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
Now that John Brennan is in charge of selecting which patterns of behavior we should target with drones, it ought to be easy to charge him with war crimes. The at least eight civilians we killed in Jaar a number of weeks after Brennan seized control of targeting? John Brennan killed them, presumably based not on intelligence about who they were and what ties to AQAP they had, but because they ran out of a house after an earlier strike.
John Brennan is choosing to target people in Yemen without making adequate efforts to avoid civilian casualties. Given that we know he’s making these choices, you’d expect someone to try to hold him accountable.
Of course, such an effort would present all kinds of difficulties. You can’t really make a legal case against Brennan based on anonymous sources in an AP story. Furthermore, moving the drone program into the National Security Council makes it inaccessible to FOIA and, probably, to full Congressional oversight.
Most of all, though, Brennan appears to be preemptively crafting his defense.
So let me say it as simply as I can. Yes, in full accordance with the law, and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives, the United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.
Yet he spoke repeatedly of targeting specific individuals.
Without question, the ability to target a specific individual, from hundreds or thousands of miles away, raises profound questions.
In this armed conflict, individuals who are part of al-Qaida or its associated forces are legitimate military targets. [my emphasis]
Thus, he wasn’t talking about the program in Yemen that–perhaps 10 days earlier–had been expanded to target patterns rather than individuals. Rather, he was pretending that the program remained limited to personality strikes, strikes against known targets.
The speech always seemed like an attempt to put the best spin on the program. But the approach makes even more sense now that we know Brennan is the one who has legal liability for making these targeting decisions.
When and if anyone were to charge Brennan for war crimes for targeting civilians, for example, he will point back to these paragraphs as “proof” of his “belief” that we were not targeting civilians.
Targeted strikes conform to the principles of distinction, the idea that only military objectives may be intentionally targeted and that civilians are protected from being intentionally targeted. With the unprecedented ability of remotely piloted aircraft to precisely target a military objective while minimizing collateral damage, one could argue that never before has there been a weapon that allows us to distinguish more effectively between an al-Qaida terrorist and innocent civilians.
Remember when I gave John Brennan credit for rather uncharacteristically keeping secrets about the UndieBomber case?
While the ABC story cites US officials, among others, it also cites an “international intelligence official” as well as “officials” and “authorities” named generically (as well as John Brennan on the record, rather uncharacteristically trying to protect “the equities that are involved with it”).
It turns out betting that John Brennan can’t keep a secret is about as reliable as always betting on the shit square (as bmaz so artfully describes expecting the worst). In an effort to brief former counterterrorism officials on the plot (AKA, feed the news cycle), Brennan revealed we had “inside control” over the plot.
At about 5:45 p.m. EDT on Monday, May 7, just before the evening newscasts, John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s top White House adviser on counter-terrorism, held a small, private teleconference to brief former counter-terrorism advisers who have become frequent commentators on TV news shows.
According to five people familiar with the call, Brennan stressed that the plot was never a threat to the U.S. public or air safety because Washington had “inside control” over it.
And from there, the fact that this was another example of Saudi AQAP infiltration was revealed.
This admission, by the way, appears to be White House damage control, because they provide Mark Hosenball yet another story on their discussions with the AP.
According to National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, due to its sensitivity, the AP initially agreed to a White House request to delay publication of the story for several days.
But according to three government officials, a final deal on timing of publication fell apart over the AP’s insistence that no U.S. official would respond to the story for one clear hour after its release.
When the administration rejected that demand as “untenable,” two officials said, the AP said it was going public with the story. At that point, Brennan was immediately called out of a meeting to take charge of damage control.
What they’re trying to refute–an attempt undermined by the fact their story keeps changing–is the AP claim that the Administration planned to formally announce “they” had “foiled” a “plot” the following morning.
The AP learned about the thwarted plot last week but agreed to White House and CIA requests not to publish it immediately because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP decided to disclose the plot Monday despite requests from the Obama administration to wait for an official announcement Tuesday.
They’re laying it on pretty thick now, too, blaming the AP for everything.
The White House places the blame squarely on AP, calling the claim that Brennan contributed to a leak “ridiculous.”
“It is well known that we use a range of intelligence capabilities to penetrate and monitor terrorist groups,” according to an official statement from the White House national security staff.
“None of these sources or methods was disclosed by this statement. The egregious leak here was to the Associated Press. The White House fought to prevent this information from being reported and ultimately worked to delay its publication for operational security reasons. No one is more upset than us about this disclosure, and we support efforts to prevent leaks like this which harm our national security,” the statement said.
Now, why would you blame the AP–rather than whatever source leaked to them–unless the most damning detail the AP reported is that the Administration planned on revealing this “plot” themselves (presumably without asking the Saudis or Brits or Congress first)?
In other words, while on its face this is an attempt by John Brennan to pretend he didn’t expose the most sensitive part of the plot–the Saudi infiltration of AQAP–it is also a pissing contest that started when the Administration tried to be the first to reveal the plot, and then blame the AP when the exposure of it pissed off our allies.