Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Drones, Covert Action, and Counterterrorism: Why UAV Strikes should be Exclusively Military

This should stir up some discussion.  I do not know how much experience Mr. Segalini has in the National Clandestine Service and whether he is qualified to make this analysis but it should provoke some debate and discussion.  But these two paragraphs are interesting:
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.  
But this statement illustrates an age old debate and the tension between unconventional warfare and direct action or special warfare and surgical strike. In the context of philosophy this should not be an either/or construct but rather a both/and relationship.  Instead of arguing one is better than the other we need a strategy that employs the right ways and means to accomplish our ends - rarely are the ways exclusive but instead should provide the right mix to be most effective. It could be a combination of both below and of course the right strategy may employ neither as well. The key is balance and coherency among ends, ways, and means to support our national policy and protect our interests.
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.

Drones, Covert Action, and Counterterrorism: Why UAV Strikes should be Exclusively Military

Journal Article | March 6, 2013 - 3:30am

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. 
(Continued at the link below)

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