What to keep secret in a secret war

Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor for the New York Times, writes: If you were reading the two sentences by themselves, you might be surprised they appeared in the same newspaper.

One suggested a news organization that is tough-minded, calling its own shots about acceding to government requests for secrecy. It appeared in an article about whether the C.I.A.’s drone-strike program is properly monitored by Congress. The story named the program’s architect, Michael D’Andrea.

“The C.I.A. asked that Mr. D’Andrea’s name and the names of some other top agency officials be withheld from this article,” it said, “but The New York Times is publishing them because they have leadership roles in one of the government’s most significant paramilitary programs and their roles are known to foreign governments and many others.”

The other sentence suggested, by contrast, a news organization that provides anonymous cover for government officials touting the merits of their underexamined war. It appeared in an article on the effectiveness of the drone program, based partly on interviews with American officials. One of them was quoted anonymously: “‘Core Al Qaeda is a rump of its former self,’ said an American counterterrorism official, in an assessment echoed by several European and Pakistani officials.”

As The Times covered the recent unintended deaths of two Western hostages in a drone strike, a split personality was on view.

In many ways, the coverage has been remarkable for straightforward truth-telling.

A front-page news analysis by Scott Shane, for example, included this memorable paragraph, not in a quote but in the author’s own voice: “Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. Gradually, it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess.” (Mr. Shane’s knowledge comes in part from his book, due for September publication, on the 2011 drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam.)

But in other ways, drone coverage is still lacking in skepticism about government claims on classified killings — something I criticized in 2012. [Continue reading…]

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One-woman play explores the frightening future of the drone wars

Fred Kaplan writes: A new one-woman play, Grounded, by George Brant — now at New York’s Public Theater in a dazzling production directed by Julie Taymor — captures some of the weird dissonance of a drone pilot’s life. The Odyssey “would be a different book,” she muses at one point, “if Odysseus came home every day, every single day.”

The pilot (played by a convincing, even riveting Anne Hathaway) was once a real pilot, an F-16 fighter jock, psyched on “the speed … the ride … the respect … the danger” of hurling through the sky (“You are the blue”), raining missiles down on the desert, breaking minarets into particles of sand. Now she drives to war, “like it’s shift work,” and stares at a gray screen, watches the “silent gray boom” after she pushes a button, and hovers over the scene long after, watching the body parts fly, then the mourning and anguish of those who retrieve them — sights that she had never stayed around to witness before. She begins to see gray everywhere, melding her life that’s not quite a life with her combat that’s not quite combat, imagining the Nevada desert of her daily drive as the Iraqi desert of her daily surveillance, blurring a jihadi’s daughter that she’s killed with her own daughter, and gradually she goes haywire.

Brant’s play is reminiscent of, and must have been to some degree inspired by, Matthew Power’s 2013 article in GQ, “Confessions of a Drone Warrior,” in which his subject, Airman 1st Class Brandon Bryant, recounts the “zombie mode” and “fugue state” of his shifts in the joystick trailer, watching and killing from so near, yet so far: the dissonance of the godlike power and the gray silence. [Continue reading…]

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Blurry covert lines limit chances of drone program changes

Huffington Post: After last week’s tragic news that an errant CIA drone strike had mistakenly taken out an American and an Italian hostage in Pakistan, critics of the spies’ program — who have long argued the targeted killings should strictly fall in the military’s wheelhouse — are rallying to finally take the drone trigger out of the agency’s hands.

But that effort to transition the program may not be as simple as critics think. After all, drone operations are a lot easier to run when you don’t have to follow all the rules.

The crux of the debate over who should control the drone program has watered down to that one core argument for years. The drone program itself splits off into two arms: the CIA runs a covert program governed by U.S. Title 50, and the military runs a program that can either be overt or clandestine under the military’s Title 10. And simply by virtue of the differences between overt and covert action, the White House has run into hefty roadblocks in its supposed crusade to end the CIA’s covert side of the program.

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Life and death of an al Qaeda spokesman

Iona Craig writes: The voice on the phone was a mere whisper. The spokesman for al-Qaeda’s most notorious affiliate, AQAP, sounded nervous.

The man who scores of reporters around the world came to know over the last year under the alias of “Muhannad Ghallab” was not what I expected. One of the pictures he sent me showed him with long hair, dressed in a blue T-shirt with the words “Men gone surfing” printed across it.

Muhannad first contacted me in 2012 when I was living in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, working as a freelance journalist. I became, as he later joked, his personal “experiment” as AQAP’s initial attempt to reach out to the international media, putting up an English-speaking voice to counter the Washington and Western media narrative. Eventually, Muhannad would be quoted widely in international media outlets — usually just as a nameless spokesman — providing a rare insight into AQAP. [Continue reading…]

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Predator drone strikes: A cure worse than the disease

Bruce Fein writes: Something is rotten in President Barack Obama’s classified, programmatic use of predator drones to target suspected international terrorists for death anywhere on the planet.

The targeting intelligence is suspect.

The program is secret, lawless, and unaccountable to Congress, the Supreme Court, and the American people.

The killings pivot on a principle that will haunt the United States in the future as predator drone capability spreads to China, Russia or otherwise.

And the program is compounding rather than diminishing the international terrorist threat against the United States by creating more revenge-motivated terrorists than are being killing; and, by serving as a calling card for international terrorist recruitment. That explains why high level military and intelligence officials in the Obama administration concede that 14 years after 9/11 the United States is more imperiled by international terrorism than ever before.

Depend upon it. If the predator drone program were suspended for six months on a trial basis, international terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia aimed at the United States would contract. The foundation would be laid for terminating the entire program and making the United States safer. [Continue reading…]

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Why the New York Times named names in CIA drone story

Michael Calderone reports: The New York Times reported across the top of Sunday’s front page that Congress is doing little to oversee the CIA’s targeted killing program. In the process, the paper identified three high-ranking CIA officials with key roles in secret drone operations.

The CIA asked the Times to withhold the names in its report, a request that executive editor Dean Baquet told The Huffington Post on Monday that he took seriously, but decided not to honor.

Baquet said the officials are not undercover agents carrying out clandestine operations in the field, but rather figures with significant roles in “one of the major issues in modern American warfare.” The CIA is now playing a “quasi-military role” through the drone program, a departure from its traditional functions that deserves scrutiny. In order to debate the program, he said, the public needs to know who is making key decisions. In addition, as the Times wrote in its article, the CIA officials’ “roles are known to foreign governments and many others.”

“It would have been weird to not name the guys who run it,” Baquet said. “They’re not undercover. They’re not unknown. They’re sort of widely known.”

A CIA spokesman declined to comment to The Huffington Post.

Baquet’s decision shows the news organization’s increasing willingness to push back against government requests to withhold information, unless officials provide specific reasons why doing so may damage national security. [Continue reading…]

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How candidate of hope and change became president of kill lists, drone strikes, and immunity for torturers

Gregory D. Johnsen writes: Shortly before 9 a.m. on March 11, 2014, Dianne Feinstein, the 80-year-old chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, walked into the Senate chamber with a thick stack of papers and a glass of water. The Senate had just finished a rare all-night session a few minutes earlier, and only a handful of staffers were left in the room. Feinstein had given thousands of speeches over her career, but none quite like this.

“Let me say up front that I come to the Senate floor reluctantly,” she said, as she poked at the corners of her notes. The last two months had been an exhausting mix of meetings and legal wrangling, all in an attempt to avoid this exact moment. But none of it had worked. And now Feinstein was ready to go public and tell the country what she knew: The CIA had broken the law and violated the Constitution. It had spied on the Senate.

“This is a defining moment for the oversight of our intelligence community,” Feinstein said nearly 40 minutes later, as she drew to a close. This will show whether the Senate “can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities, or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.”

Two hours later and a few miles away at a Council on Foreign Relations event near downtown Washington, the CIA responded. “As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into Senate computers,” CIA Director John Brennan told Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, shaking his head and rolling his eyes to demonstrate the ridiculousness of the charges, “nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that.”

Brennan was 58, but that morning he looked much older. He’d hobbled into the room on a cane following yet another hip fracture, and after some brief remarks he eased himself into a chair with obvious discomfort. Two years earlier in a commencement address at Fordham University, his alma mater, Brennan had rattled off a litany of injuries and ailments: In addition to his hip problems, he’d also had major knee, back, and shoulder surgeries as well as “a bout of cancer.” Years of desk work had resulted in extra weight and the sort of bureaucrat’s body that caused his suits to slope down and out toward his belt. “I referred the matter myself to the CIA inspector general to make sure that he was able to look honestly and objectively at what the CIA did there,” Brennan said. “And, you know, when the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.”

Mitchell, who had already asked him two questions about the allegations, pressed again. “If it is proved that the CIA did do this, would you feel that you had to step down?”

Brennan chuckled and stuttered as he tried to form an answer. Two weeks earlier, he had told a dinner at the University of Oklahoma that “intelligence work had gotten in my blood.” The CIA wasn’t just what he did; it was his “identity.” He had worked too hard to become director to give up without a fight. “If I did something wrong,” Brennan eventually told Mitchell, “I will go to the president, and I will explain to him exactly what I did, and what the findings were. And he is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.”

But Obama was never going to ask for his resignation. Not then, and not months later when the CIA inspector general’s report came back, showing that the agency had done what Feinstein claimed. Brennan was Obama’s man. His conscience on national security, and the CIA director he’d wanted from the very beginning. Not even a chorus of pleas from Democratic senators, members of Obama’s own party, made any difference. John Brennan would stay, the untouchable head of America’s most powerful intelligence agency. [Continue reading…]

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Obama secretly allowed looser rules for drone strikes in Pakistan

The Wall Street Journal reports: President Barack Obama tightened rules for the U.S. drone program in 2013, but he secretly approved a waiver giving the Central Intelligence Agency more flexibility in Pakistan than anywhere else to strike suspected militants, according to current and former U.S. officials.

The rules were designed to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. Mr. Obama also required that proposed targets pose an imminent threat to the U.S.—but the waiver exempted the CIA from this standard in Pakistan.

Last week, the U.S. officials disclosed that two Western hostages, U.S. and Italian aid workers Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, were killed on Jan. 15 by a U.S. drone strike aimed at al Qaeda militants in Pakistan. If the exemption had not been in place for Pakistan, the CIA might have been required to gather more intelligence before that strike.

And though support for the drone program remains strong across the U.S. government, the killings have renewed a debate within the administration over whether the CIA should now be reined in or meet the tighter standards that apply to drone programs outside of Pakistan. [Continue reading…]

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Deep support in Washington for CIA’s drone missions

The New York Times reports: About once a month, staff members of the congressional intelligence committees drive across the Potomac River to C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., and watch videos of people being blown up.

As part of the macabre ritual the staff members look at the footage of drone strikes in Pakistan and other countries and a sampling of the intelligence buttressing each strike, but not the internal C.I.A. cables discussing the attacks and their aftermath. The screenings have provided a veneer of congressional oversight and have led lawmakers to claim that the targeted killing program is subject to rigorous review, to defend it vigorously in public and to authorize its sizable budget each year.

That unwavering support from Capitol Hill is but one reason the C.I.A.’s killing missions are embedded in American warfare and unlikely to change significantly despite President Obama’s announcement on Thursday that a drone strike accidentally killed two innocent hostages, an American and an Italian. The program is under fire like never before, but the White House continues to champion it, and C.I.A. officers who built the program more than a decade ago — some of whom also led the C.I.A. detention program that used torture in secret prisons — have ascended to the agency’s powerful senior ranks. [Continue reading…]

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Inside Obama’s drone panopticon: A secret machine with no accountability

The Guardian reports: Of all the reactions to the deaths of two hostages from a missile fired from a US drone, Congressman Adam Schiff provided the deepest insight into the logic underpinning the endless, secret US campaign of global killing.

“To demand a higher standard of proof than they had here could be the end of these types of counter-terrorism operations,” said Schiff, a California Democrat and one of the most senior legislators overseeing those operations.

The standard of proof in the January strike in tribal Pakistan was outlined by the White House press secretary in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s admission about the deaths. An agency that went formally unnamed – likely the CIA, though the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) also conducts drone strikes – identified what Josh Earnest called an “al-Qaida compound” and marked the building, rather than particular terrorists, for destruction.

Thanks to Obama’s rare admission on Thursday, the realities of what are commonly known as “signature strikes” are belatedly and partially on display. Signature strikes, a key aspect for years of what the administration likes to call its “targeted killing” program, permit the CIA and JSOC to kill without requiring them to know who they kill. [Continue reading…]

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Warren Weinstein and the long drone war

Steve Coll writes: Warren Weinstein was the forgotten man of the war against Al Qaeda. He was an Urdu-speaking aid worker on contract with U.S.A.I.D., a man past retirement age, who was kidnapped from his home, in Lahore, in the summer of 2011, days before he was supposed to return to the States. The kidnapping occurred three months after Navy SEALs raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden. Yet, despite efforts that the Obama Administration described on Thursday as extensive, no SEALs ever located or attempted to rescue Weinstein, who was seventy-three years old when he died.

Nor did the White House negotiate his release. Last May, after long talks with the Taliban, U.S. Special Forces flew into Waziristan to accept custody of Bowe Bergdahl, an Army soldier who had wandered off his base, on the Afghan border with Pakistan, and been captured by fighters with the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. In exchange for Bergdahl’s release, the Obama Administration released four Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo. Weinstein did not figure into the deal and was left behind. Judging by the videos that his captors released, he was ill and deeply demoralized.

Of course, Al Qaeda, not the Obama Administration, is responsible for Weinstein’s miserable fate. Still, the fact that Weinstein’s own government accidentally killed him — during his fourth year in captivity, and without a rescue ever being attempted — is a disturbing coda to the short history of drone warfare. It reminds us that the problem with drones is not just that their operators sometimes make mistakes. It is that the heavy reliance — in time, dollars, and bureaucratic priorities — on a technological panacea for the problem of terrorism can cause a government to lose sight of the people on the ground.

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Giovanni Lo Porto was known as aid worker drawn to needy

The New York Times reports: When Giovanni Lo Porto was kidnapped by Al Qaeda in Pakistan in January 2012, the nongovernmental organization he worked for was inundated with emails from around the world expressing concern and care.

“It was amazing how many emails we got saying, ‘We hope he’s well,’ ” said Simone Pott, a spokeswoman for the organization, Welthungerhilfe, one of Germany’s biggest agencies specializing in emergency and long-term aid. She remembered him as a “great colleague,” and “vibrant, full of life.”

His kidnapping prompted a huge response, she said. “He had friends all over the world.”

As those friends and colleagues learned Thursday that Mr. Lo Porto, 37, along with an American hostage, had been killed in a United States counterterrorism operation in Pakistan three months earlier, they recalled a driven and experienced aid worker who was drawn to those in need. Italian opposition parties used news of his death to criticize the country’s leadership and its involvement in the Middle East, and some of his supporters questioned whether enough had been done to secure his freedom. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s drone war has the precision of guesswork

The New York Times reports: Barack Obama inherited two ugly, intractable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when he became president and set to work to end them. But a third, more covert war he made his own, escalating drone strikes in Pakistan and expanding them to Yemen and Somalia.

The drone’s vaunted capability for pinpoint killing appealed to a president intrigued by a new technology and determined to try to keep the United States out of new quagmires. Aides said Mr. Obama liked the idea of picking off dangerous terrorists a few at a time, without endangering American lives or risking the yearslong bloodshed of conventional war.

“Let’s kill the people who are trying to kill us,” he often told aides.

By most accounts, hundreds of dangerous militants have, indeed, been killed by drones, including some high-ranking Qaeda figures. But for six years, when the heavy cloak of secrecy has occasionally been breached, the results of some strikes have often turned out to be deeply troubling.

Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. Gradually, it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess. [Continue reading…]

Micah Zenko notes: Based upon the averages within the ranges provided by the New America Foundation, the Long War Journal, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been an estimated 522 U.S. targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since 9/11, which have killed 3,852 people, 476 (or 12 percent) of whom were civilians.

However, whenever human rights groups produce credible reports about non-American civilians who are unintentionally killed, U.S. officials and spokespersons refuse to provide any information at all, and instead refer back to official policy statements — which themselves appear to contradict how the conduct of U.S. counterterrorism operations is supposed to be practiced. Moreover, even within traditional battlefields like Afghanistan or Iraq, the U.S. government refuses to provide information about harm caused to civilians. Last year in Afghanistan alone, the United Nations documented 104 civilian deaths “from aerial operations by international military forces.” There were no statements from the relevant military commanders or White House about any of these victims.

Earlier this month, during a question-and-answer session at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, CIA director John Brennan pledged:

“We, the U.S. government, the U.S. military, are very, very careful about taking action that’s going to have collateral civilian impact. A lot of these stories that you hear about — in terms of ‘Oh my god, there are hundreds of civilians killed,’ whatever — a lot of that is propaganda that is put out by those elements that are very much opposed to the U.S. coming in and helping.”

“Propaganda.” That’s how U.S. officials deride research that challenges their assertions.

Unfortunately, there have been hundreds of civilians killed by U.S. counterterrorism operations, despite the very real precautions that the CIA and military undertake to prevent them. This is why, as I have written often previously, the United States has an obligation to those American and non-American civilians killed by drones to commission a study into U.S. targeted killing policies similar to the extensive one conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. Without a full and complete accounting of this lethal tactic that has come to define U.S. foreign policy throughout the world, we will always be forced to rely upon the selective pledges provided by U.S. officials. [Continue reading…]

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Waziristan: The world’s drone-strike capital

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Drone strikes killing hostages were aimed at unknown targets

The Guardian reports: The targets of the deadly drone strikes that killed two hostages and two suspected American members of al-Qaida were “al-Qaida compounds” rather than specific terrorist suspects, the White House disclosed on Thursday.

The lack of specificity suggests that despite a much-publicized 2013 policy change by Barack Obama restricting drone killings by, among other things, requiring “near certainty that the terrorist target is present”, the US continues to launch lethal operations without the necessity of knowing who specifically it seeks to kill, a practice that has come to be known as a “signature strike”.

Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, acknowledged that the January deaths of hostages Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto might prompt the tightening of targeting standards ahead of lethal drone and other counter-terrorism strikes. A White House review is under way. [Continue reading…]

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American, Italian hostages killed in CIA drone strike in January

The Wall Street Journal reports: A U.S. drone strike in January targeting a suspected al Qaeda compound in Pakistan inadvertently killed an American and Italian being held hostage by the group, senior Obama administration officials said.

The killing of American development expert Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto is the first known instance in which the U.S. has accidentally killed a hostage in a drone strike.

The mishap represents a major blow to the Central Intelligence Agency and its covert drone program in Pakistan, which President Barack Obama embraced and expanded after coming to office in 2009.

The incident also underscores the limits of U.S. intelligence and the risk of unintended consequences in executing a targeted killing program which, according to human rights groups, endangers civilians. U.S. officials say the strikes are needed to combat al Qaeda. To mitigate the risks, officials say the CIA won’t launch missiles at a suspected target if they know civilians are present. [Continue reading…]

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Germany is the tell-tale heart of America’s drone war

Jeremy Scahill reports: A top-secret U.S. intelligence document obtained by The Intercept confirms that the sprawling U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany serves as the high-tech heart of America’s drone program. Ramstein is the site of a satellite relay station that enables drone operators in the American Southwest to communicate with their remote aircraft in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and other targeted countries. The top-secret slide deck, dated July 2012, provides the most detailed blueprint seen to date of the technical architecture used to conduct strikes with Predator and Reaper drones.

Amid fierce European criticism of America’s targeted killing program, U.S. and German government officials have long downplayed Ramstein’s role in lethal U.S. drone operations and have issued carefully phrased evasions when confronted with direct questions about the base. But the slides show that the facilities at Ramstein perform an essential function in lethal drone strikes conducted by the CIA and the U.S. military in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa.

The slides were provided by a source with knowledge of the U.S. government’s drone program who declined to be identified because of fears of retribution. According to the source, Ramstein’s importance to the U.S. drone war is difficult to overstate. “Ramstein carries the signal to tell the drone what to do and it returns the display of what the drone sees. Without Ramstein, drones could not function, at least not as they do now,” the source said. [Continue reading…]

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How could crimes that don’t warrant a life sentence justify a death sentence?

Conor Friedersdorf writes: Some of the most powerful people in the U.S. government wanted to kill Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh. The military, the CIA, and an influential Republican member of Congress all argued that a drone should be sent to kill the American.

Now he is in custody.

And if convicted of all charges that he faces, he’ll get a maximum of 15 years in prison–the same sentence that a brother and sister in Missouri got for growing marijuana.

How can a person narrowly escape extrajudicial assassination, get extradited to the United States, appear inside our judicial system, and face just 15 years in prison? Powerful people were prepared to end his life, but the extent of what they’re willing to prove beyond a reasonable doubt wouldn’t even draw a life sentence. [Continue reading…]

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