Drones

DOJ Pissed Away $2.1 Million on Drones that Don’t Work

DOJ’s IG just released a report on the Department’s drone use. Its overall recommendation is that FBI get more drones, so it has them in locations around the country for quick use if they’re needed (sigh). It also found that FBI doesn’t have good records of how it partners with other agencies (notably, Customs and Border Patrol) to use their drones, which seems like it might present discovery problems.

But I’m most struck by how much money DOJ is blowing on drones that don’t work.

The IG reports — but seems unconcerned — that half of the drones FBI has bought are not operational.

Our September 2013 interim report found that between 2004 and 2013, the FBI spent approximately $3 million to acquire small UAS it deployed to support its investigations. As of August 2014, the FBI had acquired 34 UAS vehicles and associated control stations, of which it considered 17 vehicles and a smaller number of control stations to be operational.

I find this more troubling given that FBI claims only to have used drones in 13 investigations between September 2006 and August 2014. So are they losing more than one drone every time they use one for an investigation?

The IG is far more concerned about ATF’s sunk drone costs.

Our September 2013 interim report found that ATF possessed UAS and planned to deploy them operationally. Specifically, between September 2011 and September 2012, ATF’s UAS program spent approximately $600,000 to purchase three different types of rotary-wing UAS with a total of six UAS vehicles.

[snip]

ATF officials reported that ATF never flew its UAS in support its operations because TOB testing and pilot training revealed a series of technological limitations with the UAS models it had acquired. In particular, ATF determined the real-time battery capability for one UAS model lasted for only about 20 minutes even though the manufacturer specified its flight time was 45 minutes. ATF determined that the other two models of UAS acquired also were unreliable or unsuitable for surveillance. One UAS program manager told us ATF found that one of its smaller UAS models, which cost nearly $90,000, was too difficult to use reliably in operations. Furthermore, the TOB discovered that a gas-powered UAS model, which cost approximately $315,000 and was specified to fly for up to 2 hours, was never operable due to multiple technical defects.

In June 2014, the Special Operations Division concluded that ATF’s UAS were unsuitable for operational use, suspended all ATF UAS-related activities, and reassigned all UAS staff until after DOJ issues and ATF reviews new UAS policy recommendations. In September 2014, the TOB transferred its six UAS vehicles and other related equipment purchased prior to June 2014 to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service at no cost.

Although the OIG did not specifically audit ATF’s UAS contracts, we are troubled that the process ATF used to purchase these UAS resulted in ATF spending approximately $600,000 on UAS models it ultimately determined to have significant mechanical and technical problems that rendered them unsuitable to deploy in support of ATF operations.

By my calculation, all of ATF’s investments in drones ($600,000) and half of FBI’s investments in drones (half of $3 million) have been lost to drones that either never did or no longer work. $2.1 million on drones that don’t fly.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not crazy about DOJ buying up a fleet of small drones for investigative uses they’re keeping inadequate paperwork on in the first place.

But neither am I happy about DOJ pissing away all this money on drones that don’t work.

The Unopened Torture Report and Trusting CIA on Other Covert Operations

Yesterday, Pat Leahy issued a Sunshine Week statement criticizing Richard Burr for attempting to reclaim all copies of the Torture Report, but also complaining that State and DOJ haven’t opened their copy of the Torture Report.

I also was appalled to learn that several of the agencies that received the full report in December have not yet opened it.  In a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit seeking release of the full report, Justice Department and State Department officials submitted declarations stating that their copies remain locked away in unopened, sealed envelopes.  I do not know if this was done to attempt to bolster the government’s position in the FOIA lawsuit, or to otherwise avoid Federal records laws.  I certainly hope not.  Regardless of the motivation, it was a mistake and needs to be rectified.

The executive summary of the torture report makes clear that both the State Department and the Justice Department have much to learn from the history of the CIA’s torture program.  Both agencies were misled by the CIA about the program.  Both should consider systemic changes in how they deal with covert actions.  Yet neither agency has bothered to open the final, full version of the report, or apparently even those sections most relevant to them.

Today, Ron Wyden issued a Sunshine Week release linking back to a February 3 letter Eric Holder is still ignoring.  The letter — which I wrote about here — addresses 4 things: 1) the unclear limits on the President’s ability to kill Americans outside of war zones 2) the common commercial service agreement OLC opinion that should be withdrawn 3) some action the Executive took that Wyden and Russ Feingold wrote Holder and Hillary about in late 2010 and 4) DOJ’s failure to even open the Torture Report. Wyden’s statement, lumps all these under “secret law.”

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., renewed his call for Attorney General Eric Holder to answer crucial questions on everything from when the government believes it has the right to kill an American to secret interpretations of law. The Justice Department has ignored these questions or declined to answer them, in some cases for years.

[snip]

“It is never acceptable to keep the basic interpretations of U.S. law secret from the American people. It doesn’t make our country safer, and erodes the public’s confidence in the government and intelligence agencies in particular,” Wyden said. “While it is appropriate to keep sources, methods and operations secret, the law should never be a mystery. Sunshine Week is the perfect time for the Justice Department to pull back the curtains and let the light in on how our government interprets the law.”

This may be secret law.

But I find it interesting that both Wyden’s letter and Leahy’s statement tie covert operations to the lessons from the Torture Report.

There are many reasons DOJ (and FBI) are probably refusing to open the Torture Report. The most obvious — the one everyone is pointing to — is that by not opening it, these Agencies keep it safe from the snooping FOIAs of the ACLU and Jason Leopold.

But the other reason DOJ and FBI might want to keep this report sealed is what it says about the reliability of the CIA.

The CIA lied repeatedly to DOJ, FBI, and FBI Director Jim Comey (when he was Deputy Attorney General) specifically. Specifically, they lied to protect the conduct of what was structured as a covert operation, CIA breaking the law at the behest of the President.

Of course, both DOJ generally and FBI specifically continue to partner with CIA as if nothing has gone on, as if the spooks retain the credibility they had back in 2001, as if they should retain that credibility. (I’m particularly interested in the way FBI participated in the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, perhaps relying on CIA’s claims there, too, but it goes well beyond that.)

That’s understandable, to a point. If DOJ and the FBI are going to continue pursuing (especially) terrorists with CIA, they need to be able to trust them, to trust they’re not being lied to about, potentially, everything.

Except that ignores the lesson of the Torture Report, which is that CIA will lie about anything to get DOJ to rubber stamp criminal behavior.

No wonder DOJ and FBI aren’t opening that report.

John Brennan Predicts the Dissolution of the Nation-State Structure

Rather than asking John Brennan challenging questions about the reform of CIA at Brennan’s Council on Foreign Relations event Friday, Charlie Rose instead asked John Brennan what he saw as the challenge to CIA’s analytical function over the next 15 years (around 39:50).

Here’s how Brennan responded:

The world is becoming more and more challenging. Nation-states are under increasing challenge and threat. More and more, we see individuals in different corners of the world who are identifying with sub-national groups and organizations. And so just the authority of nation-states and governments I think is being looked at in a different way than it did just 20 years ago. And so this is one of the things that we really have to be able to understand and anticipate and work with foreign governments because if you’re going to have basically the dissolution of the nation-state structure that we’ve had for centuries, it’s really going to be even a more chaotic world.

I don’t actually disagree with Brennan. I’ve been saying we’re headed for NeoFeudalism for over a decade.

That said, the policies of the US government are really fostering this change. Drones — as well as increased reliance on paramilitary forces — are one thing that contributes to this. So do trade agreements, especially the ones the US is trying to force on Asia and Europe right now. US demands that its corporations help the US spy in other countries is another factor.

Yet, nevertheless, the government is pursuing these policies even while recognizing that the dissolution of the nation-state system will bring much more chaos.

Brennan describes it like a bug, but US policy suggests it’s a feature.

Update: Take this prediction in tandem with James Clapper’s judgement that “Roughly half of the world’s currently stable countries are at some risk of instability over the next two years.”

AP Also Notes the Torture and Drones Double Standard

After the Torture Report came out, I argued we ought to take a broader lesson from it about failures of accountability in CIA’s covert programs. Specifically, I noted how the drone program — which operated under the same Memorandum of Notification as torture for years — appeared to suffer from the same problems as the torture program.

On the second day of Barack Obama’s presidency, he prohibited most forms of physical torture. On the third, a CIA drone strike he authorized killed up to 11 civilians.

[snip]

Other reporting may explain why the report portrays Bush, rightly or wrongly, as so uninvolved in the torture program. Both Woodward and Mayer explain that the Sept. 17, 2001, MON was designed to outsource all the important decision-making to the CIA. “To give the President deniability, and to keep him from getting his hands dirty,” Mayer writes in The Dark Side, “the [MON] called for the President to delegate blanket authority to Tenet to decide on a case-by-case basis whom to kill, whom to kidnap, whom to detain and interrogate, and how.” Whether or not Bush had knowledge of what was going on, the very program itself was set up to insulate him from the dirty work, giving him the ability to claim ignorance of a torture program everyone else knew about. (Later, Bush claimed that he was fully briefed.)

But as we know, this insulation created the conditions for a program that was allowed to spin so horribly out of control that the CIA was able to misplace 29 detainees and not worry all that much.

The implications of this subterfuge, however, do not end with the torture program. Nor with George W. Bush. This is the same MON that authorizes the CIA’s current drone program. Presumably that means the drone program is characterized by the same unaccountable structures.

Indeed, after Obama escalated the CIA’s use of drones when he took office, the program suffered from some of the same problems as the torture program. The CIA appears to have misinformed Congress about the details, given claims by people like House Intelligence Committee ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) that the program had “very minor” civilian casualties, despite the fact that evidence shows that more than 1,000 people have been killed while targeting fewer than 50 terrorists. And like the CIA’s detention and torture of the wrong suspects, a number of drone strikes have killed the wrong people — but with even greater frequency.

Top-ranking members of Congress, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have long insisted they have more oversight over the drone program than they did over torture. But the number of significant mistakes — take, for example, the attack on a wedding party earlier this year — suggests that oversight isn’t preventing the same kind of mistakes that happened with torture. Moreover, as with the torture program, the congressional intelligence committees aren’t able to get the information they request from the White House and the CIA. It was only after years of requests that the intelligence committees were allowed to review the administration’s justification for having the CIA kill Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, with a drone strike. Worse, the reports that the CIA killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, are also shrouded in secrecy and full of inconsistencies.

AP’s Ken Dilanian has a long article in similar vein, noting that the drone and Non Official Cover program have never been scrutinized this closely, in spite of complaints of abuse.

Yet the intelligence committees have never taken a similar look at what is now the premier counterterrorism effort, the CIA’s drone-killing program, according to congressional officials who were not authorized to be quoted discussing the matter.

Intelligence committee staff members are allowed to watch videos of CIA drone missile strikes to monitor the agency’s claims that civilian casualties are limited. But these aides do not typically get access to the operational cables, message traffic, interview transcripts and other raw material that forms the basis of a decision to kill a suspected terrorist.

Nor have they been able to examine cables, emails and raw reporting to investigate recent perceived intelligence lapses, such as why the CIA failed to predict the swift fall of Arab governments, Russia’s move into Ukraine or the rapid military advance of the Islamic State group.

And there have been no public oversight reports on the weak performance of the CIA’s multibillion-dollar “nonofficial cover” program to set up case officers posing as businessmen, which has met with some criticism.

In addition to the nice review of how Dianne Feinstein’s staffers’ managed to do this work (which you should click through to read), Dilanian also got a fairly scathing interview with Feinstein herself (though she insists drones get enough oversight). In it, she professes to have lost her faith that CIA is telling the truth in briefings.

The torture investigation, she said in an interview with The Associated Press, has “changed how I view management in the CIA. It’s changed how I view the brotherhood of the CIA. I believe you do not lie to your oversight committee. And I think the way the program was managed was sloppy.”

The lesson for traditional intelligence oversight, she said, was that “you can sit and listen to a report ??? you don’t know whether it’s all the truth, you don’t know what gets left out. And part of (CIA) tradecraft is deception.”

She said she believes the CIA continues to lie about the effectiveness of torture.

And she dishes on White House collaboration with the CIA to overclassified the report.

But while Obama publicly supported releasing the report’s findings and conclusions, the administration privately pushed to keep significant parts of the summary secret, Feinstein said.

“The president said that he agreed the report should be made public, that he doesn’t condone (the harsh interrogations), but it sort of ends there,” Feinstein said.

She said she perceived “an incredible closeness” between Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and Brennan, “and the president and John Brennan.” In negotiations with Feinstein about what parts of the summary should be censored, McDonough spoke for the White House, but there was no daylight between him and the CIA, she said.

Feinstein said both wanted to black out large chunks of the executive summary in the name of protecting sensitive information.

It also provides more details on the attempt to fearmonger DiFi into suppressing the report at the last minute, including that Democrats found James Clapper’s report on the dangers of releasing it to be all that convincing.

This is, I think, one of the necessary conclusions to draw from the Torture Report: oversight isn’t working, because — as DiFi notes — CIA’s tradecraft is all about deception.

Let’s hope she really has learned a bit from this process, even if it’s too late to do anything about it as Chair.

Bob Litt Tried to Stuff Ron Wyden down Alice In Wonderland’s Rabbit Hole

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Man, I must have written about this letter Ron Wyden sent to John Brennan during his confirmation process 15 times (of which just a few are linked below). Which is why I’m so fascinated by the back and forth between Wyden’s office (the staffer’s name is redacted) and ODNI, largely Bob Litt, both before and after Wyden sent the letter on January 14, 2013. (Many many kudos to Zack Sampson who FOIAed it through MuckRock.)

Wyden’s office submitted the letter for a declassification review on January 11, 2013. Wyden’s office did not get an answer before he sent it. And on January 15, Bob Litt complained,

I have a concern that there are several references in this letter that are not only classified but compartmented.

So the staffer writes back letting Litt know that he or she had unclassified comments by Executive Branch officials for all the references, and he or she will happily share it. To which Litt responded (on January 17),

Although I am dubious, since there are statements in there that assume as fact things that we have recently succeeded in convincing a judge remain classified, I’ll take a look.

It went on for a while (the email thread is from page 21 to 24), with Litt complaining some more, promising Brennan wouldn’t answer questions about it, and the staffer ultimately pointing out that the reason they keep asking publicly is because ODNI won’t provide answers even in classified form (this exchange precedes Clapper’s lies about the dragnet — about which most of the other documents released under this FOIA pertain — by two months).

What Litt was talking about, clearly, was the Administration’s killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the memos authorizing which Judge Colleen McMahon, citing Alice in Wonderland for the bizarreness of it all, had just ruled remained exempt from FOIA on January 2, 2013.

In other words, Litt was suggesting that Wyden should not have said the following — which cites McMahon!! — because McMahon had ruled that the government did not have to give the OLC memos authorizing the Awlaki killing to ACLU and NYT, which is rather different from ruling they didn’t have to share such information with the Intelligence Committee or claiming that Wyden could not refer to official comments in a letter to someone who made those comments because citing back those comments made them classified.

I have asked repeatedly over the past two years to see the secret legal opinions that contain the executive branch’s understanding of the President’s authority to kill American citizens in the course of counterterrorism operations. Senior intelligence officials have said publicly that they have the authority to knowingly use lethal force against Americans in the course of counterterrorism operations, and have indicated that there are secret legal opinions issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that explain the basis for this authority. I have asked repeatedly to see these opinions and I have been provided with some relevant information on the topic, but I have yet to see the opinions themselves.

Both you and the Attorney General gave public speeches on this topic early last year, and these speeches were a welcome step in the direction of more transparency and openness, but as I noted at the time, these speeches left a large number of important questions unanswered. A federal judge recently noted in a Freedom of Information Act case that “no lawyer worth his salt would equate Mr. Holder’s statements with the sort of robust analysis that one finds in a properly constructed legal opinion,” and I assume that Attorney General Holder would agree that this was not his intent.

As Wyden noted, both Brennan and Holder had given big dog-and-pony shows that were clearly about killing Awlaki, and yet Bob Litt wanted to prevent Wyden from pressuring Brennan to turn over the actual legal authorizations to the Intelligence Community’s oversight committee? Really?

Ah well, it all worked out for the forces of good, as when the Committee threatened to hold up Brennan’s confirmation, someone leaked the White Paper to Mike Isikoff that therefore had to be shared with Jason Leopold that ultimately led McMahon to liberate the opinions themselves.

Which is probably precisely what Bob Litt was worried about.
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CBP Repeats the Snowden Asylum “Mistake” with Matthew DeHart

One of the favorite tactics of Edward Snowden’s critics is to call him a “fugitive” in Russia, emphasizing that he is avoiding US legal prosecution by hiding in an abusive country. As Glenn Greenwald noted yesterday, such digs ignore that Snowden has asylum, which is well-recognized especially in the case of espionage claims, as Snowden has been charged with.

CNN’s “expert” is apparently unaware that the DOJ very frequently — almost always, in fact — negotiates with people charged with very serious felonies over plea agreements. He’s also apparently unaware of this thing called “asylum,” which the U.S. routinely grants to people charged by other countries with crimes on the ground that they’d be persecuted with imprisonment if they returned home.

That background is instructive given the public report Customs and Border Patrol released the other day on arresting Matthew DeHart, who has been charged with kiddie porn but is actually wanted at least in part (even according to the judge in the kiddie porn case) because of his ties to Anonymous and maybe because of the document that reportedly describes something for which the FBI investigated the CIA which DeHart had on two thumb drives.

With the assistance of law enforcement partners, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at Peace Bridge Port of Entry arrested a traveler wanted under an indictment relating to production and transportation of child pornography.

On March 1, CBP officers arrested Matthew DeHart, a 30-year-old male, a U.S. citizen in the custody of the Canadian Border Services Agency, after DeHart attempted to enter Canada.  DeHart was wanted on a felony warrant from April 2013, for failure to appear at a court hearing on his indictment for production and transportation of child pornography.

“We work very closely with our Canadian counterparts,” said Rose Hilmey, CBP director of field operations for the Buffalo Field Office. “They were able to identify this person as wanted by American law enforcement, and returned him to the custody of CBP officers to face charges.”

DeHart was taken into FBI custody after a warrant and extradition were confirmed.

As Adrian Humphreys (the reporter who did the series on DeHart) noted, that characterization is wrong. DeHart was not extradited, but instead denied refugee status for torture. As the Courage Foundation (which is now supporting DeHart’s case) elaborated, the distinction in DeHart’s case is critical. Had the US asked Canada to extradite DeHart for espionage, it might have changed his status for asylum considerations in Canada.

Extradition is a process that would have been instigated by US authorities, whereas in Matt’s case he was deported at the behest of the Canadian authorities after he failed in his bid for refugee status and protection under the UN Convention on Torture.

This is significant, because if the US authorities had instigation extradition proceedings against Matt, they would have been forced to show their hand and file all charges before extradition was considered by the Canadian government. However, since Matt was deported, it leaves the door open for more charges to be filed. This is of concern to Matt and his legal team, since although Matt currently faces child pornography charges in the US — charges Matt vehemently denies — during extensive FBI interrogation sessions Matt endured, all the questions the agents asked were about Matt’s work with Anonymous, his connection to WikiLeaks, his former colleagues in the military, and issues related to national security. Because Matt was deported rather than extradited, it is still possible therefore that espionage charges could be filed.

There are two scenarios here. First, that the government’s concerns really are — which would be totally understandable — that a former drone operator with ties to Anonymous sought to defect to Russia and Venezuela and therefore presents a huge espionage concern. Even given what DeHart, by his own admission, admitted to (he claims, under torture), then the government could easily charge him with security related charges.

But they haven’t. Maybe they will — maybe that’s imminent. But they haven’t in several years during which they could have.

Alternately, they want DeHart because of those two thumb drives, which would represent an interest for the nation’s spooks, but for which DeHart would not be the guilty party.

The more they pull shit like this, the more it suggests this case is about the latter issue, the data that DeHart had on two thumb drives.

After Five Years, Saudis Will Finally Get Their Drones to Strike Houthis

Thanks to Chelsea Manning, we know that almost exactly five years ago, the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Smith met with the then Assistant Minister for Defense Khalid bin Sultan about a disastrous Saudi air attack on a Houthi hospital on the Yemeni-Saudi border that killed a thousand people, many civilians. Prince Khalid used the American scolding not only to redouble his requests for US satellite assistance targeting Houthis — with more accuracy, Khalid suggested, the Saudis might kill fewer civilians — but also to ask for Predator drones.

IF WE HAD THE PREDATOR, THIS MIGHT NOT HAVE HAPPENED
—————————————————-

¶3. (S/NF) Upon seeing the photograph, Prince Khalid remarked, “This looks familiar,” and added, “if we had the Predator, maybe we would not have this problem.” He noted that Saudi Air Force operations were necessarily being conducted without the desired degree of precision, and recalled that a clinic had been struck, based on information received from Yemen that it was being used as an operational base by the Houthis. Prince Khalid explained the Saudi approach to its fight with the Houthis, emphasizing that the Saudis had to hit the Houthis very hard in order to “bring them to their knees” and compel them to come to terms with the Yemeni government. “However,” he said, “we tried very hard not to hit civilian targets.” The Saudis had 130 deaths and the Yemenis lost as many as one thousand. “Obviously,” Prince Khaled observed, “some civilians died, though we wish that this did not happen.”

The attack on the hospital and the Saudi request for more war toys all took place amid assurances that the strikes on the Houthis would “bring them to their knees” which would in turn lead to a lasting ceasefire, which would free up Saudi attention to go after al Qaeda, the ostensible purpose for US intelligence cooperation in the first place.

In the interim five years, a few key developments have happened. Back in 2011, after JSOC couldn’t seem to get clean intelligence on Anwar al-Awlaki, the US built a drone base on the Saudi border that magically managed to find and kill the cleric within months.

More recently, Houthis have brought their fight to Sanaa and beyond, overthrowing the US and Gulf Cooperation Council selected President Abdo Rabi Mansour Hadi. In the wake of what the government has deemed (unlike Egypt) a coup, the US and most western governments have withdrawn embassy personnel, an action that will have little effect on their security but significant effect on the legitimacy of the Houthi-run government.

And now, just in time, the State Department has rolled out a framework under which the US will sell drones to our allies.

But don’t worry! State has included a bunch of rules that cover precisely the same concerns Ambassador Smith voiced 5 years ago in the face of evidence the Saudis were targeting civilians in an effort to “bring them to their knees.”

As the most active user of military UAS, and as an increasing number of nations are acquiring and employing UASs to support a range of missions, the United States has an interest in ensuring that these systems are used lawfully and responsibly. Accordingly, under the new UAS export policy, the United States will require recipients of U.S.-origin military UAS to agree to the following principles guiding proper use before the United States will authorize any sales or transfers of military UASs:

  • Recipients are to use these systems in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, as applicable;
  • Armed and other advanced UAS are to be used in operations involving the use of force only when there is a lawful basis for use of force under international law, such as national self-defense;
  • Recipients are not to use military UAS to conduct unlawful surveillance or use unlawful force against their domestic populations; and
  • As appropriate, recipients shall provide UAS operators technical and doctrinal training on the use of these systems to reduce the risk of unintended injury or damage.

Compare those guidelines with the assessment Ambassador Smith conducted 5 years ago to clear the Saudis for increased sharing of satellite data.

¶2. (S/NF) Ambassador Smith delivered points in reftel to Prince Khaled on February 6, 2010. The Ambassador highlighted USG concerns about providing Saudi Arabia with satellite imagery of the Yemen border area absent greater certainty that Saudi Arabia was and would remain fully in compliance with the laws of armed conflict during the conduct of military operations, particularly regarding attacks on civilian targets. The Ambassador noted the USG’s specific concern about an apparent Saudi air strike on a building that the U.S. believed to be a Yemeni medical clinic. The Ambassador showed Prince Khaled a satellite image of the bomb-damaged building in question.

[snip]

¶6. (S/NF) Prince Khaled, in addressing the Ambassador’s concerns about possible targeting of civilian sites appeared neither defensive nor evasive. He was unequivocal in his assurance that Saudi military operations had been and would continue to be conducted with priority to avoiding civilian casualties. The Ambassador found this assurance credible, all the more so in light of Prince Khaled’s acknowledgment that mistakes likely happened during the strikes against Houthi targets, of the inability of the Saudi Air Force to operate with adequate precision, and the unreliability of Yemeni targeting recommendations. Based on these assurances, the Ambassador has approved, as authorized in reftel, the provision of USG imagery of the Yemeni border area to the Saudi Government. While the fighting with the Houthis appears to be drawing to a close, the imagery will be of continuing value to the Saudi military to monitor and prevent Houthi incursions across the border as well as enhancing Saudi capabilities against Al-Qaeda activities in this area.

Call me crazy, but given Prince Khalid’s determination to bring the Houthis to their knees, I’m unimpressed with Ambassador’s Smith assessment that the Saudis were adequately protecting civilians (indeed, some of our most catastrophic strikes in Yemen appear to have relied on Saudi intelligence).

Nothing has changed in the interim 5 years — beyond even more tolerance for Saudi repression amid the rise of an Islamic State for which KSA has been an ideological fount.

I assume the Saudis will be among the first that get approved for a set of drones. Hell, they’ve surely got practice in using them at the Saudi drone base, and they already have their base from which to target the Houthis.

The question is whether that will do anything for Yemen, or even for US interests.

Aside from the drone manufacturers, of course.

CIA’s Careful Terrorism

Both WaPo and Newsweek have stories out on CIA’s role in assassinating Imad Mugniyah in 2008. As described, Michael Hayden loved the idea, but then got a bit squeamish about ordering a hit. Luckily, President Bush was all too happy to approve it. Here’s Newsweek:

“General Hayden, at first, was all for this,” the former official said, “But slowly, or maybe not so slowly, the realization set in for him that he was ordering an assassination, that basically he was putting out a hit. And once he became pretty much cognizant of the fact that he was basically ordering the murder of someone, he got cold feet. He didn’t fancy himself as a Corleone.”

And he wasn’t, really. That role would ultimately fall to the president.

“Obviously [Hayden] had to get authority for this, and authority could come from only one person, and that would be POTUS,” said the participant. “So he went down to see President Bush. It took Bush apparently only about 30 seconds to say, ‘Yes, and why haven’t you done this already? You have my blessing. Go with God.’”

[snip]

But in late December, with the bomb ready and Mugniyah firmly in their sights, Hayden “started to get really cold feet again,” the participant said. He decided to go see President Bush personally—on Christmas Eve 2007, at Camp David.

“On Christmas Eve morning, he and [Deputy CIA Director Steven] Kappes fly up to Camp David to see POTUS, to say, ‘Okay, look, here’s what we got, everything is in place, do we still have the go-ahead?’ And POTUS basically threw both of them out, saying, ‘Why are you up here wasting my time on Christmas Eve? Get the fuck out and go do this. Not quite in those terms. But it was, ‘Yes, I’ve already given you my approval. Go do this; go with God.’”

“Go with our Christian God,” I guess Bush meant.

Both pieces emphasize how careful the CIA and Mossad were with their terrorist tactics, to make sure only their target was killed. Again, Newsweek:

Finally, the car was in place. But then there were always other people around. Weeks more went by. Hayden’s demands that only Mugniyah be killed, and no one else, with no collateral damage, had to be met.

“It was always either he wasn’t alone, or he had his kids with him, or somebody else with him, or there were casuals in the area, or he was gone, he was in the Bekka [Valley] or someplace else, he wasn’t in his apartment,” the participant said. “The rules of engagement were so tight that he probably walked past the thing dozens of times but they just couldn’t do anything because somebody was there or it just didn’t fit into the rules of engagement.”

“They were keeping watch on this just about all the time,” he added. “They were taking shifts, a station officer and a Mossad officer. The Mossad officer was there just to make the confirmation that, ‘yeah, that’s him.’”

The kill was made all the harder by the way the bomb would be detonated. There was a two-second delay from the time the CIA and Mossad agents in the lookout post pushed the button to when the bomb exploded. Under the plan, the Mossad agent would ID Mugniyah, and the CIA man would press the remote control.

“So you would have to count—one, one thousand; two, one thousand… “ the participant said. “They had about six seconds from the time he came out of the apartment door to the time he moved out of the danger zone. So they had to do it really fast.”

And WaPo notes how tedious it was to get approval to kill a guy whose attacks on the US were years earlier, under Reagan.

Former U.S. officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the operation, asserted that Mughniyah, although based in Syria, was directly connected to the arming and training of Shiite militias in Iraq that were targeting U.S. forces. There was little debate inside the Bush administration over the use of a car bomb instead of other means.

“Remember, they were carrying out suicide bombings and IED attacks,” said one official, referring to Hezbollah operations in Iraq.

[snip]

The authority to kill Mughniyah required a presidential finding by President George W. Bush. The attorney general, the director of national intelligence, the national security adviser and the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department all signed off on the operation, one former intelligence official said.

The former official said getting the authority to kill Mughniyah was a “rigorous and tedious” process. “What we had to show was he was a continuing threat to Americans,” the official said, noting that Mughniyah had a long history of targeting Americans dating back to his role in planning the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.

“The decision was we had to have absolute confirmation that it was self-defense,” the official said.

(Note, Newsweek says the Finding was signed under Reagan, which actually makes more sense since the Gloves Come Off Memorandum of Notification Bush and Obama have relied on was also a modification of a Finding signed by him.)

This is, presumably, meant to be a big success story for CIA. My hope, however, is that it adds some nuance to debates about our use of drones. If the US kills more collateral casualties using drones than using a classic terrorist technique — in both cases making really attenuated claims about current threats — which is the greatest terror technique?

Update: Kevin Jon Heller argues the US violated the Terrorist Bombing Convention.

Jim Comey Bullies NYT to Stop Publishing Anonymous Claims about Drone Killings

Best as I can tell, the FBI Director has officially told the NYT to stop republishing anonymous government claims about drone strikes anymore.

“Your decision to grant anonymity to a spokesperson for [an organization] so he could clarify the role of his group in assassinating innocents, including a wounded police officer, and distinguish it from the assassination of other innocents in Paris in the name of another group of terrorists, is both mystifying and disgusting,” Mr. Comey said in a letter to The Times.

He added: “I fear you have lost your way and urge you to reconsider allowing your newspaper to be used by those who have murdered so many and work every day to murder more.”

Oh wait. That’s not what Comey was complaining about.

He’s complaining about this paragraph, which — in an article that also grants “American counterterrorism authorities” anonymity (with no explanation) — helps clarify the relationship between the perpetrators of the Hebdo Charlie attack.

A member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who spoke to The New York Times on the condition of anonymity, said the joint timing of the two operations was a result of the friendship between Mr. Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers, not of common planning between the Qaeda group and the Islamic State.

That is, Comey is complaining that the NYT is using the same methods — anonymous sourcing — to find more knowledgeable sources to explain the attacks that it uses to parrot official governmental sources. Only Comey and his colleagues’ claims about the attack may be laundered through anonymity under his approach. Not better positioned sources.

Which I guess means he’s happy that the NYT anonymously publishes the claims of US government officials clarifying that the civilians they kill in drone strikes are not civilians, or even clarifying whether the CIA or DOD killed a particular person. He just doesn’t want the NYT to anonymously quote other killers’ spokespersons trying to clarify what the killing is about.

Broad Response By Pakistan to Peshawar School Attack

Pakistan's army chief  General Raheel Sharif meeting with Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani on December 17 to discuss cooperation in fighting terror.

Pakistan’s army chief General Raheel Sharif meeting with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani on December 17 to discuss cooperation in fighting terror. (ISPR photo)


The deadly attack by Pakistan’s Taliban, the TTP, against a school in Peshawar on Tuesday has prompted a huge and sweeping response in Pakistan and beyond. Perhaps most significantly, Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, went to Kabul the very next day:

General Raheel Sharif, Chief of Army staff today visited Afghanistan and held separate meetings with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and General John F Campbell, ISAF commander. Matters related to security situation along Pak-Afghan border region came under discussion. Vital elements of intelligence were shared with concerned authorities, with regard to Peshawar incident. Afghan President assured General Raheel Sharif that Afghan soil will not be allowed for terrorists activities against Pakistan and any signature found in this regard will be immediately eliminated.

COAS also assured Afghan President full support to the Unity government in all spheres including joint efforts against terrorists.

ISAF commander also assured of its complete support in eliminating terrorist in his area of responsibility.

Pakistan and Afghanistan have long been at odds about Taliban factions within each country using it as a haven from which to attack the other. ToloNews reports on the potential for the Peshawar attack to change this relationship:

Following his visit, General Sharif said that the Afghan president and ISAF commander assured him that the Taliban would not be allowed to use Afghan soil as a launching pad for attacks on Pakistan, exposing the simmering distrust that remains between the sides after 13 years of war. The general’s comments come after Afghan and NATO coalition leaders have for years pleaded with the Pakistani government to do more to keep the Taliban from using the tribal belt as a safe haven for recruiting fighters and launching attacks into Afghanistan.

But after the Tuesday’s deadly attack by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on a military-run school in Peshawar, it is possible the Pakistani armed forces and civilian government in Islamabad are more inclined to crack down on terrorism and seek help in doing so than ever before. A number of security analysts have encouraged that view, arguing that Afghanistan and Pakistan should come together and establish a joint counter-terrorism task force.

Other steps that Pakistan has taken have been swift. Military courts for trial of terrorism suspects are being established and Pakistan’s moratorium on the death penalty for terrorism offenses has been lifted. Six executions are expected within the next 24 hours. In choosing to move forward with military courts, I guess Pakistan is overlooking the horrible track record in the US for military commissions at Guantanamo when compared to trying terror suspects in criminal court.

Pakistan’s military action against terrorists launched in June, Zarb-e-Azb, is being expanded, with attacks now taking place outside the tribal areas. But it is not just Pakistan’s military that is expanding its activity outside the tribal area. A drone strike today took place right on the Afghan border with Pakistan, just outside Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. US drone strikes in Pakistan have been almost exclusively in the tribal region, so an attack right on the border of another province is rare. Dawn reports that the attack targeted those believed to be responsible for the Peshawar attack: Continue reading

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