An Inconvenient Truth

Finally, proof that the United States has lied in the drone wars.

It turns out that the Obama administration has not been honest about who the CIA has been targeting with drones in Pakistan. Jonathan Landay, national security reporter at McClatchy Newspapers, has provided the first analysis of drone-strike victims that is based upon internal, top-secret U.S. intelligence reports. It is the most important reporting on U.S. drone strikes to date because Landay, using U.S. government assessments, plainly demonstrates that the claim repeatedly made by President Obama and his senior aides -- that targeted killings are limited only to officials, members, and affiliates of al Qaeda who pose an imminent threat of attack on the U.S. homeland -- is false.

Senior officials and agencies have emphasized this point over and over because it is essential to the legal foundations on which the strikes are ultimately based: the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force and the U.N. Charter's right to self-defense. A Department of Justice white paper said that the United States can target a "senior operational leader of al-Qa'ida or an associated force" who "poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States." Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration targets "specific senior operational leaders of al-Qaeda and associated forces," and Harold Koh, the senior State Department legal adviser dubbed them "high-level al-Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks." Obama said during a Google+ Hangout in January 2012: "These strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and going after al-Qaeda suspects." Finally, Obama claimed in September: "Our goal has been to focus on al Qaeda and to focus narrowly on those who would pose an imminent threat to the United States of America."

As the Obama administration unveils its promised and overdue targeted-killing reforms over the next few months, citizens, policymakers, and the media should keep in mind this disconnect between who the United States claimed it was killing and who it was actually killing.

Landay's reporting primarily covers the most intensive period of CIA drone strikes, from September 2010 to September 2011. "[T]he documents reveal estimates of deaths and injuries; locations of militant bases and compounds; the identities of some of those targeted or killed; the movements of targets from village to village or compound to compound; and, to a limited degree, the rationale for unleashing missiles," he writes.

While he provides few direct quotes from the documents, his most important finding is this:

At least 265 of up to 482 people who the U.S. intelligence reports estimated the CIA killed during a 12-month period ending in September 2011 were not senior al Qaida leaders but instead were "assessed" as Afghan, Pakistani and unknown extremists. Drones killed only six top al Qaida leaders in those months, according to news media accounts.

Forty-three of 95 drone strikes reviewed for that period hit groups other than al Qaida, including the Haqqani network, several Pakistani Taliban factions and the unidentified individuals described only as "foreign fighters" and "other militants."...

At other times, the CIA killed people who only were suspected, associated with, or who probably belonged to militant groups.

This scope of targeting complicates the Obama administration's claim that only those al Qaeda members who are an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland can be killed. In reality, starting in the summer of 2008, when President Bush first authorized signature strikes in Pakistan, the vast majority of drone-strike victims were from groups focused on establishing some form of Sharia law, attacking Pakistani security forces, and destabilizing Afghanistan by supporting the Taliban and attacking U.S. servicemembers. The United States essentially replicated the Vietnam War strategy of bombing the Vietcong's safe haven in Cambodia. In addition, the CIA was engaging in "side payment strikes" against the Pakistani Taliban to eliminate threats on Islamabad's behalf. This was not a secret to anyone following the CIA's drone program. As I wrote as early as March 2009:

The covert program that began as an effort to kill high-value al-Qaeda and Taliban officials responsible for previous international terror attacks (and who continue to provide strategic guidance to the global jihadist movement) has since led to the CIA's serving, in effect, as a counterinsurgency arm of the Pakistani air force.

Landay also writes that "the reports estimated there was a single civilian casualty, an individual killed in an April 22, 2011, strike in North Waziristan." This should finally demolish John Brennan's claim in June 2011 that "For the past year there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we've been able to develop." As I noted previously, either Brennan did not receive the information in these top-secret documents (an implausible notion given his central role in managing the targeted killings program), or he was being dishonest.

It is important to note that the claim of a single civilian casualty is based on the CIA's interpretation that any military-age males who are behaving suspiciously can be lawfully targeted. No U.S. government official has ever openly acknowledged the practice of such "signature strikes" because it is so clearly at odds with the bedrock principle of distinction required for using force within the laws of armed conflict. According to the documents reviewed by Landay, even the U.S. intelligence community does not necessarily know who it has killed; it is forced to use fuzzy categories like "other militants" and "foreign fighters."

Some of the drone strikes that Landay describes, such as a May 22, 2007 attack requested by Pakistan's intelligence service to support Pakistani troops in combat, do not appear in the databases maintained by the New America Foundation, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, or Long Wars Journal. This should strengthen the concerns of many analysts about the accuracy of reporting from Pakistan's tribal areas. It also suggests that there may be a few additional targeted killing efforts of which we know nothing.

This lack of understanding further reinforces the need for a comprehensive official history of U.S. targeted killings in non-battlefield settings, comparable in scope and transparency to the government reports about other controversial counterterrorism policies. Some policymakers will question why we should care about what the United States was doing two years ago, which in Washington is considered ancient and irrelevant. Yet, for all of the historical accounts and professed concerns over the CIA's detention and extraordinary rendition program, which involved "136 known victims," it is time for an accounting of the CIA's drone strikes, which have killed between 3,000 and 4,000 people in Pakistan and Yemen.

Finally, based on the Obama administration's patterns of behavior, the Department of Justice will assuredly target Landay and his sources for leaking classified information. While the DOJ has refrained from plugging the many selective leaks by anonymous administration officials that praise the precision and efficacy of drone strikes, it has sought more criminal prosecutions of leaks in Obama's first term than during all previous presidential administrations combined. Like almost everything else we know about targeted killings, these latest revelations come from an investigative journalist who served the public interest by reporting new information on a highly controversial policy -- a policy that the government absurdly insists remain secret. Absolutely nothing in Landay's reporting reveals the CIA's sources and methods for determining who had been killed.

The hypocrisy behind U.S. targeted killings has long been apparent to casual news readers, and it is now confirmed by internal intelligence documents. The Obama administration has a fundamental choice to make if it is serious about reforming its targeted-killing program: Either target who officials claim they are targeting, or change their justifications to match the actual practice. If they are unable or unwilling to do this, then other White House efforts toward drone-strike reform or transparency will be met with skepticism.

U.S. Air Force

National Security

The L Word

In Washington, "leadership" is the disease, not the cure.

Over the past few months, the Beltway's foreign policy community has offered two broad observations in op-eds and essays on America's role in the world. The first -- repeatedly covered in this column -- is that the world is one of increasing complexity, instability, and general dystopia. In a twist to his repeated assertion that the world has never been more dangerous, on March 22, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that "the world is more dangerous, because more people can do us harm." (This implies the world can only become ever more perilous since global population is projected to grow by one billion people over the next dozen years; presumably the Pentagon's Strategic Choices and Management Review will include expanding access to birth control as a key priority.)

The second observation is that we are now suffering a "world on fire" -- as Senator Lindsey Graham described it in February -- primarily because the United States has allowed it to deteriorate. More specifically, President Barack Obama, through his personal inclination or inattention, has let a "vacuum" emerge outside of America's borders, which -- like the earthly portal that brings forth the ancient Sumerian god of destruction, Gozer, at the end of Ghostbusters -- has been filled with mayhem, evil, and darkness. As political scientist Eliot Cohen wrote two weeks ago: "A world in which the U.S. abnegates its leadership will be a world of unrestricted self-help in which China sets the rules of politics and trade in Asia, mayhem and chaos is the order of the day in the Middle East, and timidity and appeasement paralyze the free European states." 

The proposed solution for a world that has become more dangerous only because the American president allowed it? "Leadership" -- the alleged absence of which is based on the observation of the anonymous Obama adviser who famously told The New Yorker that the administration's approach to Libya was one of "leading from behind." Ever since, whenever a policymaker or pundit observes any foreign policy that they object to, they charge the White House with exercising insufficient leadership. The next time you read some pundit demanding more leadership abroad, there are several assumptions worth bearing in mind.

First, those who oppose current U.S. foreign policies are always the ones appealing for more leadership, though they rarely provide details about what should be done differently. There are no new strategic objectives, courses of action, or actionable policy recommendations that could plausibly achieve the desired outcome. Developing realistic policy alternatives is difficult and involves making judgments about what trade-offs to make and what risks to accept. But telling the president to simply "do more" is a lazy and completely safe charge, since it requires nothing from the accuser other than to repeatedly highlight that they haven't gotten their way because of presidential inaction.

Second, leadership appeals also assume a wholly unrealistic presidential capability to compel U.S. allies and friends to adopt previously rejected policies. The world is, to quote the title of a recent Daniel Henninger op-ed, "Looking for Leadership" in Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Cyprus -- "All these matters have been treated so far with degrees of U.S. diffidence." The unstated belief here is that just a few more presidential phone calls or country visits would catalyze all the relevant stakeholders to selflessly and suddenly act in a coordinated manner to resolve persistent foreign policy challenges. Moreover, since these challenges have occurred only because of the willful neglect of the Oval Office, it is President Obama's personal obligation to correct them.

Third, leadership appeals are often thinly veiled demands that the president authorize the use of military force. As Richard Cohen has argued in the Washington Post as to why the president should intervene in Syria's civil war: "Without U.S. leadership, nothing happens. Our allies are incapable of leading because (1) they do not have the military wherewithal, and (2) they have forgotten how." What the armed opposition in Syria, and allies who claim to support some sort of intervention, actually want is not Obama's leadership, but the heavy weapons supplied by the CIA and the combat aircraft and cruise missiles that can only be delivered by the Pentagon. They want America's unmatched capacity to destroy things and kill people to assure that Assad will fall. They don't seek nor need America's guidance to achieve it, just America's might. Of course, opposition groups request U.S. military intervention all the time, but since those demands go largely unreported, pundits rarely cry "leadership" for those conflicts.

Fourth, there is an assumption that only the American president is obliged to show the leadership required to solve collective action problems unfolding thousands of miles away. As Jackson Diehl wrote on Monday, "Not just Britain and France but every neighbor of Syria has been shocked and awed by the failure of U.S. leadership." No pundit ever demands that those neighboring and nearby states -- possessing vast military arsenals that could easily topple Assad, at somewhat greater risk than a U.S.-led intervention -- show their own leadership. They are unanimous in their call for someone else to intervene (meaning the United States) to end the civil war, and pundits are soon convinced that this is the responsibility of Uncle Sam. Meanwhile, those same pundits never request that emerging powers in New Delhi, Brasilia, or Pretoria do anything regarding some foreign conflict. In Washington, America is forever the indispensable and manipulable nation.

Finally, many demanding greater leadership from President Obama are conditioned to believe that "leadership" is always the answer. The field of "leadership studies" and its supposed lessons are constantly jammed down the throats of graduate students at public policy, business, and law schools. In my five years in various low-level research positions at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the message I saw constantly transmitted to students was that they were being formed into an elite cadre with the skills and temperament that would allow them to lead others to solve social and political problems wherever they emerged.

Retired politicians, generals, and business executives reinforce this perspective. They cannot simply write memoirs of their professional experiences; instead, they must instead spin vignettes into bite-size "leadership lessons" that are packaged into paid speaking gigs and books -- type "leadership books" into the Amazon search engine you get 86,451 results. These sell tremendously well since it is appealing to imagine that inside of us all is a mini-Churchill -- currently constrained by bureaucratic forces or dismal personalities -- just waiting for the opportunity to assume control of our own destiny and to compel others to follow. It is no wonder that "leadership" has become the end-all-be-all solution to foreign policy problems.

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