Outsourcing Lethality

When there's a foreign finger on the trigger, is Washington still accountable when innocents die?

"Outsourcing" is a dirty word in Washington these days. But officials are strangely silent when it involves targeted killings. This column has repeatedly focused on the scope, distinction, legality, and strategic effectiveness of America's Third War of non-battlefield targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines. Among the most widely promulgated criticisms of U.S. drone strikes is the absence of any transparency in decision making, limited congressional and judicial oversight, and the potential for civilian harm without any apparent corrective action. Policymakers and analysts have offered suggestions for how -- over 10 years after they began -- the Obama administration could comprehensively reform its targeted killing policies. Finally, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder promised some reforms related to transparency "in the months ahead." That was several months ago. Given the Obama administration's refusal to provide witnesses to recent congressional hearings on drones -- or answer clarifying questions posed by journalists and policymakers -- it is likely that forthcoming announcements will fall short of the president's repeated goal of making his, "the most transparent administration in history."

However, if you're concerned by the Obama administration's targeted killing policies, don't overlook similar attacks conducted by allies and partners who receive U.S. money, weapons, or actionable intelligence. When the United States provides other states or non-state actors with the capabilities that enable lethal operations -- without which they would not happen -- it bears primary responsibility for the outcome. Whatever drone strike reforms the White House offers, or if additional congressional hearings are held, they must take into account America's troubling role in client-state targeted killings. Consider some of the most egregious recent examples which the United States directly abetted:

Somalia. Beginning in 2002, a small number of CIA officers and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces established a task force that attempted to capture or kill approximately 20 operatives from al Qaeda's East Africa cell. The strategy for achieving this short-term objective was the "use of ‘non-traditional liaison partners' (e.g. militia leaders)," as a leaked diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, later described it. For his unmatched history of U.S. counterterror operations, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, Jeremy Scahill interviewed one of these liaison partners, the warlord Mohamed Afrah Qanyare. As Scahill writes, in return for $100,000 to $150,000 a month from his CIA handlers, "Qanyare and his comrades engaged in an all-out targeted kill and capture campaign against anyone -- Somali or foreign -- they suspected of being a supporter of any Islamic movement." An intelligence source later told journalist Sean Naylor that the CIA warlords helped capture perhaps "seven or eight" al Qaeda figures in Somalia.

Northern Iraq. In November 2007, the United States opened a combined "intelligence fusion cell" in Ankara, Turkey, where, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable: "We have made available to the Turks a dedicated RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft, U-2 imagery, and full motion video from a Predator....U.S. and Turkish personnel work side-by-side to analyze incoming intelligence from these systems." As a Pentagon official characterized the cooperation soon after the Ankara cell opened, the United States was "essentially handing them their targets." Every State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices released since 2007 notes instances of civilians being killed in Turkish counterterrorism operations against suspected PKK militants, though there is never any mention of U.S. culpability.

In December 2011, a U.S. drone provided the initial video that led to a Turkish airstrike which killed 34 civilians, including 17 children. As a senior Pentagon official doth professed too much: "The Turks made the call. It wasn't an American decision." The recently released State Department human rights report merely noted the catastrophe: "Opposition and human rights organizations alleged that the incident was the result of a failure to implement adequate controls to safeguard civilian life." Unmentioned is what controls at all are in place to prevent U.S.-supplied intelligence from being used in future Turkish airstrikes that place civilians at risk.

Joseph Kony. In December 2008, four Ugandan MI-24 helicopters launched rockets and opened fire against four camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Garamba National Park. As journalist Scott Johnson reported, earlier that day, at a staging base in Uganda, U.S. military advisers used maps to show the helicopter pilots the targets: "four distinct ‘fishhook shape' camps spread out in cleared areas of the park." The operation was part of a significant U.S. military commitment to help the Ugandan government kill the Lord's Resistance Army leader, which was apparently a priority for President George W. Bush. (A senior White House official later told me that in his second term, Bush asked about the efforts to kill Kony as much as he did Osama bin Laden.) The 2008 attack, however, was a failure: "the helicopter crews later stated that several dozen people, including women and children, had been caught in the open." Three years later, Obama authorized the deployment of 100 U.S. military advisers to "fuse [American] intelligence with [Ugandan] operational planning" to get Kony. As Pentagon official Alexander Vershbow told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that month: "We certainly are trying to enhance the capacity of our partners to capture or kill Joseph Kony and other commanders. But they will be doing the actual military mission on the ground."

Pakistan. In 2009, after five years of close cooperation in approving individual CIA drone strikes, Pakistan accepted the establishment of joint intelligence fusion cells. As a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from May of that year noted: "Pakistan has begun to accept intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support from the US military for COIN [counterinsurgency] operations." Sharing targeting intelligence with Pakistan's military was intended to help Islamabad attack those same Taliban militants that were the focus of CIA missiles, without allowing Pakistani intelligence to tip off these targets in advance. Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate in April 2009 of instances where "an intelligence agency contact is warning [the Taliban] of an impending operation." As one notable example of this cooperation, in the fall of 2011, the United States provided Pakistan with the coordinates for a Taliban camp somewhere in the tribal areas. Using the advanced F-16s (Block 52) that the United States had sold them in 2010, the Pakistanis bombed the target, but hit "the wrong chain of mountains," according to an anonymous former U.S. official. Given the habitual practice of Pakistan's security forces conducting extrajudicial killings during its COIN operations, bombing mountains was probably the best outcome.

Honduras. On two separate occasions in July 2012, Honduran fighter pilots -- "using American radar intelligence" -- shot down suspected drug smuggling planes above the Caribbean Sea. As Damien Cave and Ginger Thompson reported: "How many people were killed? Were drugs aboard, or innocent civilians? Officials here and in Washington say they do not know. The planes were never found." The policy of U.S. radar sharing with Tegucigalpa was suspended in August, but resumed in November due to, "a series of corrective measures Honduras has taken to avoid shooting down civilian aircraft," according to an U.S. embassy spokesperson. Given America's insatiable demand for any illicit drugs the planes contained, providing the intelligence that led to their destruction and death of crew members was surely an ineffective, tactical response to drug smuggling.

Mali. Starting in February 2013, the military began flying a small number of unarmed drones out of a base in western Niger to track suspected al Qaeda affiliates and other Islamist militant groups in Algeria, Niger, and Mali. Though the Obama administration would not rule out equipping the drones with missiles in the future, one senior official proclaimed: "We don't want to abet a lethal action." However, not long after these words were uttered, the United States began to "pass the raw [drone] video feeds and other real time data to French military and intelligence officers." As the Wall Street Journal reported in March, the drones "provided intelligence and targeting information that have led to nearly sixty French airstrikes in the past week alone." Among those reportedly killed was militant leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who the Obama administration was considering adding to a JSOC kill list, and who had been targeted in 2003 before the ambassador to Mali vetoed the operation.

There are many other recent examples of targeted killings executed by Washington's clients, including counterterrorism operations conducted by Afghanistan, Kenya, the Philippines, Yemen, and elsewhere. The difference between U.S.-led and client-state targeted killing operations is that the latter more easily masks U.S. involvement and culpability. As Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Mike Rogers warned about sharing targeting intelligence last year: "What happens if this information gets to the [foreign] government and they do something wrong with it, or it gets into the hands of someone who does something wrong with it?"

This is a perplexing question coming from the policymaker who is supposed to be providing oversight of the CIA. If the White House and Congress finally agree to reform the legal and operational principles that guide U.S. non-battlefield targeted killings, those principles must also apply to those conducted on America's behalf. It is important for U.S. policymakers to consider lethal operations in which a foreign finger is on the trigger, as this will likely increase over time. The core objective of the Pentagon's expansion of "building partnership capacity" initiatives is to train, equip, and share intelligence with other militaries -- to enable them to capture or kill those individuals that threaten U.S. interests. But when those operations can only be conducted and sustained with direct U.S. assistance, then the United States should ultimately be accountable.

U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock

National Security

Hawking Something

The Syria interventionists want us to go to war. They're wrong.

In December 1997, an Egyptian agent who had been vetted and polygraphed by his CIA handlers collected a soil sample 60 feet in front of the entrance to the El-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, which the agency believed was connected to Osama bin Laden. The soil sample -- apparently taken from land not belonging to El-Shifa -- was analyzed and found to contain two-and-a-half times the normal trace of O-ethyl methylphosphonothioic acid, or Empta, a chemical precursor used in the production of VX nerve gas. Throughout 1998, intelligence analysts debated what to conclude from the soil sample, since it did not demonstrate whether the plant actually manufactured nerve gas. In July, the CIA recommended collecting an additional sample (that never happened), while on August 6, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research concluded that "the evidence linking El-Shifa to bin Laden and chemical weapons was weak." The following day, two truck bombs planted by al Qaeda cells killed 213 people -- including 12 Americans -- at the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, and 11 more people outside the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

A small group of senior Clinton administration officials debated a military response, which included five targets in Khartoum nominated by the CIA. Eventually, those five were whittled down to two and then to one. On August 20, two U.S. Navy warships launched 13 cruise missiles -- extra missiles were added to assure all the toxins would be incinerated -- at El-Shifa, destroying it and killing its night watchman. When it quickly became apparent that bin Laden had no controlling interest in El-Shifa, Clinton administration officials settled on the single soil sample as being the strongest evidence to justify the attack. Six weeks later, President Clinton told historian Taylor Branch that the supporting intelligence included "soil samples, connecting an element in nerve gas found there and in Afghanistan at similarly high concentrations."

The Obama administration now faces its own self-imposed decision-forcing point about whether to respond militarily to the reported evidence that the Syrian military has used chemical weapons against the armed opposition, an action interpreted as crossing an administration red line. The administration's position on whether Syria used chemical weapons reached the height of opacity two weeks ago when James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee: "That's a policy question and not one for intelligence to comment on." The intelligence community eventually sifted through what one official called the "shreds and shards of information" (soil samples, body tissue, photographs), with the normal dissension between agencies leaking into the press. Given the latest report from the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria -- which found countless crimes against humanity, war crimes, and gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law -- the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons would not be surprising, though it has so far provided limited battlefield advantage.

President Obama and White House officials quickly emphasized that they were deliberating potential military responses with prudence, in consultation with partners, and with no deadline. Before using force in Syria, President Obama must articulate his intended political and military objectives, and explain how military force could plausibly achieve them. Policymakers and pundits routinely provide multiple objectives -- but they tend omit the crucial second consideration. Consider some recent justifications offered for intervening in Syria's ongoing civil war.

Prevent additional use of chemical weapons. Rep. Mike Rogers called for "action to disrupt [Assad's] ability to deliver chemical weapons," while Sen. Dianne Feinstein declared last week: "It is clear that ‘red lines' have been crossed and action must be taken to prevent larger-scale use. Syria has the ability to kill tens of thousands with its chemical weapons." The objective here is to deny Assad reliable access to one of his lethal military capabilities, reportedly used in small amounts, but to ignore the artillery, airstrikes, and sniper fire responsible for the vast number of civilian deaths. Some scholars and analysts also contend that a stronger U.S. response is mandated to maintain and reinforce the long-standing international taboo against the use of weapons of mass destruction.

The difficulty with preventing the use of chemical weapons, or securing and consolidating the several dozen sites where they are held, is that it is a resource-intensive military mission, requiring up to 75,000 troops. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned in January: "The act of preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable. You would have to have such clarity of intelligence, persistent surveillance -- you'd have to actually see it before it happened. And that's unlikely." Dempsey recently declared that the Pentagon had completed the planning to secure Syria's chemical weapons caches, but that he was not confident of success "because [Syrian security forces have] been moving it and the number of sites is quite numerous." However, while some White House officials warn that "all options are on the table in terms of our response," others vow "no boots on the ground," even though ground forces would be required to secure the chemical agents.

Pick winners. Sen. Lindsey Graham summarized this viewpoint on Sunday: "There are two wars to fight -- one [is] to get Assad out of there.... The second war, unfortunately, is going to be between the majority of Syrians and the radical Islamists.... So we need to be ready to fight two wars." The theory is that if the United States intervenes militarily or provides weapons to "the opposition good guys," as Sen. Claire McCaskill described them, then Washington will have greater influence on the post-Assad, non-Islamic political leadership. Subsequently, Syria will likely align its policies with U.S. preferences.

Picking winners is not our responsibility and believing we can do so is wishful thinking. As one rebel recently told the New York Times: "We all want an Islamic state and we want shariah to be applied." It is doubtful that anything the West does today will markedly influence what role Islam plays in Syrian society or governance after Assad. Moreover, the religious faith of the people does not matter; what matters is the state's behavior in those limited areas where Syrian and Western interests overlap, specifically in confronting transnational challenges. Finally, Syria's future leaders will act in their own national interests with whatever international actor is required, regardless of who is arming or funding the revolution today.

Deter Iran and North Korea. Rep. Rogers warned this weekend: "More than just Syria, Iran is paying attention to this. North Korea is paying attention to this." Sen. Graham more vividly predicted that with Obama's indecisiveness, "we're going to have a war with Iran because Iran's going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we're not serious about their nuclear weapons program." Their implication is that, if the United States responds to Assad crossing Obama's chemical weapons red line, Iran and North Korea will adhere to their own red lines.

There's one big problem with this logic: According to a tally by Harvard University professor Graham Allison, Iran has already crossed seven red lines put forth by the international community. Furthermore, former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin noted this weekend: "Today it can be said that the Iranians have crossed the red line set by Netanyahu at the U.N. assembly." In addition, Israel leaders have repeatedly stressed, as Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz declared on Sunday, "We are not making any comparison or linkage with Iran, which is a completely different matter." If Tel Aviv does not draw conclusions from U.S. inaction in Syria with Iran, why should Washington?

In October 2006, President George W. Bush warned Pyongyang: "The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable of the consequences of such action." When the Bush administration learned that North Korea -- starting in 2001 -- had clandestinely helped Syria construct a "carbon copy" of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, it responded to both governments with silence.

Furthermore, if Kim Jong Un or the mullahs in Tehran are watching closely, it is hard to see how enforcing a partial no-fly zone over Syria with Patriot missile batteries already installed in eastern Turkey would be a demonstrable deterrent. Assuring the physical destruction of Iran's (or North Korea's) nuclear program is a significantly more intensive and riskier military intervention, which would include attacking their integrated air defense systems, command-and-control facilities, known nuclear sites, and other regime assets.

Ensure U.S. credibility. Beyond Iran and North Korea, many policymakers and publications contend that the world is carefully judging America's credibility and reputation. The Washington Post editorial board declared: "If Mr. Obama waffles or retreats on the one clear red line he drew, U.S. credibility across the region will be severely damaged." Rogers asserted: "We have lost the confidence of the Arab League." Meanwhile, Sen. Saxby Chambliss warned: The world is watching. We've got 70,000 dead people in that part of the world as a result of Bashar al-Assad. We as America have never let something like that happen before. We've taken action."

Leaving aside the multiple historical errors in Chambliss's statement, using or threatening to use force to "signal" is a fool's errand. Recall that many advocates of intervening in Libya's civil war believed U.S. action would show other dictators that they should embrace democratic demands for change. John Kerry, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared: "The military intervention in Libya sends a critical signal to other leaders in the region: They cannot automatically assume they can resort to large-scale violence to put down legitimate demands for reform without consequences." Columnist Nicholas Kristof claimed: "If not for this intervention...the message would have gone out to all dictators that ruthlessness works." Since Assad incorrectly interpreted the intended message from ousting Qaddafi, why would other potential friends or adversaries assess U.S. strength and credibility based on Syria?

Prevent revenge. During a recent Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. John McCain warned Obama administration officials that Syrian children in refugee camps "will take revenge on those who failed to help them. We've failed to help." At a later hearing, he claimed: "We are breeding a generation of people who will -- as was articulated to me by a teacher in one of the refugee camps, these children will take revenge on the people who refused to help them." McCain and others appear to believe that -- unlike other opposition movements around the world that demand and fail to receive U.S. assistance -- Syrians have deeply ingrained memories and are especially predisposed to seek vengeance. This revenge is also selective, because nobody contends that vengeful Syrians will try to kill Chinese, Brazilians, South Africans, Indians, or other powers that refuse to intervene militarily or provide arms.

It was the contention of every policymaker this weekend that America is "doing nothing" in Syria. The United States has provided $385 million in humanitarian assistance, $250 million in non-lethal aid to opposition and civil society groups, and supports a massive clandestine effort to feed citizens and supply hospitals in the rebel-held areas of Syria. At the last international pledging conference for Syria, China vowed merely $1.2 million for U.N. aid agencies. If perceived inaction is the catalyst for vengeance, then future generations of Syrians should presumably target Beijing before Washington.

Protect Jordan. The contention is that the United States and regional partners should limit the potential for sectarian spillover into Jordan, since it could irreversibly destabilize the constitutional monarchy of King Abdullah II. On Thursday, Sen. Graham noted that swift U.S. action could "contain this fighting so that the King of Jordan does not fall.... The kingdom of Jordan has been a stabilizing influence in the Mideast. Jordan is under pressure from the effects of Syria." On Sunday, Graham again warned that "[Abdullah's] kingdom could fall, and he's a moderating influence." Given that 86 percent of Jordanians have an unfavorable view of the United States, it is unwise and unrealistic to expect that deploying the U.S. military to "do something" in Syria will ensure the Hashemite Kingdom's survival.

The humanitarian impulse to apply military tactics selectively in Syria, or provide advanced weapons to specific rebel groups is understandable given the horrors unfolding on the ground, overwhelmingly committed by the Assad regime. The United States could "level the playing field" with its vast conventional military capabilities, and policymakers claim these capabilities come with an obligation to use them. As Rep. Keith Ellison declared on Sunday: "I don't think the world's greatest superpower, the United States, can stand by and not do anything." Sen. Dick Durbin stated it more simply: "Something has to be done."

However, if you examine what that specific "something" is, it becomes apparent that U.S. military power cannot plausibly achieve it -- not with the level of commitment and risk that policymakers are willing to accept. A U.S. official told Reuters this weekend: "There's a lot of analysis to be done before reaching any major decisions that would push U.S. policy more in the direction of military options." Advocates of military intervention need to define their strategic objectives in Syria and outline how the use of force can accomplish it. So far, no one has done so.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images