The Way Forward in the Drone War

About two weeks ago, I promised to outline a new approach to the US’s national security problems in Pakistan as a way to end or reduce the reliance on drone warfare. Here it is, at least in broad outlines: Continue reading

Snowden in Possession of “NSA Blueprints”

On top of all the other damning information he has already released about the National Security Agency, Edward Snowden now claims that he also has access to “literally thousands” of documents that essentially amount to a blueprint of how the NSA operates.  Anyone who acquires this information would then presumably be able to drop under the NSA’s radar and avoid surveillance altogether. Snowden has apparently insisted that this batch of  documents not be made public.  Speaking through journalist Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian employee who first reported on the leaks, Snowden claims that he took the documents to prove his credibility after releasing the information that started this tidal wave.  What’s strange is that despite Snowden’s insistence that the new documents not be released, Greenwald (who is supposedly close to Snowden at this point) seems to think that their release wouldn’t harm our national security interests.

Just to backtrack for one minute, there have been reports that al-Qaeda has already changed their communications networks specifically because of information Snowden released at the beginning of this saga.  The government has made claims that the programs do work and helped to foil a pretty significant number of attacks, both foreign and domestic.  And even the staunchest supporters of government transparency would have to admit that there needs to be at least some level of secrecy for the NSA to properly function.  Even Snowden seems to agree with that, and he had no problem with publicizing classified information and jetting off to China to avoid the consequences.  But Glenn Greenwald, who might be the only person besides Snowden outside of the government with access to these documents, thinks that making the inner workings of the NSA available to EVERYONE (including terrorists), won’t have any negative consequences?  You have got to be kidding me.  Luckily, it doesn’t matter what Greenwald thinks at the moment since the documents have been encrypted.

Snowden shared this with Greenwald at a Moscow airport, where he continues to hide out while awaiting decisions on his requests for asylum in South America.  Greenwald told the AP:

“I haven’t sensed an iota of remorse or regret or anxiety over the situation that he’s in. He’s of course tense and focused on his security and his short-term well-being to the best extent that he can, but he’s very resigned to the fact that things might go terribly wrong and he’s at peace with that.”

Of course he’s at peace.  He still has everybody’s attention.  He has reporters from all over the world camping out at a Russian airport with bated breath, hanging on his every word.  On top of that, he has heads of state offering him asylum.  Getting the world to guess what’s in documents that only he has access to sounds like it’s right in his wheelhouse.

If you couldn’t already tell, I’m getting a little tired of Snowden’s whole charade.  He’s still clinging to his original story that he did this for the American people.  This would be a lot more believable if he didn’t have a “dead man’s pact,” meaning any unreleased information he holds will be released if he dies, meaning the government can’t make an attempt on his life without some serious repercussions.  He has acknowledged that such a pact exists, but claims that it’s much more nuanced than that.  Either way, he’s threatening to release information that he has admitted will be harmful to national security if he is killed by the government.  See guys?!  He loves us so much that he’s putting his own safety over the safety of millions of American citizens!

I can understand his instinct for self-preservation, but the jig is up.  As the great Jim Young once said (yes, I’m quoting Boiler Room), “Tell me you don’t like my firm, tell me you don’t like my idea, tell me you don’t like my neck tie.  But don’t tell me you care about my Constitutional rights when you’re willing to throw me under the bus to ensure your own safety.”  Eh, close enough.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Drone strike kills 16 militants in Pakistan–for the last time?

Late on Tuesday, July 2, a massive drone strike in northwestern Pakistan killed 16 militants reported by local officials to be associated with the Haqqani network. This was the first drone strike in Pakistan since June 7th, and only the second since the election of Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif.

The Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the attack:

“These strikes are a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Pakistan has repeatedly emphasized the importance of bringing an immediate end to drone strikes.”

Pakistan’s civilian government has long protested these strikes as a violation of their sovereignty, even while their military coordinates with the US to a clear airspace for the drones. Few in Pakistan vocally support the drone strikes, despite the fact that some officials will quietly admit that they have been an effective means of dealing with their chronic militant problem. Despite this quiet acknowledgement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statement asserted that:

“The government of Pakistan has consistently maintained that drone strikes are counterproductive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives and have human rights and humanitarian implications. These drone strikes have a negative impact on the mutual desire of both countries to forge a cordial and cooperative relationship and to ensure peace and stability in the region.”

The last part is definitely true, and will be increasingly true in the future. In fact, at least one analyst believes that the strike will be taken as a personal affront to newly-elected Prime Minister Sharif, since it was conducted while he was out of country on a state visit to China, and may in fact be one of the last drone strikes in Pakistan.

This is not entirely far-fetched, given the rather remarkable decline in drone strikes in Pakistan over the course of the past few years, as I have written about previously, despite initial fears on the left that Obama was going to drastically increase the use of drone strikes. Although, according to data from the New America Foundation, he did initially increase the use of drones to attack militants in Pakistan, quadrupling the number of strikes over his first two years (and incidentally, halving the number of civilian casualties over the same period).

However, there is reason to disbelieve that this declining rate of strikes signals the end of the program. Probably the best indicator is that the drop in the number of drone strikes does not appear to be correlated to any decrease in the number of leaders these strikes have taken out of the fight. This may just indicate that the strikes are more selective, and that we are getting better at locating and targeting the leadership.

Selectivity of US drone strikes in Pakistan, as measured by the number of leaders killed per strike.

Selectivity of US drone strikes in Pakistan, as measured by the number of leaders killed per strike.

Interestingly, it is not necessarily our own enemies that we have been targeting. It is relatively well-known that the first drone strike in Pakistan, which killed Taliban leader Nek Mohammad, was selected at the specific request of the Pakistani military, in order to rid them of an enemy of the Pakistani state. And while the Afghan Taliban have received aid and shelter from Pakistan, their sister organization, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has targeted Pakistani government forces and installations with brutal efficiency. They have even captured territory startling close to Pakistan’s capitol, Islamabad. Pakistan seems unable or unwilling to crush this movement. The US has been working on it for them, however. Of the five Taliban leaders killed in US drone strikes in 2013, four have been leaders of TTP. Simultaneously, the number of Afghan Taliban leaders killed in drone strikes has been on the decline.

Number of leaders killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan per year.

Number of leaders killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan per year.

With all of the back-room dealing that has occurred between various parts of the Pakistani and US governments, is entirely possible that a deal has been struck with the Pakistani military that will allow the US to continue to use drones to target its own enemy, so long as it also takes out Pakistan’s, as well.

There is also reason to believe that the US will continue to use drones in Pakistan with or without its consent. The continuing instability in rural Pakistan and the inability of the Pakistani government to reduce the violence emanating from the region, which is much more substantial than that caused by drones, as well as its inability or unwillingness to limit the export of terrorism and insurgency from its territory cannot simply be ignored. It is not a bumblebee that will go away if left to its own devices. And until some alternate method of limiting the Taliban’s and Al Qaeda’s ability to use Pakistan’s territory to train and equip  their operatives and send them out against America and its allies, the US government will have little choice but to employ drones, even if in a more limited and selective fashion.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

World-Wide Military Concerns: From Drones to Damsels

Scraps of world-wide military transformations litter the news, leaving a careful observer with one uneasy and exciting implication: CHANGE. News of ground warfare has been largely replaced by flashy articles about “cyber warfare.” The Army slashed 12 combat brigades across the country, begrudgingly announcing the plan to reduce the number of active duty soldiers by 80,000 in four years (long enough a wait to pray for a Republican president to rescue their budget).

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, their infant Air Force is gleaning every drop of information they can from their Western trainers. NATO will end their training aid in 18 short months. Gen. Shir-Mohammad Karimi, the Afghan National Army chief of staff told 13 flight school grads, “Having all these U.S., coalition forces, advisers, instructors and contractors around us is a golden opportunity for all of us… Make sure you do not [squander] learning enough skills from them…”

Meanwhile in Asia, a collection of countries (including China, India, and Indonesia) sit poised to become the leading coalition of military spending. The US has been permitting (resentfully) the attrition of the budget to a mere $707.5 billion (not including FBI counter-terrorism (who do earn their budget!!! …a little prejudiced.), International Affairs, defense-related Energy Dept., Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, satellites, veteran pensions, and interest on debt from past wars). However, Asian countries are prepared to meet US military spending by 2021, anticipating an increase in spending of 35%.

Meanwhile in Israel, they stand prepared to surpass the US as the largest exporter in the world of unmanned drones this year.

So where is the victorious “meanwhile in the US” blurb? What are we overtaking? More importantly, WHAT ARE WE WINNING? Well, folks, once more we are winning the make-the-same-arguments-we’ve-been-making-for-a-decade award. Huge trophies will be delivered to the Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Delta Force and Green Berets as soon as they can fit it in the budget. A two-year study is to be conducted. Although we hear the typical regurgitated physical-requirements argument against the inclusion of women (not surprised face), I was sickened to learn we’re still talking about the “cohesion and morality” of the group (Army Maj. Gen. Sacolick’s words). Trust me, the declarations are ripe with phrases fretting over “social implications” and “distractions.” I kid you not: “Distractions.” Once more women are to be confined from a respected and desired combat position because of men. Well, you can keep your worries because like it or not gender equality is coming for you, special ops. It may not be today. It may not be tomorrow! It may not even be in the year 2015 after your comprehensive and oh-so-fair study. But it will be soon. And for the rest of the military’s life!

Chelsea Perdue, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Snowden Makes Request for Asylum in Ecuador

Just weeks after leaking the story that the NSA has been collecting phone records and the internet activity of American citizens, it appears that Edward Snowden will not be seeking permanent asylum in China.  Yesterday, multiple news agencies reported that Snowden was on his way to Moscow, where he will apparently wait for Ecuador to grant him asylum.  Earlier reports stated that he might be fleeing to Cuba, but it looks like he never boarded the flight that was supposed to take him there.

That’s right, the man who went on the record saying that he was concerned with the direction our government was headed in regard to freedom of speech and privacy has turned to China and Russia for protection.  I guess he didn’t hear about the Chinese government upping its own surveillance program in Tibet, or that Russian President Vladimir Putin had an entire band thrown in prison for voicing their opinions on Putin’s Russia, or any number of human rights violations both countries have been accused of committing in the recent past.  And he was probably too busy to notice that Ecuador has followed in Venezuela’s footsteps as far as its policy towards America.

Snowden probably fled China because of an extradition treaty we have with them, figuring that sooner or later he would be turned over to the American government and forced to answer for his actions.  It was probably a smart move in this regard since we don’t have an extradition treaty with Russia.  On top of that, our well-documented, strained relations with Putin’s administration make it even less likely that the Russians would ship him back to the U.S.  So why would he go to Ecuador?  Why not stay in Russia?  After all, the United States accounts for roughly 45% of Ecuador’s trade and they could experience a sharp economic decline if the U.S. decided to retaliate against them for harboring Snowden.

It might have something to do with the fact that the American government has already made a serious push toward convincing Russia to turn him over.  The media reported yesterday that the government had filed to revoke Snowden’s passport, which would presumably strand him in Russia for the immediate future.  And like I said before, Ecuador tends to take Venezuela’s stance on foreign relations with the U.S.  Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is known for making strong statements against America, holding frequent rallies against U.S. “imperialism.”  So even if President Obama were to threaten economic sanctions, it doesn’t seem likely that Correa would cave.

It’s also worth noting that Snowden has reportedly received assistance from Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame.  Assange calls Snowden “a hero” and claims that he is healthy and safe in an undisclosed location.  Assange himself has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, another valid reason for Snowden to seek asylum in that country.  For one, he knows he has at least one ally with ties to the Ecuadorian government.  Second, the Ecuadorian government has harbored Assange for nearly a year, protecting him from charges similar to those Snowden would face in the U.S.  The precedent set by the Ecuadorian government has to be reassuring for Snowden.

Knowing this, it seems impossible not to question Snowden’s motives at this point.  That’s not to say that he was wrong for bringing this to light.  This story is definitely concerning and it’s provoked quite a range of responses from the public, and I could argue for both sides all day.  Regardless, it seems hypocritical for a self-proclaimed champion of free speech that claims to want to protect the rights of American citizens to turn to two countries known for censorship and a country that regularly voices anti-American sentiments.  I’m sure he has his reasons; we just don’t know what they are yet.  There’s still speculation that he has deals with foreign governments to sell information about our national security.  This seems plausible since he obviously has access to massive amounts of damning reports and other documents.  It could also be as simple as Snowden not wanting to spend the rest of his life behind bars, or worse.  He reportedly pleaded with the Ecuadorian government that he wouldn’t get a fair trial in the U.S.  Either way, it looks like the government’s chances at having a crack at him in a court of law are shrinking at a rapid pace.  Luckily, Snowden hasn’t shied away from the spotlight since he made international headlines.  We might have more answers soon, but for now we’re still playing the waiting game.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Former Detainees in the News: Uighurs in Albania and Palau

This past week, we saw two separate looks at former detainees of Uighur ethnicity and the challenges they face as former Guantanamo detainees.[1] [2]

The Uighurs are of a Chinese ethnic minority that has been subject to persecution in China.  As a result, no released Uighur detainees have been returned to China and have instead been sent to Albania, Bermuda, El Salvador, Switzerland and Palau.  As previously examined in the Center’s National Security Deserves Better: “Odd” Recidivism Numbers Undermine the Guantanamo Policy Debate, the Uighurs in Bermuda have been resettled successfully.

We also now know that at least one other Uighur former detainee, Abu Bakker Qassim, has been somewhat-successfully resettled in Albania.  Qassim initially had difficulty learning the Albanian language and reconciling his idea of Albania with the reality.  However, he has managed to bridge the gap by becoming a pizza-maker.  Qassim notes that while he had never even heard of pizza before he arrived in Tirana, Albania, his work has greatly improved his grasp on Albanian.  However, Qassim notes that it isn’t easy for him to make ends meet; he only works part-time, and the state aid he receives isn’t enough to support him, his wife and infant daughter.  The stigma of Guantanamo remains with him, making it difficult to find a better job.  Because Qassim is not an Albania citizen, he cannot obtain a passport.  Without a passport, however, Qassim must remain in Albania or return to China and face almost-certain persecution and arrest.

The challenges faces by Qassim are mirrored by the Uighur former detainees in Palau.  Six Uighurs in total were sent from Guantanamo Bay to Palau in late 2009, in what was intended to be a temporary stop before a permanent home was found for the former detainees.  However, the years have passed and Palau has been increasingly unable to support its charges.  Although the US and Palauan governments aided the former detainees in obtaining minimum-wage jobs, they struggle to pay for utilities and food.  Even the President of Palau, Tommy Remengesau, has expressed regret over the situation, noting the unfairness of their situation.

The recent shuttering of the U.S. State Department Guantanamo Closure office has made these six question whether they will ever leave Palau and settle in a permanent home.  Like Qassim in Albania, these six are not Palauan citizens and therefore cannot obtain passports in order to leave.  Ambassador Daniel Fried, who had run the Guantanamo Closure office up until its end, has stated he will continue to negotiate for permanent settlement of the Uighurs, even though he was reassigned to a position overseeing sanctions for Iran and Syria.

In 2008 a Washington federal court judge ordered all Uighurs to be released.  However, three Uighurs remain at Guantanamo Bay, because as with the former detainees in Palau, the U.S. has been unable to find a country to accept them.  Many countries fear the Chinese response to acceptance of Uighur former detainees.  As a world power, the U.S. is seemingly in a position to accept all of the Uighurs and withstand China’s response.  However, the public outcry that has accompanied any talk of bringing detainees to the U.S. to be held in prisons, never mind bringing detainees here for release, has completely shut down any likelihood of this happening.

Both the U.S. courts and the U.S. government have accepted that the Uighurs were never a threat to U.S. interests or forces.  However, if the U.S. government won’t stand and accept these clearly innocent men in our country, it is hard to imagine how we will convince any other country to do so.

Kelly Ross, Research Fellow

Center for Policy & Research


[1] Michelle Shephard, Uighurs who went from Guantanamo to paradise running out of money and patience, The Star  (Toronto), Feb. 7, 2013,  http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2013/02/07/uighurs_who_went_from_guantanamo_to_paradise_running_out_of_money_and_patience.html.

[2] Nate Tabak, Former Guantanamo Detainee Now Making Pizza in Albania, PRI’s The World, Feb. 7, 2013, http://www.theworld.org/2013/02/uighur-guantanamo-detainee-albania/.

UN to Investigate Drone Strikes

The United Nations has appointed a special rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, to investigate drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel region of Africa.

The investigation was formally launched on Thursday in response to requests from Russia, China and Pakistan, and will look into drone strikes by the US, UK, and Israel.

Emmerson will select a “representative sample” of about 20 or 30 strikes to assess the extent of any civilian casualties, the identity of militants targeted and the legality of strikes. It beggars the imagination, however, that 20-30 strikes by at least 4 government agencies in at least 6 countries could be representative of much of anything, except possibly sample bias.

Emmerson has previously suggested that some drone attacks could possibly constitute war crimes. While this is certainly true, it could be said of any sort of attack. The fact that it is conducted by drone should make little if any difference to the calculus.

Emmerson also told the Guardian: “One of the fundamental questions is whether aerial targeting using drones is an appropriate method of conflict … where the individuals are embedded in a local community.” But again, the particular platform chosen to conduct the attack has little bearing on its legality or morality. It is how the platform is used that matters. The appropriate question is therefore not whether drones should be used, but whether any aerial strikes should be.

It is clearly important that the use of armed force by any state be carefully studied and it’s justifications questioned. This may be especially true when it is the world’s most powerful state that is conducting the operations. However, like many of the activities of the United Nations, it will remain to be seen whether the resulting report is an honest assessment of a difficult question, or is a purely political swipe by rivals.

Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow

Center for Policy & Research