"To be at war, no matter where one is serving, is to sense palpably the possibility of death; if not to you, then to a friend or relative." That's how author James Charlton begins the third edition The Military Quotation Book (St. Martin's Press), which contains more than 1,100 memorable observations culled from an eclectic range of authors, philosophers, generals, politicians, and dictators.
Charlton has written half a dozen other compendiums of quotes. This one contains a few golden oldies. There's former Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles' famous admonishment that "gentlemen do not read each other's mail," which is so demonstrably untrue that one wonders if Dulles said it as a joke.
There are more than a few colorful quips from America's warrior giants, like Gen. George Patton: "Strategy if finding a sonofabitch whom you rank and telling him to take a place, and relieving him if he doesn't." And Abraham Lincoln, who could take a dim view of his commanders: "General McClellan is an admirable Engineer, but he seems to have a special talent for the stationary engine."
Charlton traverses the field of pop culture, as well, as when he quotes Ian Fleming's Goldfinger: "They have a saying in Chicago: 'Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time is enemy action.'"
More than a few quotes seem especially instructive today.
"War is capitalism with the gloves off." --Tom Stoppard
"Wars are not paid for in wartime, the bill comes later." --Benjamin Franklin
"To fight for a reason and in a calculating spirit is something your true warrior despises." --George Santayana
"You will kill ten of our men and we will kill one of yours, and in the end it will be you who tire of it." --Ho Chi Minh
"It is a very dangerous thing to organize the patriotism of a nation if you are not sincere." --Ernest Hemingway
"The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost." --John Foster Dulles
If you want an idea of what "cyber warfare" means to the US Navy, check out this short video about the Tenth Fleet, home to the Navy's cyber warriors.
It's a bit melodramatic--though not so bad on production values. But it tells you how the Navy sees its role in the "fifth domain" of combat; protecting networks, stopping attacks, and, when necessary, pairing cyber offense with "kinetic" military force.
"Cyberspace is where the battles of the future will be won or lost," says the film's narrator. It's a hotly debated point, of course. But if you want a window into why the Navy--or at least the Tenth Fleet--believes this is true, have a look.
Osama bin Laden may have met his fate at the hands of military men. But it's a lesser-known fact that, for more than a decade, many of the CIA officers who were tracking the terrorist leader were women. Indeed, for as long as the CIA has been in the business of finding the founder of al Qaeda, and eventually killing him, women have been leading much of the hunt. Some say it's work to which they're particularly well suited.
The CIA established a group devoted exclusively to gathering and analyzing intelligence on bin Laden, known as Alec Station, in 1996. Counterterrorism wasn't the high-stakes, career-advancing line of work that it would become after the 9/11 attacks. And the members of Alec Station, many of whom were women, took a professional risk by pigeon-holing themselves into a profession that didn't seem to have a future.
But this tight band of CIA officers, some of whom called themselves "the Sisterhood," had found a bit of refuge from the male-dominated culture of the agency, in which no woman has ever served as director. They also found a rare, and at the time maybe even unique kind of intelligence work, in which analysts--the traditionally desk-bound thinkers of the agency's Directorate of Intelligence--worked closely with those who ran spies and did the clandestine work of espionage in the field, the members of the agency's Directorate of Operations. Historically, those sides didn't mix much on a personal or professional level. But at Alec Station, analysts and operators worked together, and in fairly short order they realized that the man whom much of the CIA had written off as a feckless wannabe jihadist was poised to become extraordinarily dangerous.
The story of how the CIA first got onto bin Laden's trail, and how it ultimately pointed Navy SEALs to his physical address in Pakistan, is the subject of the new documentary Manhunt, premiering Wednesday night on HBO. Directed by Greg Barker (Sergio, Koran by Heart), it "stars" some of the former members of the Sisterhood and other CIA officers who joined in the hunt for bin Laden and his al Qaeda brethren before and after the 9/11 attacks. The film is based on the book Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden--from 9/11 to Abbottabad, by journalist Peter Bergen, the author of four books on al Qaeda who produced bin Laden's first television interview, for CNN in 1997.
The film Manhunt is a work of broad ambition, so broad, and covering so many years, that after the first half hour, when we were still not very close to Abbottabad, I wondered how Barker would ever bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. (Even though we all know how this story ends.) But the film succeeds by turning the bin Laden story into a personal and intimate one, told entirely through the perspective of the people who actually tried to track him down.
Not every member of Alec Station is here, nor is everyone who played a central role in bin Laden's ultimate demise. But those who speak on camera do so without aliases or disguises, and in numbers that, as far as I can tell, is unprecedented for any work of film or television. If Manhunt weren't also an engrossing story, it would still be notable just for brining into the Klieg lights so many people who spent their lives in the shadows.
The film portrays intelligence work up close, with a particular emphasis on the role of women. Cindy Storer, a former CIA analyst, and Nada Bakos, a former CIA targeting officer who tracked al Qaeda in Iraq, demonstrate how to locate a terrorist using fragments of disjointed and often contradictory information. We watch them tack photos and bits of paper to a white board, connecting the items with colored lines. The picture doesn't come together as quickly as some of Carrie Mathison's jazz-fueled intel binges on "Homeland," but like that fictional representation, real-life analysis is tedious, frequently maddening, and often unproductive. But when it pays off, it does so with lethal effects.
There are times when Manhunt feels like fiction. Marty Martin, who was in charge of the operational hunt for bin Laden after 9/11 and most purely represents the spying-side of the agency (now known as the National Clandestine Service), is as flamboyant and mischievous a character as you'd expect to find in an espionage potboiler. He's full of war stories and serves as the brawn to the analytic brains, and, visually at least, a strong masculine counterpoint to a story dominated by women.
But like a good spy story, not everything is what it seems. Far from butting heads with his women colleagues, either owing to their gender or some link to the "other side" of the CIA bureaucracy, Martin fuses with them. And the farther we get in time from the 9/11 attacks, the more the distinctions across the CIA between men and women, analysts and operators, start to fade, until they become arbitrary. Bakos represents the final synthesis of the two--a targeting officer is both an analyst and an operator. And the blending of those two worlds brings us to the modern CIA, which is more a global paramilitary organization than a Cold War spy house.
Manhunt is a work of empathetic storytelling. Barker doesn't want to tell you the story of finding bin Laden so much as show you how the hunters did it. And because you walk in his subjects' shoes, you feel their triumphs and their failures acutely. You can imagine yourself sitting in an office like theirs, doing mind-numbing work and taking it home in your head at night. You can grieve with the CIA officers who talk, through tears, about their friends and co-workers who were killed in a suicide bombing in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009, an event that the film accurately portrays as a turning point in the CIA's war against al Qaeda--it galvanized the agency to recommit to finding bin Laden. These testimonials make the bin Laden story, which has been the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, accessible.
Manhunt inevitably draws comparisons to that other big movie about killing bin Laden. But while Zero Dark Thirty purports to be a work of journalism, Manhunt actually is. There are no pseudonyms or character composites. And when some of the same events are portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty, which is a superb film, they feel beyond the realm of our everyday experience. We can more easily imagine ourselves like Storer, showing up to work every day and banging her head against a desk, than we can see ourselves on the deck of a Blackhawk helicopter, wearing night-vision goggles and carrying an assault rifle.
Barker's empathy imposes certain limits on his film. You don't know where he stands on some of the most controversial and socially important questions of the bin Laden story, such as whether torture produced information that helped the CIA finish their manhunt. When Barker and I met in Washington a few weeks ago, he told me it's the mark of a successful film that you can't say for sure what he thinks. Not everyone who watches Manhunt will be satisfied with Barker's approach, which leaves some very big questions about some very dark days not fully answered.
But we shouldn't expect every story about bin Laden to be told through the lens of a moral dilemma. It's enough, at least for this film, to show people doing a job, one that was measured in years and lives lost, and that changed those who did it, just as it changed history.
In 2002, members of the Pentagon's Criminal Investigation Task Force sent reports about the interrogations of prisoners Guantanamo Bay back to Washington. There, a small group of researchers in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency applied cutting-edge data mining tools to the reports in order to find connections between the detainees and terrorists. But instead of finding links to al Qaeda or militants, the analysts discovered that some of the detainees were innocent and had been captured in Afghanistan without cause or evidence.
Far from speeding up the release of the detainees, this information was used as a kind of baseline for what a "non-terrorist" looked like. The data tools then were re-calibrated to disregard certain attributes in the interrogation reports and to search for others that were deemed germane to the interrogators' work. The innocent prisoners--termed "dirt farmers" in military parlance--remained at Guantanamo for the time being.
I reported this information in my book, The Watchers, which came out in 2010. I mention it again today in light of a post by Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic, which points back to an earlier article by Jason Leopold about an important chapter in the Guantanamo saga that you may have forgotten, or overlooked at the time.
Top Bush administration officials were aware, as early as August 2002, that the "vast majority" of the initial group of 742 detainees at Guantanamo were innocent of any connection to terrorism. That was the sworn statement of Lawrence Wilkerson, formerly the right-hand-man to Colin Powell at the State Department, in a 2010 lawsuit by a former Guantanamo detainee. The innocent men at Guantanamo, Wilkerson said, were swept up in a harried and "incompetent" process that produced no evidence for the basis of their detention.
This made news at the time. And though it wasn't exactly a revelation that there were innocent people in Guantanamo, Wilkerson advanced the story by swearing that senior officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were aware of the problem and did nothing about it. Their view, according to Wilkerson, was that "innocent people languishing in Guantánamo for years was justified by the broader war on terror and the capture of the small number of terrorists who were responsible for the September 11 attacks, or other acts terrorism."
Friedersdorf asks why this story hasn't gotten more traction, and says the next time Powell appears in public, journalists should ask him to respond to what Wilkerson said. (He was asked at the time but said he hadn't read the full statement.) I'd be more interested in what Cheney and Rumsfeld have to say.
I don't have a great answer for why this story hasn't been repeated more often. But I think it's important to note that Wilkerson and other senior Bush administration officials were not the only ones who knew about the innocent detainees at Guantanamo. This extended down to the level of the interrogators themselves and to counterterrorism analysts. This was hardly a secret held at the highest reaches of power. It was a widely known fact, and at the time, little was done to address it.
(Also worth noting, a similar statement from Wilkerson, made in 2012, was attached to this declaration by an attorney for prisoners in Afghanistan.)
The executive chairman of Google says the most significant threats in cyberspace won't come from individuals, because the kinds of attacks that a national government worries about are too expensive to be pulled off by one person.
"Governments are going to continue to do what they've always done which is spy, worry about other countries. That's not going to go away," Eric Schmidt said in an interview with Rita Braver, which will air on CBS' "Sunday Morning" this weekend.
"Individuals are unlikely to be able to put together the kinds of threats that we worry about. It's going to take a lot of money and a lot of very specialized knowledge. Because the Internet is, in fact, pretty safe."
The image of a lone hacker sitting in a basement somewhere taking down a power grid has been the kind of nightmare scenario that government officials and corporate executives have used over the years to focus attention on cyber security. But increasingly, experts are saying that to pull off such a devastating assault on critical infrastructure is going to take considerable manpower, organization, and money.
I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a cyber security researcher at a Washington think tank, who said it wasn't smart for governments to worry about single actors; they should be focusing their counter-cyber war efforts on other governments and organized criminal rings. Look at Stuxnet, he said. The most sophisticated known cyber attack to date is generally believed to have been launched by the US and Israeli governments. The project likely took many months of work and relied on an extraordinarily high level of technical expertise.
For someone of Schmidt's statute and national prominence to implicitly rebut the lone-hacker threat as the thing governments should really be worrying about suggests that you're going to hear more high-level people follow suit. This may help to tamp down some of the more hyperbolic rhetoric surrounding the threat of cyber war. Or it may just cause governments to panic more about other governments.
Here are some upcoming titles that have caught my attention in the past few months. Pub dates given if available.
Untitled book by Andrew Cockburn (Times Books)
The author of Rumsfeld, and future father-in-law to SNL cast member Jason Sudeikis, is working on a true story about drones and assassins.
We Will Not Be Silent: How the White Rose Student Resistance Movement Defied Adolf Hitler by Russell Freedman (Clarion)
A story about a small group of university students who distributed anti-Hitler leaflets and condemned his policies.
Untitled book on Russian protest group Pussy Riot by Masha Gessen (Riverhead)
The author of The Man Without a Face, about the rise of Vladimir Putin, has an untold story of Russia's most famous dissidents.
Pub date: Fall 2013
Untitled book by Karen J. Greenberg (Crown)
Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, is writing a narrative account described as "how the power and legitimacy of the Department of Justice have been radically challenged in the wake of 9/11."
Casablanca by Meredith Hindley (Public Affairs)
A narrative history of the famous North African city, against the backdrop of the French resistance, Gestapo, Vichy agents, and American spies battling for control.
The Russian Revolution by Sean McKeekin (Basic)
Billed as "a revisionist account of the Russian Revolution" based on new information from Soviet archives.
Pub date: 2017
CIA Rogues and the Killing of the Kennedys: How and why CIA Agents Conspired to Kill JFK and RFK by Patrick Nolan (Skyhorse)
An investigation of "CIA involvement" in the assassinates of President Kennedy and his brother Robert. Timed for release with the 50th anniversary of JFK's death.
Pub date: Fall 2013
Rogue Code by Mark Russinovich (Thomas Dunne Books)
The third novel in a thriller series about cyber-expert Peter Joseph. The first two books were Zero Day and Trojan Horse.
Untitled book by Adam Segal (Public Affairs)
Segal, who's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and heads up their cyber security initiatives will write about "the geopolitics of information and what diplomacy looks like in the age of big data."
Forty-Seven Days by Mitchell Yockelson (Caliber)
How Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing led the Army and helped it come of age in World War I, with the service of soldiers such as George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Harry Truman.
Pub date: Summer 2015
In 2006, as the war in Iraq was reaching a fever pitch, a Pentagon employee working on special operations teamed up with a Czech technology entrepreneur who had dabbled in the porn business and devised what they considered an ingenious plan. Knowing that video games played on mobile phones were popular throughout the Middle East, the team wanted to build games that contained positive messages about the United States. But the games weren't just about propaganda. Every download would give the United States a window into the digital comings and goings of whomever was playing it it, a cyber foothold that could allow American spies to potentially track and collect information on thousands of people.
The propaganda/spy campaign was dubbed Native Echo, and it was conceived by Michael Furlong, a colorful civilian employee working for US Special Operations Command, and a company called U-Turn, which was headquartered in Prague and founded by a pro-American Czech national named Jan Obrman, whose parents had fled the Soviets in the 1960s. The idea was to target Middle Eastern teenagers in "high risk/unfriendly areas," and over time to integrate the US messages "into the lifestyle of the targets," ideally to make them more amenable to US armed forces, and to counter the rhetoric of Muslim fundamentalists.
The full account of this previously unreported intelligence operation is found in the new book The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti. The book explores the ways in which the CIA--which before 9/11 had long been out of the business of killing people--and the US military--which had not been the domain of spies--have often changed roles over the past decade. It is filled with characters, like Furlong, who move between the membranes of these two worlds, and find themselves at home in either one.
Mazzetti writes that the first mobile game developed for Native Echo was modeled on the popular Call of Duty series. This new "shooter" game, Iraqi Hero, "took the player on an odyssey through the streets of Baghdad, shooting up insurgents trying to kill civilians in a wave of terrorist attacks," Mazzetti writes. "The goal was to reach an Iraqi police station and deliver the secret plans for an upcoming insurgent attack, plans that had been stolen from a militia group's headquarters."
Native Echo was timed to coincide with the US troop surge in Iraq in 2007. Its "main focus was on combatting the flood of foreign fighters entering Iraq from Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and parts of North Africa," Mazzetti writes.
As an intelligence collection program, Native Echo was both broad and audacious:
"Thousands of people would be sending their mobile-phone numbers and other identifying information to U-Turn, and that information could be stored in military databases and used for complex data-mining operations carried out by the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies. The spies wouldn't have to go hunting for information; it would come to them."
In order to hide the US role in the scheme, "Furlong convinced [U-Turn's] executives to create an offshore company that could receive Pentagon contracts but not be tied directly to the United States," Mazzetti writes. Obrman set up JD Media Transmission Systems, LLC, incorporated in the Seychelles Islands, in order to receive money transfers from the US through a foreign bank account.
Furlong was a master at working the byzantine procurement bureaucracy to further his covert plans. "Taking advantage of a law that allows firms owned by Native Americas to get a leg up when bidding on government contracts, Furlong arranged for U-Turn to partner with Wyandotte Net Tel, a firm located on a tiny speck of tribal lands in eastern Oklahoma," Mazzetti writes.
U-Turn developed two more games for Native Echo--Oil Tycoon, which challenged players to protect vital pipelines and infrastructure, and City Mayor, in which players became urban planners and rebuilt a fictional city destroyed by terrorists. The team came up with various ways to distribute the games, including by hand via memory cards, which could be sold or given away in markets and bazaars, Mazzetti reports. "The way to get far wider distribution, however, was to post the games on Web sites and blogs frequented by gamers in the Middle East. This allowed [Special Operations Command] to monitor how many people were downloading the games and, more important, who was doing it."
Mazzetti concludes that it's hard to know how far Native Echo went, and even how many companies like U-Turn were hired to create propaganda for the military. Furlong came up with other wild ideas, some of which were never approved. But the relationship between the military and U-Turn blossomed, and it offers a concrete illustration of how the armed forces evolved into a network of spies.
The Way of the Knife is full of stories like this, of people living on the edge between two worlds, frequently not sure how to operate on turf that had long been forbidden. The book is a culmination of Mazzetti's years of reporting on the intersections of the military and the CIA, and it is a forceful, compelling articulation of a new way of war. Mazzetti's reporting has been among some of the most important, in that it has shed light on usually hidden practices, particularly the use of brutal interrogations on terrorist detainees. As the book unfolds, we see how the 9/11 attacks shake the CIA out of their Cold War culture of espionage, and turn the agency into a highly-efficient global killing force.
I spoke with Mazzetti yesterday as he was heading off to New York to begin a book tour. He said that he began working after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and that the first few months of writing were filled with some anxiety, since his journalism beat was now the hottest around. Lots of his competitors were writing books and long magazine articles about the raid. But Mazzetti said that he wanted to write something broader, to show how the long arc of the war on terror has fundamentally changed how the US fights.
"I covered the Pentagon for five years, and then I have been covering the intelligence world since 2006," Mazzetti said. "And really, I realized that I was kind of covering the same beat. The lines that existed before 9/11, where the military did this and the spies did that, really have blurred."
Mazzetti said he's glad to be back at the Times after a 15-month book leave. He had missed the collegiality of an office. Writing a book is solitary business. But in the midst of the project, Mazzetti and his wife, Lindsay, welcomed Max, their first child.
"I can't wait until he is old enough to read this book," Mazzetti writes in his acknowledgments. "I cherish the memories of the mornings we spent together during the first few months, and of the smiles he delivered when I came home at the end of particularly frustrating days of book writing. They put things in perspective."
“Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition.” --Monty Python
When the ships were sunk and the dead counted, this much was clear: The most expensive war game in history had not gone according to plan.
In July 2002, the U.S. armed forces staged a quarter-billion-dollar simulation of a war with a rogue Middle Eastern country in the Persian Gulf. Coming so close to a real war with Iraq, military planners hoped the exercise would be especially instructive. The game was played using some real people and equipment, but it was made more convincing through the application of Hollywood-style computer animation. Commanders watched on screens as huge numbers of troops prepared for battle, and as aircraft and ships deployed in the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. side, or Blue Team, had spent months studying their adversary, the Red Team, They knew the size of Red’s land, sea, and air forces. Where all its command and control systems were located. They knew all the weak spots in its national infrastructure--the power grid, national communications systems. And because the Blue leaders believed they’d accounted for Red’s every possible move on the battlefield, they expected to defeat the enemy in short order.
But on the first day of the game, Red failed to respond to Blue’s demand for immediate and unconditional surrender. Unbeknownst to Blue, the Red commander had sent attack orders to his forces through unusual means, including motorcycle couriers, calls shouted from minarets, and World War II-era light signals. They were all modes of communication that Blue had never accounted for. Why would Red use them when he had satellites and telephones?
Expecting a quick end to the battle, the Blue fleet instead found itself surrounded by a swarm of small, seemingly innocuous Red boats. Without warning, the small boats let loose a devastating volley of cruise missiles at the Blue fleet, which, never having anticipated such an aggressive move, was helpless to respond. Some of the boats were loaded with explosives and rammed into their gargantuan adversaries. By the end of the attack, several Blue vessels sat at the bottom of the Persian Gulf. Had this been a real expertise, it’s estimated that 20,000 U.S. forces would be dead.
The story of Millennium Challenge is one of the most frequently cited modern examples of an ancient maxim of warfare: Know your enemy. Blue’s commanders failed in large part because they evinced a profound lack of empathy. They had never anticipated that Red would act so different than them. They had not put themselves in the minds of a devious and desperate dictator who, knowing he was outmatched in a head-to-head fight, would resort to asymmetric tactics--and some centuries old ones, at that. Millennium Challenge became an object lesson in the dangers of not thinking like your enemy, and of the potential gains of doing so.
The lessons of that war game seem especially poignant now, as tensions mount with North Korea and the United States attempts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. We are reminded that U.S. intelligence about its adversaries is limited, and often not very good. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that “after a high-visibility display of military power aimed at deterring North Korean provocations, the White House is dialing back the aggressive posture amid fears that it could inadvertently trigger an even deeper crisis.” A previously devised “playbook” of escalating displays of force was apparently based on a set of assumptions about North Korea’s behavior that might not be panning out.
"The concern was that we were heightening the prospect of misperceptions on the part of the North Koreans, and that that could lead to miscalculations," a senior administration official told the newspaper.
“Officials said the U.S. didn't believe North Korea had any imminent plans to take military action in response to the exercises,” the Journal reported. “Rather, the shift reflects concerns within the administration that the North, caught off guard, could do something rash, contrary to intelligence assessments showing that it is unlikely to respond militarily to the U.S. show of force.” [Emphasis mine.]
Military planners don’t like to be caught by surprise. As it happened, the ones who planned Millennium Challenge were so chagrined by Red’s audacious and hugely successful attack that they reset the game. The Blue ships were magically floated back to the surface. The dead were brought back to life. And as the game played on for another two weeks, the Red Team was barred from engaging in any more unexpected tactics. The Red commander quit the game in protest. The Blue Team, playing with the rules in its favor, won round two in a rout.
The military is fond of its war games, and for good reason. Even when the outcome is unpredictable--or in the case of Millennium Challenge, undesirable--the play itself is instructive. When properly constructed, war games convince players that the stakes are real. Even when played sitting around a table using rudimentary set pieces--pieces of paper, toy planes and ships--players somehow see past the artifice and behave as if the scenario were real.
“Gaming’s transformative power grows out of its particular connections to storytelling,” write Peter Perla and ED McGrady, two game designers, in a paper published by the Naval War College. A good game creates the kind of willing suspension of disbelief you experience when you watch an engrossing movie or read a page-turning book. But since play is not a passive experience, gaming heightens that sense of belief. “Gaming, as a story-living experience, engages the human brain, and hence the human being participating in a game, in ways more akin to real-life experience than to reading a novel or watching a video," Perla and McGrady write.
The effects of games linger after the play has finished. The authors recall a bioterrorism war game run by the White House in 1998 that so impressed President Clinton he asked Congress to increase the counterterrorism budget by $294 million to defend the nation from weaponized pathogens. The President had been primed for the plausibility of a bio-attack by a fictional account he’d been reading in Richard Preston’s novel The Cobra Event. (Preston is also the author of a non-fiction book on disease outbreaks, Hotzone, that is all the more terrifying because it’s true.)
The key to a successful game is that it not only seem real, but that it present the players with an adversary that they would probably never imagine, an event that is “at odds with how you see the world,” write Perla and McGrady. The crazed scientist who builds a deadly virus. The rogue commander who uses suicidal tactics. Absent this surprise, “it is unlikely that any game architecture could present an effective, realistic scenario...”
Of course, in Millennium Challenge, the Blue Team faced just such an enemy. Did they learn from that experience? A year later, U.S. forces easily defeated the military of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But then, for the next eight years, they found themselves locked in an asymmetric war with insurgents, for which no one had planned. Blue did not think like Red.
John Brennan's confirmation hearing for CIA Director has suddenly become a lot more consequential.
In the past few days, we've gotten a window into Brennan's role in the Bush-era terrorist interrogation program--it looks more significant than previously reported--and now comes a leaked Justice Department "white paper" that describes the administration's rationale for why targeted killings of U.S. citizens, a program that Brennan has overseen, are legal.
The revelations in both documents seem obviously engineered to put Brennan in the hot seat about two controversial programs, one of which, targeted killings, some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee still believe they have insufficient information. So, now we know the likely frame for Thursday's confirmation hearing, and I presume that some significant debate will turn on the question of what constitutes an "imminent threat."
The leaked Justice Department white paper arguably attempts to redefine what most people would consider the common sense definition of imminent threat--that is, an enemy is about to take up arms against you, or is preparing to attack you. Think bombers readying for takeoff, or a foreign nation basing missiles within range of the United States or its allies.
But that's not the kind of imminence the administration is looking for when deciding whether to kill a U.S. citizen. Indeed, the white paper argues that it would have made no sense to wait for the 9/11 hijackers to board airplanes before moving with lethal, preemptive force against them, had that been an option.
The paper argues that terrorist groups are always plotting, and that they would presumably strike if they had the opportunity. So if someone is a member of Al Qaeda, or an affiliate, he by definition poses a threat to America. But that doesn't mean said terrorist is poised to strike, and therefore, in a given moment, constitutes an imminent threat. Does it?
Now we enter a gray area that this white paper is unable to clear up.
"Imminence must incorporate considerations of the relevant window of opportunity, the possibility of reducing collateral damage to civilians, and the likelihood of heading off future disastrous attacks on Americans," the white paper states in a section that addresses the central issues. (The question of imminence comprises much of the 16-page document.) Nothing in that sentence tells you when a terrorist is judged to be an imminent threat. Rather, it describes the considerations government officials must make when determining whether to kill him now. Or, imminently.
"Thus, a decision maker determining whether an al-Qa'ida operational leader presents an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States must take into account that certain members of [AQ] (including any potential target of lethal force) are continually plotting attacks against the United States; that [AQ] would engage in such attacks regularly to the extent it were able to do so; that the U.S. government may not be aware of all [AQ] plots as they are developing and thus cannot be confident that none is about to occur; and that, in light of these predicates, the nation may have a limited window of opportunity within which to strike in a manner that both has a high likelihood of success and reduces the probability of American casualties."
This paragraph could be summed up as "a list of reasons not to not kill a terrorist."
The white paper attempts to give some more detail on the decision-making process for concluding that someone is, in fact, imminently threatening the United States. But it's thin.
"A high-level official [the white paper never specifies that this must be the President] could conclude, for example, that an individual posts an 'imminent threat' of violent attack against the United States where he is an operational leader of [AQ] or an associated force and is personally and continually involved in planing terrorist attacks against the United States."
Ok, we're getting somewhere. You're an operational leader of a terrorist cell, you're a very dangerous guy.
"Moreover, where the [AQ] member in question has recently been involved in activities posing an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States, and there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities, that member's involvement in [AQ's] continuing terrorist campaign against the United States would support the conclusion that the member poses an imminent threat."
That seems a reasonable conclusion to draw, presuming that the evidence of previous activities is sound. I doubt anyone would argue that a terrorist who has attempted to kill Americans, but who has failed, won't try to do so again.
But nothing in the white paper constitutes a check list of all the requirements or characteristics for becoming an imminent threat in the government's eyes. Does the high-level official rely on visual identification of a target from drone footage? Intercepted communications showing X degrees of separation to a known terrorist group? Human tips? Some combination of the above? Is two out of three enough?
We're not likely to hear anything about these specifics, not in an open, unclassified hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And the white paper doesn't go there.
"This paper does not attempt to determine the minimum requirements necessary to render" a lawful targeted killing, it states. So, this paper can be described as the legal rationale for targeted killing in theory, if not as practiced by the Obama administration today. This is not a new revelation. (Indeed, the white paper references some speeches on this subject by senior administration officials.) But the introduction of the white paper into the public domain creates many new dynamics, and not just for Brennan's upcoming confirmation hearing.
One last point that may have implications beyond the realm of counterterrorism. Does the administration think its legal rationale for targeted killings is flexible enough to be applied to non-terrorist threats to national security? Could it justify, say, killing a member of a hacker collective whom the government believes is trying to take down a power grid with a cyber attack?
The white paper "does not assess what might be required to render a lethal operation against a U.S. citizen lawful in other circumstances," it states. So, the paper doesn't say the rationale could not be used against hackers. It just doesn't assess the question at all. If the potential breadth of the rationale does come up at Brennan's hearing, we'll be in the land of "hypotheticals," and in Washington, those are always easy to dodge.