Are Covert Ops Spinning Free from Presidential Findings (Again)?

Around the same time Donald Trump was dodging all responsibility for the catastrophically botched Yemen raid, he was planning to give his generals more authority to launch such raids on their own, without his approval.

President Donald Trump has signaled that he wants his defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, to have a freer hand to launch time-sensitive missions quickly, ending what U.S. officials say could be a long approval process under President Barack Obama that critics claimed stalled some missions by hours or days.

[snip]

Despite the controversy, Trump has signaled that he wants to operate more like the CEO he was in the private sector in such matters, and delegate even more power to Mattis, which may mean rewriting one of President Barack Obama’s classified Presidential Policy Directives on potentially lethal operations in countries where the U.S. is not officially involved in combat.

Meanwhile, Trump is also moving drone-killing back to the CIA after a protracted effort by the Obama Administration to put them exclusively on DOD’s hands.

President Donald Trump has given the Central Intelligence Agency secret new authority to conduct drone strikes against suspected terrorists, U.S. officials said, changing the Obama administration’s policy of limiting the spy agency’s paramilitary role and reopening a turf war between the agency and the Pentagon.

The new authority, which hadn’t been previously disclosed, represents a significant departure from a cooperative approach that had become standard practice by the end of former President Barack Obama’s tenure: The CIA used drones and other intelligence resources to locate suspected terrorists and then the military conducted the actual strike. The U.S. drone strike that killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in May 2016 in Pakistan was the best example of that hybrid approach, U.S. officials said.

The Obama administration put the military in charge of pulling the trigger to promote transparency and accountability. The CIA, which operates under covert authorities, wasn’t required to disclose the number of suspected terrorists or civilian bystanders it killed in drone strikes. The Pentagon, however, must publicly report most airstrikes.

These may be unrelated developments (though, as referenced by DB, they both would have been governed under Barack Obama’s drone killing rulebook, because it actually applied to all targeted killing, whether conducted by drone or raid).

But they portent a potentially horrible development: diminished involvement of the President in the granular details of Findings that approve covert operations.

Findings are the presidential documents meant to outline a covert operation and give notice to Congress’ Intelligence Committees that they’re happening. They’re supposed to be updated as programs change. While there’s a lot to complain about the secrecy of them, they at least serve as a way to make a political figure — the President — responsible for whatever goes on in covert operations.

If Trump delegates more authority for targeted killing while at the same time moving more of it back into CIA’s hands, that likely means more covert targeted killings will happen without the kind of close involvement that occurred for much (though not all) of Obama’s Administration.

There are two problems with that. First, it makes it more likely the CIA will discount political consequences of individual operations — not because the CIA is not politically savvy (in areas like this they’re more savvy than the Reality Show president), but because they will be able to deny any screw-ups.

It also makes it more likely the White House and CIA will end up in mutual recriminations the next time there’s a really unpopular strike, with CIA officers bearing the brunt of Trump’s abdication of the role he’s supposed to play in covert operations.

There’s recent precedent for such a problem: the torture program, where the Finding signed by George Bush (crafted by Dick Cheney) let CIA set its own policy, which left the CIA without cover when the shit started hitting the fan.

I assume the CIA is well aware of the risks of such a structure (though Gina Haspel’s elevation to Deputy Director after being a key player in many of the worst parts of the torture scandal may make her less worried about the risks, given that she has ultimately been protected). But the men and women at the implementing stage of such a policy shift may not have much leeway to fight it.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

9 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I agree that the recrimination game will be played without restraint.  It produces chaos like yeast produces hot air.  But if the press is doing its job, Mr. Trump should have a hard time blaming the CIA for doing what he told it to do: make its judgment an extension of the President’s.  Mr. Trump will have made it harder for journalists to cover his killings, however, which adds to the lack of accountability Trump seems to carry around like hairspray.  Trump will also revel in the inevitable chaos, but the buck will still stop where it is now – in the Oval Office – if the press does its job. Perhaps he’s banking on it caving in. If so, he’ll have not visited this web site.

    • PeasantParty says:

      Agreed.  This is some very dangerous stuff.  If this Yemen thing does not get him, I’m sure the banksters will.  I don’t care what you think of Trump, or what fake team of politicos you side with; this attack on a President from within is not going to end well.

  2. SpaceLifeForm says:

    An insane person will always find a way to blame their own failings on someone else.  It is never their fault or responsibility when their insane decisions turn out bad.

  3. bloopie2 says:

     
    Trump’s delegation of responsibility reinforces my feeling, from campaign times, that he didn’t actually want to “be” President, he just wanted to “become” President.  He doesn’t want to live in the White House.  He doesn’t want to deal (really deal, in the sense of diplomacy) with foreign leaders.  He doesn’t want to deal with the press, or the public.  At least Ronald and Nancy Reagan had a “no lasting damage done” astrologer guiding Executive Branch actions; Trump has Brietbart.
     

  4. J2 says:

    Ear
    I don’t understand your remark that Trump would revel in chaos. How does chaos benefit Trump?

    When you say “caving in ” are you referring to the press?

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Neoliberalism has made an Olympic sport out of profiting from crises and chaos.  Good reads on the topic include Naomi Klein’s, Shock Doctrine and Philip Mirowski’s, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste.  Neither Trump nor Bannon invented it, but they are pursuing it with a gusto only Dick Cheney could admire and which makes nonsense of Trump’s campaign promises.

    In no particular order, here are a few examples of Trump’s use of chaos.  It distracts from what he actually does.  It distracts from his incoherent processes, and that he’s reinvented a common, garden variety gross ineptitude as a positive attribute.  Most importantly, chaos distracts from his and Bannon’s drive to dismantle the “administrative state”, that is, the attributes of the state that has made it, since FDR, work for average Americans instead of the Morgans, Mellons, Trumps, Dimons and Tillersons.

    Dismantling the administrative state, by way of gutting social and health programs such as Social Security, the EPA, and the FDA has been a goal of neoliberalism since its inception.  Only the state has the power to counter the power and priorities, the harmful, polluting, damaging excesses of the modern for-profit corporation.  The “market” would not only fail to correct these damaging excesses, it would reward them and make them proliferate, to the detriment of the vast majority of people. That’s an existential power struggle for neoliberals, over and above the taxes imposed to fund it.

     

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Even the Gray Lady gets part of Trump right. Chaos works in his favor by promoting ignorance and making it appear to be a strength, by hiding his weaknesses, and by hiding his goals:

    Mr. Trump has made his ignorance, or cynicism, quite clear. He doesn’t know or care how immigration works. He doesn’t understand the damage his wall and deportation surge will do to the economy and the American character, or maybe he just cares more about harnessing bigotry.

    It would have been helpful had the editors speculated about why Mr. Trump might want to harness bigotry, and why he might not care about the damage he does.

  7. Mitchell says:

    Donald’s refusal to take responsibility and abrogation of responsibility is sickening.
    He isn’t unfit or unqualified for office because of the lack of relevant experience (mismanaging every business but his “brand” and appearing on a cretinous TV show that, by his last episodes, had shit ratings, aren’t qualifying experiences).
    He’s unfit because he’s such a louse of a human being. A Roy Cohn protege who even repulsed Cohn at the end.
    Nothing new in the above. Just needed to get it out.

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