Ken Dilanian has a very interesting article in the Los Angeles Times outlining the latest failure in Congress’ attempts to exert oversight over drones. Senator Carl Levin had the reasonable idea of calling a joint closed session of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees so that the details of consolidating drone functions under the Pentagon (and helping the CIA to lose at least one of its paramilitary functions) could be smoothed out. In the end, “smooth” didn’t happen:
An effort by a powerful U.S. senator to broaden congressional oversight of lethal drone strikes overseas fell apart last week after the White House refused to expand the number of lawmakers briefed on covert CIA operations, according to senior U.S. officials.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee, held a joint classified hearing Thursday with the Senate Intelligence Committee on CIA and military drone strikes against suspected terrorists.
But the White House did not allow CIA officials to attend, so military counter-terrorism commanders testified on their own.
But perhaps the White House was merely retaliating for an earlier slight from Congress:
In May, the White House said it would seek to gradually move armed drone operations to the Pentagon. But lawmakers added a provision to the defense spending bill in December that cut off funds for that purpose, although it allows planning to continue.
Dilanian parrots the usual framing of CIA vs JSOC on drone targeting:
Levin thought it made sense for both committees to share a briefing from generals and CIA officials, officials said. He was eager to dispel the notion, they said, that CIA drone operators were more precise and less prone to error than those in the military.
The reality is that targeting in both the CIA and JSOC drone programs is deeply flawed, and the flaws lead directly to civilian deaths. I have noted many times (for example see here and here and here) when John Brennan-directed drone strikes (either when he had control of strike targeting as Obama’s assassination czar at the White House or after taking over the CIA and taking drone responsibility with him) reeked of political retaliation rather than being logically aimed at high value targets. But those examples pale in comparison to Brennan’s “not a bake sale” strike that killed 40 civilians immediately after Raymond Davis’ release or his personal intervention in the peace talks between Pakistan and the TTP. JSOC, on the other hand, has input from the Defense Intelligence Agency, which, as Marcy has noted, has its own style when it comes to “facts”. On top of that, we have the disclosure from Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald earlier this week that JSOC will target individual mobile phone SIM cards rather than people for strikes, without confirming that the phone is in possession of the target at the time of the strike. The flaws inherent in both of these approaches lead to civilian deaths that fuel creation of even more terrorists among the survivors.
Dilanian doesn’t note that the current move by the White House to consolidate drones at the Pentagon is the opposite of what took place about a year before Brennan took over the CIA, when his group at the White House took over some control of JSOC targeting decisions, at least with regard to signature strikes in Yemen.
In the end, though, it’s hard to see how getting all drone functions within the Pentagon and under Senate Armed Services Committee oversight will improve anything. Admittedly, the Senate Intelligence Committee is responsible for the spectacular failure of NSA oversight and has lacked the courage to release its thorough torture investigation report, but Armed Services oversees a bloated Pentagon that can’t even pass an audit (pdf). In the end, it seems to me that this entire pissing match between Congress and the White House is over which committee(s) will ultimately be blamed for failing oversight of drones.
Yesterday, while much of the world’s attention was focused on emerging details relating to the Boston Marathon bombings on Monday (along with a tiny bit of attention on the Constitution Center’s report on torture that Marcy was banned from improving), the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. This was the first hearing for new ISAF Commander General Joseph Dunford since he was confirmed.
I was only able to watch the first half of the hearing as it unfolded, but my overwhelming impression was that the committee felt it could put words into Dunford’s mouth. He mostly went along with that although at one point he finally did get fed up with John McCain speaking for him and pushed back a bit.
Completely missing in the hearing (at least in the part I was able to watch) was any perspective on the real controlling factor on whether the US leaves any troops in Afghanistan after the planned “end of combat operations” set for the end of 2014. The precedent of the Iraq full withdrawal once Iraq refused to grant criminal immunity to any US troops remaining there demonstrates that the Obama administration views criminal immunity as a controlling prerequisite for whether we will leave troops in Afghanistan. To that end, then, negotiation of a Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, is the most important step in determining whether we will keep troops in Afghanistan past 2014 and how many there will be.
Despite all the feel-good talk from the Defense Department and Capitol Hill, it seems very unlikely that Afghanistan will agree to grant immunity to US troops. However, an idea was floated by NATO back in February that I viewed as a very thinly veiled offer of an additional $22 billion dollars for Afghan officials to embezzle in return for a grant of immunity. The proposal was in the form of suggesting that NATO (primarily the US) would provide financial support for Afghanistan to maintain its Afghan National Security Force at 352,000 (a number that is more myth than reality) through the end of 2018 rather than reducing the force size by about a third once we leave.
Committee Chair Carl Levin opened the hearing by endorsing this purchase of a $22 billion SOFA. From his transcript of his opening statement:
It is in everyone’s interest to promptly set the conditions for any post-2014 partnership with Afghanistan. NATO defense ministers have already begun consideration of the size and mission for a post-2014 force in Afghanistan. One factor that will influence that decision is the size and capacity of the Afghan security forces. In this regard, the recent decision by NATO defense ministers to support maintaining the Afghan security forces at the current 352,000 level through 2018, rather than reducing the support to a level of 230,000 as previously planned, sends an important signal of our continued commitment to a safe and secure Afghanistan, and may make it feasible for us to have a smaller U.S. and coalition presence after 2014.
Jim Inhofe’s opening statement was a magnificent exercise in ignorance and obfuscation. He chastised Obama for his “precipitous withdrawal” from Iraq and never acknowledged the lack of criminal immunity as the reason for the full and rapid withdrawal. Is there any doubt that if the US had left troops in Iraq without immunity that Inhofe would have been among the first to criticize Obama for leaving them there under those conditions once the first soldier was arrested?
Yesterday, both Marcy and I discussed significant events that could have a tremendous impact on what lies ahead for the role of the US in Afghanistan. Marcy found that for the first time, the Treasury Department has named a Taliban figure in Afghanistan as a narcotics trafficking drug kingpin. That means, as Marcy points out, that “We’ve got the Global War on Drugs in Afghanistan now” and could have cover for staying on indefinitely in order to cut the flow of drugs. I pointed out that the negotiations have just begun on developing a Status of Forces Agreement which will define the conditions under which US troops could remain in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled handover of security responsibility to the Afghans at the end of 2014. The US wants to keep a number of troops in place, but only if full legal immunity can be conferred on them. The US failed to achieve an immunity agreement in Iraq and subsequently withdrew all troops. With two years remaining before the handoff deadline, look for the negotiations to go very slowly.
Yesterday also saw the confirmation hearing for General Joseph Dunford, who has been nominated to replace General John Allen in charge of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The hearing had been scheduled jointly for Allen’s promotion as head of NATO, but his involvement in an email scandal with Jill Kelley has put that hearing on hold. I was unable to watch the hearing and the video archive of the hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee website has not yet gone live. (I’ve also been unable to find a transcript. If anyone runs across one, please post the link in comments.)
One key issue revolves around what the recommendation will be for how fast troops should be drawn down leading up to the handoff of security responsibility at the end of 2014. Of course, as mentioned above, the not-yet-negotiated SOFA will dictate whether and how many troops will remain beyond that date, but there still is the strategic question of how quickly combat operations will be drawn down and whether that includes actual troop withdrawals.
Perhaps because Dunford was not nominated for the position until early October, we learned in the hearing that he has not been present during any meetings at which General Allen has been preparing his recommendation for the drawdown plan:
Gen. Joseph Dunford, President Obama’s pick to take command of the Afghanistan war within months, revealed in Senate testimony on Thursday that he has not been included in Gen. John Allen’s highly-anticipated war recommendations currently being deliberated in the White House and Pentagon.
Dunford, under pointed questioning by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he has been kept in the dark, during his confirmation hearing before the Armed Services Committee.
“Do you know what those recommendations are?” McCain asked. Continue reading
The dramatic accusations made by Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen in yesterday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing provoked immediate, strong reactions from Pakistan. Here is how the Washington Post described Mullen’s testimony:
Last week’s attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and a Sept. 10 truck bombing that killed five Afghans and wounded 77 NATO troops were “planned and conducted” by the Pakistan-based Haqqani network “with ISI support,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The ISI is the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
“The government of Pakistan and most especially the Pakistani army and ISI” have chosen “to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy” to maintain leverage over Afghanistan’s future, Mullen testified during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta also testified.
As seen in the video above, Mullen’s remarks provoked a sharp response from Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar:
“You will lose an ally,” Khar told Geo TV in New York in remarks broadcast on Friday.
“You cannot afford to alienate Pakistan, you cannot afford to alienate the Pakistani people. If you are choosing to do so and if they are choosing to do so it will be at their (the United States’) own cost.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani also chimed in. From GEO:
The United States should take care of the feelings of 180 million people of Pakistan while issuing statements or commenting on important issues, said Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Friday.
He said, “Our 180 million people want to defend their motherland and its sovereignty”.
“US cannot live with us and without us,” he said and added “thus the United States should avoid sending ‘wrong messages’ which would affect the bilateral ties”.
From these comments, it is clear that both Khar and Gilani are warning the US that Pakistan could withdraw all cooperation if the war of words continues.
I will stand by the prediction I made yesterday:
Should the US be successful in attaching some sort of cooperation requirement for US funding to flow to Pakistan, look for some sort of token move by Pakistan that will provide even more heated rhetoric. The situation likely will then be resolved by Pakistan grudgingly cooperating in an action against the Haqqani network. The most important point to watch for in this current “crisis” will be to see just how high in the Haqqani network Pakistan is willing to go in sacrificing a part of it to the US in order to keep their seemingly endless supply of US funds flowing.
Stay tuned for further developments.
As you’ll recall, the Bush Administration has been struggling for their entire term to address the fact that our cyber-infrastructure is woefully exposed to cyber-attacks. After a series of cyber-czars who either wouldn’t or couldn’t address this problem, back in January the Administration began to make some progress–not least, by taking the project out of Michael Chertoff’s hands. The SASC’s report notes that the Administration has made some progress, though it has three substantive complaints.
The committee applauds the administration for developing a serious, major initiative to begin to close the vulnerabilities in the government’s information networks and the nation’s critical infrastructure. The committee believes that the administration’s actions provide a foundation on which the next president can build.
However, the committee has multiple, significant issues with the administration’s specific proposals and with the overall approach to gaining congressional support for the initiative.
First, the SASC objects to the way the Administration has shielded what is supposed to be at least partly a deterrent program in so much secrecy that the program has lost its deterrence ability.
A chief concern is that virtually everything about the initiative is highly classified, and most of the information that is not classified is categorized as `For Official Use Only.’ These restrictions preclude public education, awareness, and debate about the policy and legal issues, real or imagined, that the initiative poses in the areas of privacy and civil liberties. Without such debate and awareness in such important and sensitive areas, it is likely that the initiative will make slow or modest progress. The committee strongly urges the administration to reconsider the necessity and wisdom of the blanket, indiscriminate classification levels established for the initiative.
The administration itself is starting a serious effort as part of the initiative to develop an information warfare deterrence strategy and declaratory doctrine, much as the superpowers did during the Cold War for nuclear conflict. It is difficult to conceive how the United States could promulgate a meaningful deterrence doctrine if every aspect of our capabilities and operational concepts is classified. In the era of superpower nuclear competition, while neither side disclosed weapons designs, everyone understood the effects of nuclear weapons, how they would be delivered, and the circumstances under which they would be used. Continue reading