The recent confirmation hearings for John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director occasioned an extended discussion--and unusually a rather public one at that--on the role and organizational identity of the CIA. Brennan’s predecessor General Petraeus was a military man, perhaps the consummate military man of the age in terms of bearing, demeanor and vision; but he was sent to run a place which has always held itself apart from the military in its conventions and mission. Yet the tension between the proximity of the CIA to military matters, and its inherent “otherness” has given rise to a debate amongst practitioners and observers alike, and has adopted as shorthand for the CIA’s various roles the idea that paramilitary operations and covert action are the central matter in dispute. The most visible manifestation of these activities are the activities surrounding counterterrorism, and the most visible example of those are a supposed program run by CIA to conduct UAV strikes against terrorist targets outside of active combat zones.
So much more the case recently, as memoranda from the Department of Justice have reached media outlets, laying down the rationale behind the use of UAV strikes even against U.S. citizens, presumably in operations conducted by the Department of Defense, whose program is acknowledged. But more than that has been the confirmation hearing for Brennan, a former CIA officer whom President Obama nominated to become the Agency’s 21st Director. During the Senate confirmation hearings, many questions from the Senators had to do with the practice of targeted killings and other CIA activities that are essentially military in nature. Mr. Brennan was very careful not to confirm or deny any supposed covert action operations, but the questions from the Senators on the Senate’s Select Intelligence Committee made it seem to the even the casual observer that they were talking about the alleged Drone program, and some of the very serious issues surrounding it.
One of the more interesting dimensions to this issue has been reported by both the Washington Post, several weeks ago, and more recently by Michael Hirsh of the National Journal on February 7, which is the notion that Brennan feels “the [drone] program has run its course as a CIA operation” and that moving such a program to the Defense Department is the way forward in the future. If true, this would be an important idea worth exploring, not least because it comes to us from a career CIA man. Such men are not known for being eager to give away programs to the Defense Department. It is also worth exploring because when the whole matter is considered, Brennan’s position would absolutely be the right one. Any program of UAV strikes against high value targets being run from CIA is bad for covert action, bad for the CIA, bad for counterterrorism operations, and none too good either for war policy or the Law.
It is important to acknowledge from the outset that some very relevant practical questions are involved. Recent articles in the Washington Post and in syndicated wires reported that the CIA’s supposed use of UAV strikes is meant to be exempted for two years from new restrictions and procedures in the “Counterterrorism Playbook”. For the time being at least, it appears that policymakers are not willing to transfer the program. The reasoning goes that such supposed operations are too expedient to be stopped now or transferred immediately to a more structured program with greater oversight. It is an argument with powerful momentum. It will be difficult to overcome. It may also be the case that Brennan’s priorities upon assuming the Directorship of the CIA will not at first include laying the groundwork for such a transfer. Directors who arrive at Langley with major shifts in mind about how the Agency does its business tend not to last very long. Even those who do, often run up against great amounts of bureaucratic inertia in trying to accomplish their goals. All that aside, however, Brennan did remark at his hearing that “The CIA should not be doing traditional military activities and operations”, so at least he appears to have the right intentions, and the goal of placing a UAV strike program entirely within Defense is entirely right and worth pursuing.
Why such a program is bad Covert Action--Many writers have either defended or attacked the the idea of CIA UAV strikes based on their support (or not) for a “paramilitary CIA”, a “wartime Agency” or a “militarized CIA”, as if the CIA’s authorities to conduct covert action mean precisely UAV strikes. In reality, equating Drone strikes with paramilitary operations or covert action (CA) is a fallacy. Most people, a surprising number of whom work in intelligence and special operations, don’t know what covert action is, and no doubt this contributes to the poor reasoning. Yet any examination of the history of covert action, or even of what the term means, would clearly show that a drone strike program would be so far removed from the law, spirit and tradition of covert action that it strains the idea to the very limit.
Covert Action (CA) is defined in Executive Order 12333, the latest version of which was amended in 2008. It is available in full online and I encourage anyone wishing to learn more about CA to read it. The definition of covert action is as follows:
(B)Covert action means an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly, but does not include:
(1) Activities the primary purpose of which is to acquire intelligence, traditional counterintelligence activities, traditional activities to improve or maintain the operational security of United States Government programs, or administrative activities;
(2) Traditional diplomatic or military activities or routine support to such activities;...
The definition goes on to list other exceptions, but what primarily concerns us are the main definition and the first two exemptions. It is also noteworthy that only the CIA, unless during a time of declared war, or under jurisdiction The War Powers Act, can perform covert action.
If we consider as well the history of covert actions taken, one will find, albeit to varying degrees, at least some attempt to adhere to this definition. The result has been twofold: first, that covert action is not just a retread of overt action, that it is a value added and not a redundant tool; and second, that pains be taken to hide the U.S. hand in these events, even if the events themselves are widely known and highly visible. It is not necessary here to trot out the entire history of covert actions that have become known over time. Some of the more notable examples are sufficiently illustrative.
One of the first major CA efforts undertaken by the CIA was an effort to thwart the communist takeover of Italy, which was effected through a funding and propaganda effort in support of anti-communist political factions, and which was conducted so as not to delegitimize them by linking them to the U.S. In the 1960s, the program which eventually gave rise to the MACVSOG program in the military, was an effort (and a failed one at that) to infiltrate south Vietnamese agents behind enemy lines in North Vietnam in order to foment civil discord and resistance to Ho-Chi Minh from within his own population. If George Crile is to be believed, the Mujahideen of Afghanistan in the 1980s were armed with eastern block weapons, purchased with funds pooled with and funneled through Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in order to hide the ultimate origin of the arms and other materiel. The Stinger Missiles Crile says were sent to some of the Mujahideen commanders were an exception to this rule, but it was a decision deliberated over extensively, precisely because it pointed to the U.S. hand. It was only because the Stinger was the only tool for the job that it was settled upon to distribute it to the Afghan fighters.
The pattern found in these and other publicly known covert actions taken over the decades sits in sharp contrast to the kind of program discussed during Brennan’s Senate confirmation hearing last week. Basically, there is nothing covert about parking a hellfire in the middle of some mud hut or the back seat of an SUV rolling through the desert. Other than Israel in its immediate environs, only one country on earth does this in the wider world. So by default, U.S. hand is all over every one of these strikes for all to see. And no one seems to be trying all that much to keep quiet about it. Brennan was game during the hearings and the Agency has never avowed that it conducts such strikes; but everyone else in Washington assumes this stuff is happening, and that it has been happening for some time. Even if rudimentary deduction fails the observer in determining who is behind these acts in places like Pakistan, word of such operations has been leaked to the press with startling consistency for a number of years. Assuming that behind all the smoke is some fire, it is hard to see how this conforms to any notion that “the role of the U.S. Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly...” Indeed, the very fact of extensive press coverage tracking this issue and the debates surrounding it, reduces any such notion to the flimsiest kind of “plausible deniability” that seems to hold up only in the artificial world of politicians and lawyers.
Throughout its history, covert action at the CIA has been viewed as a different and complementary capability from the other policy options available in the diplomatic and military communities. Indeed, covert action as defined above specifically excludes regular diplomatic and military activities. Covert action thus gains viability from its uniqueness. By contrast, any drone strike program at CIA could not hope to be anything other than entirely redundant (note here that we’re talking about a strike program, not the use of drones or UAV’s for gathering intelligence or surveillance activities). The Department of Defense maintains, openly, a robust program of platforms to conduct identical strikes under its own authorities. It only stands to reason, as missile strikes are very much within the realm of “regular” military activities by any reasonable measure. According to Jane Mayer, writing in the New Yorker in 2009, “The U.S. government runs two drone programs. The militaries version, which is publicly acknowledged, operates in the recognizes wars zones of Afghanistan and Iraq...The C.I.A.’s program is aimed at terror suspects around the world, including countries where U.S. troops are not based.” If true, then the determination over who conducts these operations is not made by capability, but by geography, whether a target is in a given country that is or is not designated a combat zone. One can deduce that this is meant to make an end run around limits placed on military action in non combat zones as set by Congress, while cloaking such actions from scrutiny within the opacity of CIA’s covert action authorities.
Mayer makes another critical point, in her piece, entitled “The Predator War”, writing about the reliance on contractors to actually conduct such missions. She writes that “the contractors are ‘seasoned professionals--often retired military and intelligence officials’ (The intelligence agency outsources a significant portion of its work)”. Such a statement would indicate that unlike the military, the CIA must borrow or buy the Drone strike capability off the shelf wholesale, rather than investing in it through a dedicated career track. If news reports are any guide, the CIA has been doing these operations for nearly a decade, and yet it still lacks a set of established protocols for these operations, or an indigenous workforce to carry them out. The contrast to the military here is quite striking and it is perhaps here that the best practical argument resides to have the military take the lead in a drone strike program: they do aerial strikes--even with UAVs--all the time, and they are very good at it. The military has the manpower, both in the immediate and long term, the protocols, and controls to conduct such a program sustainably.
Why a Drone Strike program is bad for CIA--We have seen that the idea of a drone strike program is not particularly covert and not something the Agency is set up to do on its own. It is also not hard to reason that deploying these platforms in the field would require a large footprint and much local coordination, especially in parts of the world lacking U.S. bases from which to launch such missions. In fact, a NY Times report of February 5th alleged the just such use of a Saudi airstrip for conducting strikes in Yemen. Getting approval and facilities from foreign governments to conduct sensitive operations with potential blowback usually means a lot of time spent negotiating with them, coordinating with them and often buying them off as well. According to NPR, the list of locations is rather extensive. This trend underscores the new reality of counterterrorism for many in the Clandestine Service: their jobs, which used to be about unilateral espionage and operations, are now very much about the “liaison” work of coordinating with, and getting permission from, foreign governments to act in many types of operations, not just kinetic strikes. No doubt some of this is beyond anyone’s immediate control and the demands of the war on terror can be unrelenting, yet it should also be said that the ‘sexiness’ of coordinating a lethal op against an HVT, be it in the form of a kinetic strike or a direct action raid, also plays its part in motivating officers. Careerism has its part, as ever. Nevertheless, the more priority that is given to this liaison work, the less priority can be given to unilateral work, including the CIA’s basic function of strategic intelligence collection.
Being too close to a host government or a local security service can be hazardous for the CIA. It can blind the Agency to the real dynamics in a country, especially in the sort of failed and failing states where terrorist organizations like to pitch camp. Being too close to the Shah in the 1970‘s, for instance, blinded the Agency to the profound changes taking place within Iran in the run up to the revolution there. The same pattern of excessive reliance on liaison relationships and coordinating with other governments in counterterrorism more recently, in the opinion of many including this author, contributed to a series of massive intelligence failures, most notably the failure to forewarn us of the Arab Spring movements that have roiled a number of critical middle eastern and North African countries.
None of this is to say that any particular program of direct strikes caused the CIA to miss catching the Arab Spring. It these sorts of programs, however, that form a larger trend of the Agency adopting “traditional military actions and operations” to an unprecedented degree, and it has been to the detriment of the Agency’s unique function and competence. The Agency’s agility may have critical in bringing military assets rapidly to bear in the dynamic days immediately after September 11, 2001. Long term, however, these programs are largely unnecessary. The military is perfectly capable of operating these programs effectively while maintaining their security. It has been reported extensively that JSOC maintains its own capabilities to conduct such actions and maintain OPSEC. Indeed, according to Col. Charles Beckwith in his book about the founding of Delta Force, the constituent units within JSOC were originally stood up to conduct precisely these kinds of operations, such as the direct action raid in Abbottobad now so famous, and they were always understood to be operating under military authorities. It is somewhat puzzling that after 30 years, it appears that someone only recently realized many central JSOC activities apparently need to “borrow” authorities from CIA.
Regardless of whether it is JSOC military activity under CIA authorities, or CIA seconding the military’s capabilities to conduct an operation, undoubtedly these practices have fueled the critics of the Agency who see it as becoming “too militarized”. This is too clumsy a phrase to serve as effective critique. The problem is really somewhat different. The war on terror has reportedly seen the CIA adopt a “plug and play” approach to its paramilitary operations, hiring large numbers of former military personnel of all stripes to do their job just as if they were still in uniform. Subversion, sabotage, psychological operations, the manipulation of our enemy’s perception of his world and even of his own organization, have all taken a back seat to kinetic strikes. The results have been less than impressive, and the value added, arguably, has been nil.
Why the drone program is bad for Counterterrorism: The lure of using unmanned platforms to conduct missile strikes has caused much of the national security apparatus to become more intellectually lazy precisely at the moment when events demand it becomes sharper and more disciplined to face the challenges of the present. This community has traded long term strategic thinking for short term “victories” brought about by killing someone who is generally replaceable, and probably wanted to go out in such a fashion any way. The tactic has become the strategy, the purpose has become lost in the process. It has been facilitated at least to some extent by the quick, easy, and sanitary option of pressing a button, and blowing up a building on a screen.
Such intellectual laziness extends beyond the CIA to the National Security Council. Since President Obama took office, the default position of the administration, whenever a high value target has been found, has been to kill him with a missile strike. A policy of summary execution sounds manly and tough, but it robs the U.S. government of the opportunity to collect intelligence from this HVT as a detainee. It reduces the problem of terrorism to a series of kill lists, instead of a socio-political phenomenon with dynamics that need to be grasped if they are to be overcome. And it makes no provision for a long term resolution to the problem, which is to prevent the rise of such organizations in the first place. Drone strikes have failed, for instance, to halt the spread of Al Qaida and AQ affiliates into Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria and Syria, to name just some of the recent places where these groups have arisen. Drones strikes are the checkers answer to a chess game. One can imagine, however, that they brief well in Powerpoint.
A policy of summary execution is morally lazy as well, and that should give us great pause. Under the guise of a set of authorities never meant to countenance such activity, which preclude virtually all public inquiry and oversight, policymakers have arrogated to themselves the power to conduct military strikes with purpose of killing designated enemies anywhere in the world. They have opted not to wrestle with any of the knotty questions about obtaining an end to hostilities and an effective deterrence against the outbreak of future violence, or about how to detain and treat prisoners, and effectively prosecute an intelligence driven war. They have opted themselves out of leading the public through the hard choices required in balancing respect for human rights, liberty and security. These things apparently are too onerous. Instead, they have decided they prefer just to make that whole set of problems go away by killing everyone they can find. The expediency with which technology allows them to do this lowers the intellectual and moral costs of conducting these activities to the point where they become normalized and perpetuated, without any strategy for bringing them to an end. None of this is good for the laws governing how we as a nation employ military and other types of force overseas in the defense of the republic.
The CIA may have a two year extension on the alleged drone program, but it should move to divest itself of this activity much sooner than that. The CIA has a critical role to play in counterterrorism worldwide, primarily in the role of gathering critical intelligence to inform and educate policy makers about terrorism’s groups and dynamics, and to attack the underlying causes and enablers of terrorist group formation and action. And none of this is to suggest that the CIA should not also be involved in paramilitary work or in covert action, even covert action that has lethal consequences, so long as it demands the unique trade craft that the CIA brings to the table. Any drone strike program, however, would be little more than a crutch and a distraction from this important work. If we are honest, there are many and far worse things you could do to a fundamentalist Islamic terrorist than vaporize him instantly and fulfill his martyrdom fantasy. I would like to see the CIA get better at a number of them.