Three things have recently gotten me thinking about the legitimacy of US counterterrorism in Pakistan in terms of the partners we choose:
After all, everyone marginally attentive to drones in Pakistan knows the game: the US and the ISI and Pakistan’s military make agreements permitting the US to launch drone strikes in Pakistan — at both US and Pakistani targets — while the political and judicial classes in Pakistan increasingly voice their opposition.
To sustain its claim that its drone strikes in Pakistan operate with the sanction of the government, it seems, the Obama Administration must treat the consent of the military as more legitimate than that of the political classes. Our necessary disdain for what Pakistan’s fragile democracy has to say is precisely the kind of thing I meant when I talked about how drones undermine the nation-state.
Mind you, I think the US is giving unelected national security figures an increasingly large role in legitimizing its counterterrorism and counternarcotic programs in a lot of places (a topic I suspect I’ll return to). It’s one natural outcome of waging diplomacy primarily by military training.
Anyway, with all that in mind, I wanted to point to this explanation for why NYT’s reporter Declan Walsh was thrown out of Pakistan just before the elections (note: someone on Twitter pointed this out — though I’ve lost track of who said it).
Declan Walsh was thrown out for apparently annoying the military back in February with a story about conflict between the CIA and the ISI over the use of drone missiles.
These two stories — in which the CIA and ISI squabbled over who conducted two drone strikes in Waziristan in early February (significantly, the day before and the day after John Brennan’s February 7 confirmation hearing; the CIA had appeared to hold off on strikes during his confirmation because of sensitivity about drones) — appear like they may be the ones in question.
The first article, published March 4, the night before the Senate Intelligence Committee voted on Brennan’s nomination, cited 3 “American officials” denying the strikes were ours, and adding that the CIA had not engaged in such activities since January (that is, since Brennan’s nomination).
Yet there was one problem, according to three American officials with knowledge of the program: The United States did not carry out those attacks.
“They were not ours,” said one of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the drone program’s secrecy. “We haven’t had any kinetic activity since January.”
I’ve been working on this timeline for almost nine months, trying to pull together the known dates about strikes against Americans, the evidence supporting the strike against Anwar al-Awlaki, the legal cases surrounding both targeted killing and torture, to which targeted killing is linked via the Memorandum of Notification, and Congressional efforts to exercise oversight.
September 17, 2001: George Bush signs Memorandum of Notification (henceforth, Gloves Come Off MON) authorizing a range of counterterrorism techniques, including torture and targeted killing.
September 18, 2001: Congress passes the Authorization to Use Military Force.
November 3, 2002: US citizen Kamal Derwish killed in drone purportedly targeting Abu Ali al-Harithi.
Late 2008: Ruben Shumpert reported killed in Somalia.
June 24, 2009: Leon Panetta gets briefed on assassination squad program.
June 26, 2009: HPSCI passes a funding authorization report expanding the Gang of Eight briefings.
July 8, 2009: The Administration responds with an insulting appeal to a “fundamental compact” between Congress and the President on intelligence matters.
July 8, 2009: Silvestre Reyes announces CIA lied to Congress.
October 26, 2009: British High Court first orders British government to release language on Binyam Mohamed’s treatment.
October 28, 2009: FBI kills Imam Luqman Asmeen Abdullah during Dearborn, MI arrest raid.
October 29, 2009: Hearing on declassifying mention of Gloves Come Off MON before Judge Alvin Hellerstein; in it, Hellerstein reveals NSA James Jones has submitted declaration to keep mention of MON secret.
November 5, 2009: Nidal Hasan attacks Fort Hood, killing 13.
December 24, 2009: JSOC tries but fails to hit Anwar al-Awlaki. On that day, the IC did not yet believe him to be operational.
December 25, 2009: With Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attack, FBI develops full understanding of Awlaki’s operational goals.
January 2, 2010: In conversation with David Petraeus, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks as if Awlaki, whom he refers to as a cleric, not an AQAP member, was a designated target of December 24 attack.
There are a couple of stories this weekend on our undeclared war in Yemen that deserve some close focus.
As I pointed out in the wake of the NYT and Daily Beast stories on drone targeting, the Administration had been successfully distracting attention from Obama’s embrace of signature strikes directed out of John Brennan’s office by focusing on the vetting that goes (or went) into the Kill List.
With that in mind, compare how Greg Miller reports on those issues in this story. A key source or sources for the story are one or more former US official who describe a liberalization of the Kill List.
Targets still have to pose a “direct threat” to U.S. interests, said a former high-ranking U.S. counterterrorism official. “But the elasticity of that has grown over time.”
One of the U.S. objectives in Yemen has been “identifying who those leaders were in those districts that were al-Qaeda and also in charge of the rebellion,” said a former senior U.S. official who was involved in overseeing the campaign before leaving the government. “There was a little liberalization that went on in the kill lists that allowed us to go after them.”
The effort nearly ground to a halt last year amid a political crisis that finally forced Yemen’s leader for three decades, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down. As he fought to cling to power, U.S. officials said they became concerned that he was trying to direct U.S. strikes against his adversaries under the guise of providing locations of supposed terrorist groups.
“There were times when we were intentionally misled, presumably by Saleh, to get rid of people he wanted to get rid of,” said the former U.S. official involved in overseeing the campaign.
Now, as I noted, both the AP and Daily Beast emphasized the importance of Mike Mullen (who left on September 30, the day we killed Anwar al-Awlaki) and James Cartwright (who left on August 3) to Kill List vetting. That was an aeon ago in our war on Yemen, though the discussion of pulling back on targeting because we finally admitted to ourselves that Ali Abdulllah Saleh was playing a double game with us did happen while they were still around. And, for the moment, I can’t think of any other similarly high-ranking people who have left.
Now compare what these former officials said with what current officials are telling Miller (well, ignore Tommy Vietor, because he’s obviously blowing smoke).
“We’re pursuing a focused counterterrorism campaign in Yemen designed to prevent and deter terrorist plots that directly threaten U.S. interests at home and abroad,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council. “We have not and will not get involved in a broader counterinsurgency effort.”
But other U.S. officials said that the administration’s emphasis on threats to interests “abroad” has provided latitude for expanding attacks on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the Yemen affiliate is known. Continue reading
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
As one of the few civilian Americans who has been present in a zone where the US operated its drone campaign, David Rohde has a fairly unique perspective from which to comment on the tactic. And while in this long piece on drones, he recognizes their value, he also warns against their risks.
In 2008, I saw this firsthand. Two Afghan colleagues and I were kidnapped by the Taliban and held captive in the tribal areas of Pakistan for seven months. From the ground, drones are terrifying weapons that can be heard circling overhead for hours at a time. They are a potent, unnerving symbol of unchecked American power. At the same time, they were clearly effective, killing foreign bomb-makers and preventing Taliban fighters from gathering in large groups. The experience left me convinced that drone strikes should be carried out — but very selectively.
Ultimately, he notes that in both Pakistan and Yemen, the drones are contributing to increased instability.
For me, the bottom line is that both governments’ approaches are failing. Pakistan’s economy is dismal. Its military continues to shelter Taliban fighters it sees as proxies to thwart Indian encroachment in Afghanistan. And the percentage of Pakistanis supporting the use of the Pakistani Army to fight extremists in the tribal areas — the key to eradicating militancy — dropped from a 53 percent majority in 2009 to 37 percent last year. Pakistan is more unstable today than it was when Obama took office.
As I noted in this post, the front page NYT story putting Petraeus in charge of the paramilitary groups I will call “JUnc-WTF,” which are deployed in allied countries, reminded me of Eric Massa’s allegations that Dick Cheney and Petraeus were plotting a coup (though, as Massa describes it, it sounds more like an “election challenge”).
• Earlier in the year, long before the allegations had been made public, Massa had called me with a potentially huge story: Four retired generals — three four-stars and one three-star — had informed him, he said, that General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, had met twice in secret with former vice president Dick Cheney. In those meetings, the generals said, Cheney had attempted to recruit Petraeus to run for president as a Republican in 2012.
• The generals had told him, and Massa had agreed, that if someone didn’t act immediately to reveal this plot, American constitutional democracy itself was at risk. Massa and I had had several conversation on the topic, each more urgent than the last. He had gone to the Pentagon, he told me, demanding answers. He knew the powerful forces that he was dealing with, he told me. They’d stop at nothing to prevent the truth from coming out, he said, including destroying him. “I told the official, ‘If I have to get up at a committee hearing and go public with this, it will cause the mother of all shitstorms and your life will be hell. So I need a meeting. Now.’”
Then there’s Jonathan Alter’s report of the tensions last year between Obama and Joe Biden on one side, and Bob Gates, Mike Mullen, David Petraeus, and Stanley McChrystal on the other. Alter describes the span of this confrontation as starting on September 13, two weeks before Petraus signed the directive for JUnc-WTF, until November 11. The confrontation arose when the Generals kept publicizing their demands for a bigger, indefinite surge in Afghanistan.
Mullen dug himself in especially deep at his reconfirmation hearings for chairman of the Joint Chiefs when he made an aggressive case for a long-term commitment in Afghanistan. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was enraged at Mullen’s public testimony and let the Pentagon know it. When Petraeus gave an interview to Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson on Sept.4 calling for a “fully resourced, comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign,” the chief of staff was even angrier.
From the start, the potential of a Petraeus presidential run was in the background.
Some aides worried at least briefly that Petraeus was politically ambitious and was making an implied threat: decide Afghanistan my way or I just might resign my command and run for president in 2012. It wasn’t a crazy thought. Rep. Peter King and various blogs were promoting him for high office.
Ultimately, presented with the choice of deferring to the Generals or undercutting them, Obama chose a third option: surging in Afghanistan, but sternly scolding them to make sure they would back a withdrawal in 18 months.
Obama was perfectly aware of the box he was now in. He could defer entirely to his generals, as President Bush had done, which he considered an abdication of responsibility. Or he could overrule them, which would weaken their effectiveness, with negative consequences for soldiers in the field, relations with allies, and the president’s own political position. There had to be a third way, he figured.
In the meantime it was important to remind the brass who was in charge. Inside the National Security Council, advisers considered what happened next historic, a presidential dressing-down unlike any in the United States in more than half a century. Continue reading