not by Afghan law. Whether the Khost killings violated Afghan criminal law, I don’t know (haven’t studied the Afghan crim code), but I’d assume yes.

In other words, calling Khost “murder” simply imposes a double standard, in which we’re allowed to kill scores of civilians, including funeral goers and young wives not directly participating in combat, but those DPHs are not allowed to strike back.

But that’s not the only thing that likely went on with this strike. As McClatchy lays out (and Jim also hinted at) it was probably just as much an effort to thwart peace discussions between the civilian government of Pakistan and the Pakistani Taliban.

Waliur Rehman Mehsud’s death comes just before the assumption of power next month of a government led by Nawaz Sharif, a center-right politician who’ll become the prime minister for a record third time. Sharif based his appeal partly on his demand for an end to drone strikes and a pledge to seek peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban.

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Which Came First, Unilateral Strikes or Signature Strikes?

I realized something as I was writing this post on Mark Mazzetti’s latest installment from his book. Signature strikes — those strikes targeted at patterns rather than identified terrorists — purportedly preceded our unilateral use of drone strikes in Pakistan.

At least that’s what appears to be the case, comparing this article, which dates General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s approval of signature strikes to a January 9, 2008 meeting with DNI Mike McConnell and Michael Hayden.

The change, described by senior American and Pakistani officials who would not speak for attribution because of the classified nature of the program, allows American military commanders greater leeway to choose from what one official who took part in the debate called “a Chinese menu” of strike options.

Instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking, this shift allowed American operators to strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run, for instance, so long as the risk of civilian casualties is judged to be low.

[snip]

The new agreements with Pakistan came after a trip to the country on Jan. 9 by Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, and Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A. director. The American officials met with Mr. Musharraf as well as with the new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and offered a range of increased covert operations aimed at thwarting intensifying efforts by Al Qaeda and the Taliban to destabilize the Pakistani government. [my emphasis]

With Mazzetti’s latest, which dates unilateral strikes to a July 2008 meeting with Kayani (note, Mazzetti doesn’t say whether Hayden and Stephen Kappes, or someone else, “informed” Kayani).

While the spy agencies had had a fraught relationship since the beginning of the Afghan war, the first major breach came in July 2008, when C.I.A. officers in Islamabad paid a visit to Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Pakistani Army chief, to tell him that President Bush had signed off on a set of secret orders authorizing a new strategy in the drone wars. No longer would the C.I.A. give Pakistan advance warning before launching missiles from Predator or Reaper drones in the tribal areas. From that point on, the C.I.A. officers told Kayani, the C.I.A.’s killing campaign in Pakistan would be a unilateral war.

The decision had been made in Washington after months of wrenching debate about the growth of militancy in Pakistan’s tribal areas; a highly classified C.I.A. internal memo, dated May 1, 2007, concluded that Al Qaeda was at its most dangerous since 2001 because of the base of operations that militants had established in the tribal areas. That assessment became the cornerstone of a yearlong discussion about the Pakistan problem. Some experts in the State Department warned that expanding the C.I.A. war in Pakistan would further stoke anti-American anger on the streets and could push the country into chaos. But officials inside the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center argued for escalating the drone campaign without the I.S.I.’s blessing. Since the first C.I.A. drone strike in Pakistan in 2004, only a small number of militants on the C.I.A.’s list of “high-value targets” had been killed by drone strikes, and other potential strikes were scuttled at the last minute because of delays in getting Pakistani approval, or because the targets seemed to have been tipped off and had fled.

So, in July 2008, when the C.I.A.’s director, Michael Hayden, and his deputy, Stephen Kappes, came to the White House to present the agency’s plan to wage a unilateral war in the mountains of Pakistan, it wasn’t a hard sell to a frustrated president. [my emphasis]

Now, Mazzetti dates the urgency to use unilateral strikes to a May 1, 2007 report that said al Qaeda was reconstituting in the tribal lands. The report was likely an early draft of or precursor to the July 17, 2007 NIE on “The Terrorist Threat to the Homeland.”

Let’s take a step back and contextualize that.

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After Talking about Restoring Trust in CIA, Panetta Lies about the Young Woman’s Drone Death that Led to Khost

“Every drone strike,” [Baitullah Mehsud] would say, “brings me three or four new suicide bombers.” –Joby Warrick, The Triple Agent

Leon Panetta is doing something of a media swan song this weekend, showing up on the Sunday shows and doing this interview with NPR.

Leon Panetta lies about the drone strike that killed Baitullah Mehsud and his wife

In it, he explains that President Obama picked him to run the CIA because he thought Panetta could restore trust in the CIA (around 4:00).

He said the reason I’m talking to you is because I think you have the credibility and integrity to be able to restore trust in the CIA.

Yet even while talking about restoring trust, as Justin Elliott notes, NPR actually captures Panetta in a significant lie. In response to a question about civilian casualties from drone strikes, Panetta claims the CIA would not carry out a drone strike if there were women present (around 6:00).

How did the civilian deaths and the risks of civilian deaths weigh on your decision making process?

Frankly, we made very clear that if there were any women or children we would not take the shot. I mean, that became a rule that we abided by.

That, if there women or children on site, the strike was called off?

That’s right.

Yet NPR follows up to note that in at least one strike, Panetta did know a woman was involved.

There is at least one case where US officials, including Panetta, knew that a woman was present at a possible strike site, and the attack was ordered anyway.

Kudos to NPR for fact-checking Panetta thus far.

But it’s worth examining the strike in question — the targeting of Baitullah Mehsud — in more detail (see my earlier posts on Mehsud’s targeting here, here, and here). Because it illustrates how one particular drone strike led to an escalation of the war on terror.

The killing has been described at least three different times: in Joby Warrick’s The Triple Agent (for which he pretty obviously relied on sources in the very immediate vicinity of Panetta; I include excerpts of Warrick’s description of the killing here), Daniel Klaidman’s Kill or Capture, and the NYT Drone Assassination Czar story. Given that Panetta is lying about it on his way out of government, it’s worth drawing the several implications of the killing together in one place.

The killing of the young girl in the Pakistani tribal lands led directly to an escalation both of our drone war, but also of extremists’ retaliation against us.

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The Baitullah Mehsud Propaganda

I have twice before noted some curious details about Joby Warrick’s telling of the events leading up to Baitullah Mehsud’s death. I noted that it is another example–like the Iraq War–of an attack justified by nukes in which the nukes were ultimately never found. And I noted there are some significant differences between the NYT’s version of the story and Joby Warrick’s. Daniel Klaidman apparently tells his own version in his book, which I hope to read next week.

Mind you, I’m not saying that any of these journalists is telling the complete story or even that any one journalist presents a story that is entirely true, I’m just noting that different Administration sources are feeding different stories.

Last week Ben Wittes transcribed the complete passage from Klaidman’s book that describes how Rahm Emanuel decided to publicize Baitullah’s killing for political benefit.

When they finally took Mehsud out in August 2009, [White House Chief of Staff Rahm] Emanuel celebrated. He had a hawkish side to him, having volunteered with the Israeli Defense Forces as a civilian during the 1991 Gulf War. But above all, Emanuel recognized that the muscular attacks could have a huge political upside for Obama, insulating him against charges that he was weak on terror. “Rahm was transactional about these operational issues,” recalled a senior Pentagon official. “He always wanted to know ‘how’s this going to help my guy,’ the president.”

Though the program was covert, Emanuel pushed the CIA to publicize its covert successes.  When Mehsud was killed, agency public affairs officers anonymously trumpeted their triumph, leaking colorful tidbits to trusted reporters on the intelligence beat. Newspapers described the hit in cinematic detail, including the fact that Mehsud was blown up on the roof of his father-in-law’s compound while his wife was massaging his legs. [italics Wittes', bold mine]

Here’s how Warrick describes the killing in his book.

It was now 1:00 A.M. in the Paksitani village. Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban and chief protector of the Jordanian physician Humam al-Balawi, now lay on his back, resting as the IV machine dripped fluid into his veins. At his feet, a pair of young hands, belonging not to a doctor, as the CIA supposed, but to his new wife, were massaging his swollen legs. Barely aware of the buzzing distance drone, oblivious of the faint hissing of the missile as it cleaved the night air, he took a deep breath and looked up at the stars.

The rocket struck Mehsud where he lay, penetrating just below the chest and cutting him in two. A small charge of high explosives detonated, hurling his wife backward and gouging a small crater in the bricks and plaster at the spot where she had knelt. The small blast reverberated against the nearby hills, and then silence.

Overhead, the drones continued to hover for several minutes, camera still whirring. A report was hastily prepared and relayed to Panetta at the White House.

Two confirmed dead, no other deaths or serious injuries. Building still stands. [italics original, bold mine]

That is, while Klaidman is too polite to say it, this account is the one that derives from Rahm’s decision to publicize Mehsud’s killing. (Warrick sources these details to “three U.S. intelligence officials involved in the planning or oversight of the operation.”)

Now, the NYT reveals that some sources say there were other civilian casualties.

Mr. Obama, through Mr. Brennan, told the C.I.A. to take the shot, and Mr. Mehsud was killed, along with his wife and, by some reports, other family members as well, said a senior intelligence official.

This doesn’t mean Warrick’s version of the drones originally reporting there were no other casualties is incorrect on that front–after all, drones don’t provide perfect intelligence, contrary to what their boosters say, and it’s possible that reports of other casualties came later from HUMINT. But if there were other casualties, it probably means many of these cinematic details about the pinpoint nature of the strike–Meshud being cut in two and his wife being blown back but the strike leaving only a small crater–are not entirely true.

Again, I’m not saying any of these journalists are fully capturing the truth; what they’re telling is what Administration sources have told them, and I doubt NYT and Klaidman’s sources have any less of an agenda than Warrick’s did. And note all the details about Mehsud’s death distract from the way we tried to get to him by first killing one of his clan-members, then targeting that man’s funeral, which Warrick does include; Warrick was reporting on our funeral targeting tactic before TBIJ did, to great controversy.

But I am noting that this cinematic picture of very controlled killing (even the killing of a young woman who was probably pushed into this marriage as a teenager) comes from a decision from Rahm to push such picture for political advantage.

One more thing. The killing of Mehsud’s commander and then Mehsud and his young wife and maybe her family, reportedly justified by intelligence on nukes that never materialized? Mehsud claimed direct credit for Faisal Shahzad’s attempted attack on Times Square, and al-Balawi killed 7 CIA officers at Khost in direct revenge for the killing of Mehsud. These are some of the most serious attacks on us or attempts in recent years, both stemming from this attack on someone whose aspirations to attack us may never have been real beforehand.

The “Kill List” Is a Shiny Object

I recognize the term “Kill List” has some political advantages. It’s a concise way to convey the cold brutality of our use of drones. Launching a petition for a Do Not Kill list–on the White House’s own website!–is a clever use of social media.

But the “Kill List” is a shiny object.

That’s because it propagates the myth that everyone we’re killing is a known terrorist. It propagates the myth that the outdated vetting process John Brennan wants to publicize to convince the American public we use a very deliberative process before killing people with drones covers all drone killings. It propagates the myth that the government plans out each and every drone strike so thoroughly as to have the President sign off on it.

Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war.

It propagates the myth that the only innocents killed in drone strikes–19 year old Yemeni farmer Nasser Salim killed in the Fahd al-Quso drone strike, the girl Baitullah Mehsud had just married, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki–had the poor judgment to stand next to one of the named people on one of America’s Kill Lists.

The reference to and focus on a Kill List hides precisely the most controversial use of drones outside of Afghanistan: the targeting of patterns, not people.

There is absolutely no reason to believe, for example, that Obama–or even John Brennan–knew the identity of the up to 8 civilians who were killed by a drone in Jaar, Yemen, on May 15. All anyone knew about them, according to reporting, is that they ran out after an earlier drone strike to look at the impact site. Boom! They were never on any Kill List, but they are nonetheless just as dead as Quso is.

At precisely the moment the press reported the White House had embraced signature strikes in Yemen and pulled control of those strikes into the White House, John Brennan rolled out a propaganda campaign to focus on the deliberation that goes into the Kill List–that is, into drone killings not covered by the new signature strike policy.

The effort, very clearly, is an attempt to distract attention from those drone killings that don’t involve the kind of deliberation so carefully portrayed by the NYT.

A shiny object. One that is working.

What Happened to Mehsud’s Dirty Bomb?

As I alluded the other day, the story the NYT told about the targeting of Baitullah Mehsud differs in key respects from the story Joby Warrick told in his book, The Triple Agent. And since the discrepancy involves yet another unsubstantiated nuclear claim, and since Mehsud’s targeting led directly to the double agent Humam Khalil al-Balawi’s successful attack on Khost, the difference is worth mapping carefully.

First, the stories provide different explanations for how Mehsud came to be targeted. As I noted here, Warrick explained that we started targeting Mehsud after NSA intercepted a discussion about nukes.

In May [2009] one such phrase, plucked from routine phone intercepts, sent a translator bolting from his chair at the National Security Agency’s listening station at Fort Meade, Maryland. The words were highlighted in a report that was rushed to a supervisor’s office, then to the executive floor of CIA headquarters, and finally to the desk of Leon Panetta, now in his third month as CIA director.

Nuclear devices.

Panetta read the report and read it again. In a wiretap in the tribal province known as South Waziristan, two Taliban commanders had been overheard talking about Baitullah Mehsud, the short, thuggish Pashtun who had recently assumed command of Paksitan’s largest alliance of Taliban groups. It was an animated discussion about an acquisition of great importance, one that would ensure Mehsud’s defeat of Pakistan’s central government and elevate his standing among the world’s jihadists. One of the men used the Pashto term itami, meaning “atomic” or “nuclear.” Mehsud had itami devices, he said. (62-63)

Shortly thereafter, the government intercepted Mehsud’s shura council debating whether Islam permitted the use of Mehsud’s devices. Ultimately, the CIA concluded Mehsud had acquired a dirty bomb and started targeting him (including killing a close associate in hopes Mehsud would show up at his funeral; the Administration targeted the funeral but didn’t get Mehsud).

The NYT provides a much vaguer story.

The C.I.A. worried that Mr. Mehsud, whose group then mainly targeted the Pakistan government, did not meet the Obama administration’s criteria for targeted killing: he was not an imminent threat to the United States. But Pakistani officials wanted him dead, and the American drone program rested on their tacit approval. The issue was resolved after the president and his advisers found that he represented a threat, if not to the homeland, to American personnel in Pakistan.

The description is not inconsistent with Warrick’s description, which describes the US originally hesitating to target Mehsud and the Paksitanis rejoicing once we did.

U.S. officials had long viewed the Mehsud clan as a local problem for the Pakistanis and were reluctant to agitate yet another militant faction that might cross into Afghanistan to attack U.S. troops.

The dirty bomb threat changed everything. Now the Obama administration was privately talking about targeting Mehsud, and Pakistani officials, for once, were wholeheartedly embracing the idea of a U.S. missile strike on their soil. (71)

Perhaps it was the dirty bomb that convinced the US Mehsud threatened US troops, as described by the NYT. Mind you, it’s unclear whether an as-yet unconfirmed dirty bomb in the hand of a guy targeting Pakistan (the Pakistanis blamed him for Benazir Bhutto’s death) really presented a threat to US troops.  Perhaps it represented–like the insurgents in Yemen–a sufficient threat to our allied government we considered it a threat?

In any case, the NYT doesn’t mention the dirty bomb. Maybe that’s because no one ever found it.

By the time the campaign [against the Pakistani Taliban] ended, the Pakistanis were sitting on a mountain of small arms and enough explosives to supply a madrassa full of suicide bombers. But they found no trace of a dirty bomb. The radiation detectors never sounded at all.

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Angler 2.0: Brennan Wields His Puppet Strings Differently

As I said earlier, the parallel between the Jo Becker/Scott Shane Angler 2.0 story and the earlier series by Becker and Barton Gellman is hard to miss.

But I’m very interested in how the stories are structured differently. With Angler 1.0, the story was very clearly about Dick Cheney and the methods he used to manipulate Bush into following his advice. Here, the story is really about John Brennan, Obama’s Cheney, portrayed deep in thought and foregrounding Obama in the article’s picture. Indeed, halfway through, the story even gives biographical background on Brennan, the classic “son of Irish immigrants” story, along with Harold Koh’s dubious endorsement of Brennan’s “moral rectitude.”

But instead of telling the story of John Brennan, Obama’s Cheney, the story pitches Obama as the key decision-maker–a storyline Brennan has always been one of the most aggressive pitchmen for, including when he confirmed information on the Anwar al-Awlaki strike he shouldn’t have. In a sense, then, Brennan has done Cheney one better: seed a story of his own power, but sell it as a sign of the President’s steeliness.

The Silent Sources for the Story

I already pointed out how, after presenting unambiguous evidence of Brennan’s past on-the-record lies, the story backed off calling him on it.

But there are other ways in which this story shifts the focus away from Brennan.

A remarkable number of the sources for the story spoke on the record: Tom Donilon, Cameron Munter, Dennis Blair, Bill Daley, Jeh Johnson, Michael Hayden, Jim Jones, Harold Koh, Eric Holder, Michael Leiter, John Rizzo, and John Bellinger. But it’s not until roughly the 3,450th word of a 6,000 word article that Brennan is first quoted–and that’s to largely repeat the pre-emptive lies of his drone speech from last month.

“The purpose of these actions is to mitigate threats to U.S. persons’ lives,” Mr. Brennan said in an interview. “It is the option of last recourse. So the president, and I think all of us here, don’t like the fact that people have to die. And so he wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous checklist: The infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.”

That is the only on-the-record direct quote from Brennan in the entire article, in spite of the centrality of Brennan to the story.

And I would bet several of the sources quoted anonymously in the section describing Obama’s method of counting the dead (which still ignores the women and children) are Brennan: “a top White House adviser” describing how sharp Obama was in the face of the first civilian casualties; “a senior administration official” claiming, in the face of credible evidence to the contrary, that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan were in “single digits.”

Note, too, the reference to a memo his campaign national security advisors wrote him.

“Pragmatism over ideology,” his campaign national security team had advised in a memo in March 2008. It was counsel that only reinforced the president’s instincts.

The memo was written not long after Brennan started playing a more central role among Obama’s campaign advisors. But the story makes no mention of his presumed role in it. Further, in describing Jeh Johnson to introduce a quote, the piece notes that he was “a campaign adviser” (it doesn’t say Johnson was also focused on voter protection). But it does not note that Brennan, too, was a key campaign advisor, one with an exclusively national security focus.

Nor does the story note, when it describes how Obama “deployed his legal skills … to preserve trials in civilian courts” it was John Brennan making that case, not the Attorney General.

In other words, in several places in this story, Brennan plays a key role that is downplayed.

The Pro-Drone Narrator

Given that fact, I’m really interested in the several places where the story adopts a pro-drone viewpoint (it does adopt a more critical stance in the narrative voice at the end).

For example, the story claims, in the first part of the story, that the drone strikes “have eviscerated Al Qaeda” without presenting any basis for that claim. This, in spite of the fact that al Qaeda has expanded in Yemen since we’ve started hitting it with drones.

Later, the article uncritically accepts the claim that the drone–regardless of the targeting that goes into using it–is a “precision weapon” that constitutes a rejection of a “false choice between our safety and our ideals.”

The care that Mr. Obama and his counterterrorism chief take in choosing targets, and their reliance on a precision weapon, the drone, reflect his pledge at the outset of his presidency to reject what he called the Bush administration’s “false choice between our safety and our ideals.”

For fucks sake! This article describes how the White House has adopted a “guilt by association” approach to drone targeting. Continue reading

Administration Complains that Others Are Bringing Transparency It Refuses To on Its Drone Strikes

In a quote for a WaPo story on the Administration’s credibility problems on its Afghanistan claims, a senior Administration official complained that their Afghan plans got leaked before they wanted them to.

There are people at every piece of this — the Taliban, Islamabad, Kabul and Washington” — who object to or are trying to influence elements of the emerging strategy, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more candidly. “They use leaking as a tool.”

Leaking as a tool, even by those in power in DC! Imagine that!?!?

Meanwhile, in the NYT article on the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s report on the way Obama’s drone strikes have targeted rescuers and funeral attendees, another senior Administration official launches this cowardly anonymous attack.

A senior American counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, questioned the report’s findings, saying “targeting decisions are the product of intensive intelligence collection and observation.” The official added: “One must wonder why an effort that has so carefully gone after terrorists who plot to kill civilians has been subjected to so much misinformation. Let’s be under no illusions — there are a number of elements who would like nothing more than to malign these efforts and help Al Qaeda succeed.”

Mind you, that anonymous coward doesn’t actually dispute anything in the BIJ report. Instead, he or she just questions the motives of aiming to bring transparency to our drone program, insinuating that doing the hard work of counting the innocent victims of the drone strikes equates to sympathizing with al Qaeda.

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“Oddly Passive” in the World of Drone Killing

The WaPo has an important piece on the use of drones. One thing bmaz noted about it on Twitter, for example, is that CIA had Anwar al-Awlaki under such multi-drone surveillance before they killed him, it is not credible that they killed Samir Khan, also an American, out of ignorance of his presence. Particularly given their claim they had made sure no “civilians wandered in the cross hairs.”

Two Predators pointed lasers at Awlaki’s vehicle, and a third circled to make sure that no civilians wandered into the cross hairs.

So the article makes it clear that the Administration doesn’t consider non-operational American citizen propagandists “civilians.”

But I’m particularly interested in what a “former official who served in both [the Bush and Obama] administrations and was supportive of the [drone] program” had to say about who was promoting increased use of drones. The official starts by pointing to Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and John Brennan as the program’s champions.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former CIA director and current Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, and counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan seemed always ready to step on the accelerator, said a former official who served in both administrations and was supportive of the program. Current administration officials did not dispute the former official’s characterization of the internal dynamics.

And then calls the Commander-in-Chief “oddly passive” when it comes to drones.

Obama himself was “oddly passive in this world,” the former official said, tending to defer on drone policy to senior aides whose instincts often dovetailed with the institutional agendas of the CIA and JSOC.

The senior administration official [who also disputed that the drones were driving our counterterrorism policy and not vice versa] disputed that characterization, saying that Obama doesn’t weigh in on every operation but has been deeply involved in setting the criteria for strikes and emphasizing the need to minimize collateral damage.

“Everything about our counterterrorism operations is about carrying out the guidance that he’s given,” the official said. “I don’t think you could have the president any more involved.”

The description of a passive Obama accords with other descriptions of Obama’s role in the drone war. As I noted in October, even Obama’s “approval” of the Anwar al-Awlaki targeting, according to Mark Hosenball, consisted only of not rejecting the recommendations of the Principals Committee’s recommendation (and therefore people like Hillary, Brennan, and Panetta).

The role of the president in ordering or ratifying a decision to target a citizen is fuzzy. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to discuss anything about the process.

[snip]

Other officials said the role of the president in the process was murkier than what Ruppersberger described.

They said targeting recommendations are drawn up by a committee of mid-level National Security Council and agency officials. Their recommendations are then sent to the panel of NSC “principals,” meaning Cabinet secretaries and intelligence unit chiefs, for approval. The panel of principals could have different memberships when considering different operational issues, they said.

[snip]

Several officials said that when Awlaki became the first American put on the target list, Obama was not required personally to approve the targeting of a person. But one official said Obama would be notified of the principals’ decision. If he objected, the decision would be nullified, the official said.

A former official said one of the reasons for making senior officials principally responsible for nominating Americans for the target list was to “protect” the president.

In addition, Joby Warrick’s description of the targeting approval process used before we killed Baitullah Mehsud and his young wife shows just the Director of the CIA signing off on the killing.

So it’s not news, exactly, that Obama has been given plausible deniability about the out-of-control backlash-creating program. Nor that the Administration wants to sustain that plausible deniability while still pursuing political advantage from the drone strikes.

But I am interested in the implication Greg Miller leaves as a result. Obama is passive, and so his senior aides control the program (perhaps one of the aides denying that Obama is passive?), and they, in turn, basically support the “the institutional agendas of the CIA and JSOC.”

Here’s what that senior aide had to say to try to deny that we’re letting a fondness for drones drive our counterterrorism policy.

“People think we start with the drone and go from there, but that’s not it at all,” said a senior administration official involved with the program. “We’re not constructing a campaign around the drone. We’re not seeking to create some worldwide basing network so we have drone capabilities in every corner of the globe.”

It seems there’s a third option, an alternative to “we’re building so many drone bases because we like drones” and “we have so many drones because there are so many possible targets for them.”

That third option is that JSOC and CIA have certain “institutional agendas” that center on wielding the power of drones anywhere in the world to implement a policy they’ve dreamt up rather than their civilian Commander-in-Chief. There’s a hint, at least, that drones not only take the human out of the cockpit, but also take the Commander-in-Chief out of the cockpit as well.

The Missing Dirty Bomb that Set Off the Chain of Death

Several days ago, I finished listening to Joby Warrick’s The Triple Agent. It’s quite good, both in terms of readability and news value. But since I have the Audible, not the dead tree, version I wasn’t able to transcribe what I found to be one of the most interesting passages in it.

Luckily, that incident is precisely what he told Tom Ricks he wished people had noticed, so now Ricks has basically transcribed it for me!

BD: What is the one question you’d like to answer about the book that nobody has asked you?

JW: Some of the events in the book have never been described elsewhere, and I’ve been surprised that few reviewers or interviewers have asked about them. One favorite: a description in the book of a dirty-bomb threat that emanated from Pakistan mid-2009 and raised alarms at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Information gleaned through SIGINT intercepts suggested strongly that the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) had acquired “nuclear” material-presumably radioactive sources useable in a dirty bomb–and were trying to decide what to do with it. Concerns over a possible dirty-bomb attack directly factored into the decision to take out TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone strike on Aug. 5 of that year. No radioactive material was subsequently found, and to this day, no one knows what happened to it, or indeed, whether it ever existed.

As Warrick revealed, the reason we were so intent on taking out Mehsud is because of intelligence that he might have the radioactive material for a dirty bomb (IIRC, the CIA was responding to SIGINT they deemed to be code). As tends to happen when we use uranium to justify war, no nukes were found.

A pity for Mehsud’s young wife, who also died in that attack (Warrick describes how they died on their rooftop in some detail).

I raise this not just to recommend Warrick’s book. But to remind you how our government decided to claim the retaliation for this drone strike by Mehsud’s brother was a crime, presumably because the escalating series of revenge ended in Humam al-Bawali’s Khost attack.

But the mention of CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan raises a bunch more problems with DOJ’s charges. For starters, Mehsud’s wife–a civilian–was reportedly killed in that January drone strike too. Both the uncertainty the CIA has about its purportedly scalpel-like use of drones and the civilian deaths they’ve caused illustrate the problem with drones in the first place. Civilians–CIA officers–are using them in circumstances with significant collateral damage. It would be generous to call the use of drones in such situations an act of war; some legal experts have said the CIA officers targeting the drones are as much illegal combatants as al Qaeda fighters themselves.

The affidavit describing the evidence to charge Mehsud doesn’t say it, but underlying his alleged crime is the potential US crime of having civilians target non-combatants in situations that cannot be described as imminently defensive.

Charging someone for revenge on CIA’s illegal killing

Which leads us to the crimes for which they’re charging Mehsud: conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to use a WMD (bombs) against a US national while outside of the United States. Basically, DOJ is charging Mehsud with conspiring with Humam Khalil Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian doctor who committed the suicide bombing at Khost that killed 7 CIA officers and contractors.

Now, there’s not much doubt that Mehsud did conspire with al-Balawi. I just doubt whether it could be fairly called a crime. The affidavit describes two videos in which Mehsud stands side by side with al-Bawali. In one, both al-Balawi and Mehsud describe the upcoming attack as revenge for killings in the drone program–most importantly, of Mehsud’s brother Baitullah Mehsud from a CIA drone strike in August 2009.

Al-Balawi then continues alone: “This itishhadi [martyrdom-seeking attack] will be the first of the revenge against the Americans.” After additional declarations of revenge by al-Balawi, MEHSUD resumes speaking in Pashtu, explaining the motive for the upcoming suicide attack by al-Balawi, that is the death of the former emir of the TTP, Baitullah Meshud [sic] which MESHUD [sic] attributes to the Americans.

Remember, too, that al-Balawi was a double agent. The Americans believed he was helping them target people, people just like Mehsud. That means al-Balawi (and presumably through him, Mehsud) knew he was specifically targeting those behind the earlier killings in Pakistan when he killed them.

So al-Balawi successfully killed people who were either civilians, in which case their own strikes at Baitullah Mehsud and others may be illegal, or people who were acting as soldiers, in which case the attack on their base was presumably legal under the law of war. And for helping al-Balawi, DOJ is now charging Mehsud with conspiracy.

The affidavit, of course, neglects to mention any of these details.

Let me be clear: the Administration’s stupid attempt to apply this double standard doesn’t make the Khost bombing any less tragic. But it did strike me as a pathetic attempt to cloak a disastrous blood feud, for all sides, in legal niceties to somehow make it seem like something else.

But I find it all the more ironic that the whole blood feud was triggered with yet another nuke claim that may have been wrong.

Emptywheel Twitterverse
bmaz Wait, Clair Williams is "under investigation" because she cannot attend Bernie Ecclestone's crappy press conference? http://t.co/9Cw2UUFL1g
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bmaz @Gaius_Publius @nakedcapitalism @mattkbh Yeah, sorry, you lost me when you stab at First Look yet take the bleatings of Pando credibly.
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JimWhiteGNV I assume libertarians will be taking candy from the kids who come to their doors tonight expecting handouts. Just to teach them a lesson...
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emptywheel @billmon1 Nah, He's saying, "we've figured out how to extend this hot war for a year longer than the Cold War lasted."
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emptywheel RT @ZFTWARNING: Secretive Mexican police unit questioned over 3 murdered Americans | Fox News Latino http://t.co/uCWrXsxSM9 via @foxnewslat
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emptywheel @ChrisInParis A little early, I guess. They say we're gonna have another Polar Vortex year.
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emptywheel @bmaz Gonna tell Ol' Noodle Arm your commitment is waning. Gonna replace Peyton for the local 6-1 team, are you?
44mreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz Okay, nobody tell @emptywheel but I haz to go to the Angry Crab Shack+BBQ before I can even think about trashing her.
54mreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz @AZBobLord @noprezzie2012 @ArizonaLuke They got smart and distanced themselves from an ignorant destructive idiot?
58mreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz RT @michaelbkiefer: Media seek transcript of shuttered Jodi Arias hearing http://t.co/vXVQJVhaFt via @azcentral
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JimWhiteGNV It IS airborne! RT @MarkusJ: it was right there in front of us all along #obama #ebola #tcot #benghazi #illuminati http://t.co/PnceDWW6mu
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emptywheel @GregoryMcNeal Cool. Look forward to it.
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