Will the Saudis Let JSOC Take Over Yemeni Targeting?

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.

9 replies
  1. Snoopdido says:

    I view the “transfer” of US drone strikes from the CIA to JSOC as nothing more than a thinly devised attempt at providing cover to the CIA and the appearance of Obama-promised transparency.

    In the case of US drone strikes in Yemen from the Saudi CIA drone base I’m guessing this will be the state of play from here on out:

    The CIA and the Saudis will still jointly both maintain their presence at the drone base and their Fusion center.

    Rather than any US military personnel, contractors will continue to maintain and arm the US drones at the Saudi/CIA drone base.

    The CIA and the Saudis will still continue to provide targeting intelligence for US drone strikes in Yemen.

    The US Air Force will still continue to remotely pilot the US drones at the Saudi/CIA drone base.

    The only real change will now be the inclusion of the CIA in the corporate “disposition process” that had been put together by Obama’s then chief counterterrorism advisor Brennan.

    Parts of the CIA will continue to carp to Greg Miller and other journalists that they are being hamstrung by more tedious bureaucratic US drone strike processes all the while enjoying the cover provided by JSOC when strikes go wrong as they inevitably will.

    As a sop to the CIA, the costs of their drone fleet will be moved to DOD while the funding for the CIA drone fleet will remain in the CIA’s coffers to be used as now CIA Director Brennan chooses.

  2. P J Evans says:

    That sounds about right to me. Everyone wins except the US public and the people on the receiving end of drone strikes, both of which groups get to pay the costs.

  3. Snoopdido says:

    @P J Evans: I’m also willing to bet we will see no lessening of US drone strike secrecy. The first indication of whether this will be true may come with the pending FOIA and Awlaki court cases.

    If anything is produced at all by the government, we’re likely to get the usual wholesale redactions.

  4. P J Evans says:

    That, too. ‘Transparency’ from this administration seems to mean “we’ll occasionally tell Congress something about it, if we feel like it and they ask enough times”.

  5. john francis lee says:

    The CIA have always been nihilists. Obama – the consumate corporate lawyer/nihilist – naturally gravitates to them. It’s all utterly criminal. Obama is just the mob’s mouthpiece, who parades his rhetoric before the media, not the judges. The judges are all on board with the criminals. For industrial strength double-talk they call in the casuist virtuosi from Georgetown (pdf).

  6. john francis lee says:

    Title 18 USC 960 – Expedition against friendly nation

    Sec. 960. Expedition against friendly nation
    Whoever, within the United States, knowingly begins or sets on foot or provides or prepares a means for or furnishes the money for, or takes part in, any military or naval expedition or enterprise to be carried on from thence against the territory or dominion of any foreign prince or state, or of any colony, district, or people with whom the United States is at peace, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

    That surely applies to all the gameboy/’Distinguished Warriors’ at their consoles and to all those who command them, up to and including Brennan and Obama.

    Of course there will be legions of mouthpieces who explain why the law does not apply to their clients.

    Makes no difference what those mouthpieces say, up to and including Holder, Obama, and the Supreme dwarves. It’s murder.

  7. joanneleon says:

    Regarding the CIA’s new air force capabilities, Obama said “The CIA gets what the CIA wants”.

    I can only speak from the world of technology, and almost everybody in the tech world wants to work with the coolest and the hottest technologies. The reasons are many. It’s more exciting. You don’t get stuck maintaining the old, crappy code. There is a lot of status involved among your peer if you are one of the first to be expert at it. But also, there’s a lot of money involved and opportunity.

    I don’t think that it would be a lot different in the world of intelligence. I don’t see the CIA giving this up, ever, unless it’s pulled from their cold, dead hands. And I don’t see this president ever pulling anything from their hands.

    Also, we all know about territorial battles and the way people make things “their baby” and want to maintain some control over it. If Brennan was the one to set up this arrangement with the Saudis, and he’s the “go to” man with them, he’s not going to want to relinquish any control over this thing. Add that to the status and potential for big $$ with the drones, and the way he finagled an exception for himself with the drone rule book, and it just makes no sense at all that he’s going to give up the drones. None at all, no matter how many times they screw up and kill civilians. What I don’t understand is why there is so much talk about turning the drone program over to DoD if they really don’t have any intention of doing it. Is the internal fighting that bad right now between CIA and DoD? And I really still don’t understand how the hybrid JSOC/CIA drone operations work (the third type of drone operation).

  8. john francis lee says:

    ” I don’t see the CIA giving this up, ever, unless it’s pulled from their cold, dead hands …” and “… almost everybody in the tech world wants to work with the coolest and the hottest technologies.”

    The techies drones building the killing drones probably see themselves as earning a right livelihood? Not everyone sees it that way. It’s not just the poor bastards reduced to ‘distinguished warfare’ at a playstation for the CIA/DoD – the trigger men, and women? – it’s the wealthy techies who built that stuff who are at least as responsible for the murder and mayhem their diabolic creations have wreck around the world.

    The ‘poet’ walked on air in pursuit of the techied dream while he – purely incidently – he became death, and literally the destroyer of worlds. The seemingly less poetic tech types of today have become death as well, but the world they’ve destroyed is the one between everyday life and all-war/all-the-time.

    But all the techies all the time just figure they can choose not to particiapate in the world they’ve created. They think it’s all about someone else. It’s amazing how stupid smart people can be.

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