A First Draft of the Third War

Why President Obama should commission a history of targeted killing.

Since 11:47 on Wednesday morning, the beginning of a Senate filibuster to delay a vote on John Brennan's nomination to head the CIA, "Rand Paul," "drones," and "John Brennan" have intermittently been trending on Twitter. This attention-grabbing focus on targeted killings -- which will last only until Paul runs out of steam -- is representative of the sporadic attention that the controversial tactic has received from policymakers and the public.

With each supposed revelation -- the "kill list," "signature strikes," "disposition matrix," and the leaking of a Department of Justice white paper providing the legal justification for killing American citizens -- there is a frenzy of interest in drone strikes. Analysts (myself included) are repeatedly asked, "Where is this all heading in five or ten years?" In other words: What additional lethal missions will U.S. armed drones execute, and where will they occur? What other states will seek to develop this military capability?

But, in general, there is relative indifference to the history of America's Third War -- the 10-year campaign of over 400 targeted killings in non-battlefield settings that have killed an estimated 3,500 to 4,700 people. And that is puzzling, particularly since they have become a defining feature of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy.

Over the past few months, many stakeholders in and out of government have offered recommendations about how the Obama administration should change, limit, end, or enhance its targeted killing policies. However, there have been no calls for an official government study into the history and evolution of non-battlefield targeted killings. This is essential, since reforms must first be informed by an accurate accounting of how the policies were originally conceived, how they were implemented and altered based on updated information, whether they succeeded or failed at achieving their objectives, and what their intended and unintended effects have been.

If President Obama believes what he said in his State of the Union address -- "It is not sufficient for citizens to just take my word for it that we are doing the right thing" -- then he should authorize a comprehensive historical review into targeted killings, ideally by an independent commission. This review would later be declassified -- with input from the original classification authorities -- to the greatest extent possible without revealing classified information regarding the sources and methods of such operations. This would include protecting those foreign liaison relationships that facilitate U.S. military or intelligence access to denied areas.

The president and his senior officials have repeatedly asserted that drones are "surgical," "discriminate," and "precise," and that there is a very careful and deliberate interagency process ("not a bunch of folks in a room somewhere just making decisions"). If that is true, then the Obama administration must believe it has a positive targeted killings story to share with the public. This would be preferable to the surreptitious custom of rebutting criticisms of targeted killings via anonymous officials, or selectively disavowing attacks that were initially thought to be drone strikes, as the New York Times reported on Monday.

Such an action would not be unprecedented. In May 2009, President Obama declassified Office of Legal Counsel memoranda justifying torture "because the existence of that approach to interrogation was already widely known, the Bush administration had acknowledged its existence." Today, targeted killings via U.S. drone strikes are openly debated, and Obama himself explicitly acknowledged the practice of targeted killings in Pakistan over 13 months ago. The principle and excuse of deniability no longer applies and is an unacceptable defense for the limitless secrecy surrounding the targeted killings program.

There are publicly available or partially declassified U.S. government reports on similarly controversial topics, including the CIA's 2004 report on detention and interrogation, the Pentagon's 2005 review of detention and interrogation, and the director of national intelligence's 2012 report on Guantanamo detainees. There have also been major reports, like the 9/11 Commission Report and the congressional joint inquiry into the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as the U.S. military's highly critical assessments of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Finally, there was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on Afghanistan's narco-war, which revealed that U.S. military forces "put drug traffickers with proven links to the insurgency on a kill list, called the joint integrated prioritized target list."

If the White House is unable or unwilling to conduct a similar study on drones, then Congress should build upon its recent efforts at oversight by initiating a full and complete accounting of non-battlefield targeted killings. This could be done through a joint inquiry or within the committees on governmental affairs, foreign relations, armed services, or intelligence. It would include staff investigations, closed hearings with administration officials, and public hearings with outside experts and former officials. One recent example is the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's 6,000-page report on CIA torture, which may be released in whole or in part "after receiving executive branch comments," according to Senator Dianne Feinstein. Given that Congress (justifiably) investigated America's role in the torture of an estimated 136 victims, it is surely worth investigating the targeted killings program, which has killed over 3,000 suspected terrorists, militants, and civilians -- and counting.

The first component of reform is drawing upon the experiences and lessons of the past. Without an official history of targeted killings, future U.S. government officials and employees will only be influenced by the immediate scope of their responsibilities, and citizens will absorb each new headline without a broader context or awareness. An executive or congressional historical report of targeted killings should receive bipartisan support, since the program has actually spanned three administrations -- even Bill Clinton maintained a kill list of "fewer than ten" suspected al Qaeda members. However, virtually all policymakers and citizens have forgotten that and are similarly unaware of the deep and opaque history of the Third War, because their focus is forever on the present and the future.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

National Security

Most. Dangerous. World. Ever.

The ridiculous hyperbole about government budget cuts.

Sequestration of the defense budget is a bad policy idea. However, living in denial about the need to prepare for sequestration is nearly as bad. Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), repeatedly reminded military officials last year: "They are obligated to plan for the worst-case scenario. They will not wait until December 2012 in hopes that things get better." However, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta directed the armed services not to plan for how sequestration could be implemented for over a year, noting, "I can't plan for something that was designed to be crazy."

In fact, the military is actually pretty good at developing worst-case contingency response plans for any number of foreseeable or crazy crises, using the operations -- or "3" -- planning staffs at combatant commands and in the Joint Staff. But the Pentagon's budgetary and programmatic managers did not plan in advance of sequestration, and now they find themselves scrambling to finish the job. In September, Defense Department comptroller Robert Hale said, "We will wait as long as we can to begin this process." Last week, he defended the lack of planning: "If we'd done this six months ago, we would have caused the degradation in productivity and morale that we're seeing now among our civilians." History will judge whether or not the Pentagon gambled correctly, if the already once-delayed sequestration is triggered as scheduled this Friday.

Instead of planning, Pentagon officials seemed to all reach for their thesauri after the Budget Control Act was passed in August 2011. Civilian and military officials have used a range of colorful terms to decry the joint-White House-Congress manufactured crisis of sequestration: "doomsday mechanism," "fiscal castration," "peanut butter," "stupid," "gun to their heads," "nuts," "irrational," "an indiscriminate formula," "worst possible outcome," "legislative madness," "devastating," "shameful," "reckless," and "absolutely disastrous." During what was supposed to be his final overseas trip -- before Senate Republicans delayed Chuck Hagel's confirmation process -- Panetta's staff appropriately gifted him a plastic meat axe, his favorite metaphor for graphically describing how sequestration would be applied across defense budget.

Besides applying these metaphors while simultaneously defending the necessity and relevance of their service or agency, national security officials have also seized the opportunity to paint the world as increasingly dangerous, unstable, and unpredictable. This casual threat inflation -- unquestioned by congressional members and the vast majority of punditry and media outlets -- has serious consequences for America's future foreign policy agenda. Consider these comments from over the past two weeks:

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey informed the Senate Armed Service Committee (SASC), "I will personally attest to the fact that [the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been." The next day, he warned the HASC: "There is no foreseeable peace dividend. The security environment is more dangerous and more uncertain." Similarly, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno professed to the SASC, "The global environment is the most uncertain I've seen in my thirty-six years of service." Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also concluded in an interview: "In almost 50 years in intelligence, I don't remember when we've had a more diverse array of threats and crisis situations around the world to deal with."

I will not repeat Gen. Dempsey's questionable threat calculus again in this column. However, it is worth noting that Dempsey has claimed for over a year: "We are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime." Now, Dempsey argues that we are not merely living in the most dangerous moment since his birth in 1952, but since the earth was formed 4.54 billion years ago.

Also appearing before the HASC, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos predicted: "The world we live in right now is very dangerous, and it's going to be that way for the next two decades." Referring to the relatively responsive capabilities of the Marine Expeditionary Units, Amos added: "I'm not trying to scare everybody, but you have to have a hedge force...to buy time for our national leaders." Given the U.S. military's terrible track record of predicting future conflicts, we should be skeptical of Amos's contention of being able to accurately forecast the global security environment through 2029.

(Last week, repeating an earlier assertion, Panetta told reporters at NATO headquarters: "[Cyber] is, without question, the battlefield for the future." But then why does the Pentagon spend less than 1 percent of its (unclassified) budget ($633 billion) on cybersecurity ($3.4 billion)?)

This latest sampling of official threat inflation raises a few questions for citizens to consider about the role of the U.S. national security state.

First, given the historically healthy, prosperous, and secure world, will U.S. officials ever characterize the United States as safe? If not now, when? Dempsey and others contend that due to interconnectivity and the spread of potentially lethal technologies (prominently including computers) to "super-empowered individuals," the world will only become more and more precarious. Over the past 12 years, the number of people connected to the Internet has expanded from 361 million to 2.4 billion. By 2020, there will be 28 billion devices connected to the Internet. By this logic, more connectivity and computers will only lead to increased threats to the United States.

Second, a core justification for maintaining a large peacetime military is to prevent and deter conflict, manage instability, and "to shape the threat, however indefinable it is out there," as Marine Commandant Gen. Carl Mundy noted before Congress in 1992. Recently, Gen. Dempsey warned that one of the consequences of sequestration would be the "progressive contraction of security commitments around the world and a less proactive approach to protecting our interests." But if the world is only becoming progressively more dangerous, despite costly "shaping" commitments around the world, then what is the U.S. military doing wrong? And if the military's current strategy isn't working, why would more money make it work? Unless, of course, the United States has limited and diminishing capacity to shape and direct foreign-policy events, in which case a strategic rethink is called for.

Finally, since citizens and elected representatives apparently agree that the world will be forever characterized by looming dangers, the range of possible futures for the United States is markedly constrained. It makes President Obama -- a former constitutional law professor -- unable or unwilling to answer directly answer "whether or not [a drone strike] is specifically allowed versus citizens within the United States?" It tolerates the costs ($11.3 billion per year) and consequences -- public ignorance -- of the vast secrecy for drones and a range of other foreign policy activities. It allows for the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and the reauthorization of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for five years (without even minor amendments that would have required estimates of how many Americans had their communications intercepted), not to mention the expansion of broad warmaking powers that continue to accrue within the executive branch.

In 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his military-industrial complex farewell address, calling on Americans to "guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex," and advocating the forward march "on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment." What was a remarkable speech during the Cold War would be completely unimaginable today from President Obama.

The tolerance for threat inflation in the absence of plausible threats should be questioned and challenged by anyone interested in, or holding a stake in, the future of U.S. foreign policy. It is bizarre and self-defeating that so many people who complain about the erosion of civil liberties at home, continued support for dictatorships abroad, and militarization of foreign policy also allow the world to be so mischaracterized as one of limitless threats and unending instability. Unless you resist the pernicious habit of threat inflation and its attendant costs directly, you will be fighting the controversial strategies and tactics that flow from this flawed diagnosis indefinitely.

Staff Sgt. Sun L. Vega, U.S. Army/Released