Watchdog Report Says NSA Program is Illegal and Should End

In an article released just this morning, The New York Times reports that a government watchdog group has released a review of the NSA surveillance program, stating:

“An independent federal privacy watchdog has concluded that the National Security Agency’s program to collect bulk phone call records has provided only “minimal” benefits in counterterrorism efforts, is illegal and should be shut down. Continue reading

FBI Re-Emphasizes Law Enforcement Role

Earlier this month, Foreign Policy reported that the FBI had made a controversial decision to drop the term “law enforcement” from its official fact sheet in favor of “national security.” The terms were in reference to the primary functions of the FBI. After facing swift backlash, the FBI has once again revised the fact sheet to include both terms. Continue reading

Congress Vows To Step Up To Surveillance Policy Challenge

In the wake of President Obama’s highly-anticipated speech yesterday morning, it became clear that Congress will undoubtedly play a major role in the changes the President plans to initiate.

NPR reports,

“If there was a consensus emanating from Congress Friday after President Obama’s NSA reform speech, it was — not surprisingly — that Congress itself has a major role to play in the ultimate fix. Continue reading

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

Critics Question Closed Embassies

A few days ago I wrote about the Obama administration’s decision to shut down 19 embassies in the Middle East and North Africa for the remainder of the week in response to what officials are calling a serious and credible threat.  The State Department has since reaffirmed that some embassies will remain closed until further notice while others will reopen on Monday.  We already know that the threat causing the shutdown came from al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, but we’re still in the dark in regard to what the threat actually entails. Continue reading

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

President Obama to give speech on counterterrorism policy, drones, and GMTO

President Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech on Thursday at the National Defence University on the administration’s counterterrorism policies, and how it intends to bring those policies in line with his long-standing pledge to honor the rule of law.

According to a White House official, speaking anonymously to the Washington Post Saturday, President Obama will “discuss our broad counterterrorism policy, including our military, diplomatic, intelligence and legal efforts.”

“He will review the state of the threats we face, particularly as the al-Qaeda core has weakened but new dangers have emerged,” the official said. “He will discuss the policy and legal framework under which we take action against terrorist threats, including the use of drones. And he will review our detention policy and efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.”

This speech could go some way toward fulfilling the promise that President Obama made in his 2013 State of the Union address, in which he proclaimed that his new administration would “ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.” Many, including myself, have been disappointed with the level of transparency the administration has maintained regarding national security efforts over the last 4 years or so. 

The speech comes at a time of increasing unrest in the national security arena. Indeed, it has already been delayed due to the hunger strike at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility and the brouhaha over the Justice Department’s subpoena of the AP’s phone records. While the events at Guantanamo Bay can to some degree be attributed to the policies of the Bush administration (in opening the prison) and to Congress (in refusing to allow it to close), the AP seizure is something that rests firmly in Obama’s lap, and is indicative of his Justice Department’s approach in general. Rather than increasing transparency, Obama’s Justice Department has been ruthless in suppressing leaks and punishing leakers.

While I have no sympathy for the likes of Bradley Manning, the number of prosecutions related to national security leaks has been higher under Obama than his predecessors, with at least some chilling effect on the “unofficial transparency” that leaks tend to serve. And while Obama has recently pushed for a new Federal shield law to protect reporters’ sources, his downright schizophrenic approach to transparency has been a bitter disappointment. Hopefully, Thursday’s speech will help to alleviate that disappointment.

 

 

A New Look at Targeted Killing Authorities

The Obama administration is reportedly taking another look at the legal foundations of its use of drones for lethal counterterrorism operations. And none too soon, with the changes in the structure of al-Qaeda stretching the AUMF to the breaking point.

Like the war in Afghanistan, the targeted killing campaign in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere was undertaken under legal auspices of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. That law allowed the administration “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against those who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the 9/11 attacks or who “harbored such organizations or persons”.

However, with the continuing tactical successes of the dogged and technologically sophisticated campaign to target the core al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan over the last several years, the terrorist network has become much more diffuse.  This makes finding the necessary connections to the al- Qaeda senior leadership much more difficult, thereby undermining the legal justification for using lethal force. In fact, even detaining these individuals would require that they fall under the AUMF or some other legal authority (something critics of targeted killing often overlook).

This diffusion of al-Qaeda—and the legal authorities for use of force—is not a particularly new phenomenon. After all, after the invasion of Afghanistan, and the routing of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, many al-Qaeda operatives left the Afghanistan/Pakistan theater altogether, dispersing across the globe. They were not going into hiding, per se, but looking for new places to recruit, plan, and carry out their terrorist operations. When the US subsequently invaded Iraq, some al-Qaeda operatives followed us there to take root in the security void we created.

The courts have taken an expansive view of the AUMF, allowing the administration to target these “associated forces,” or what many analysts have called al-Qaeda 2.0. However, these individuals and groups had clear, direct connections to the original, core al-Qaeda element run by Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri which planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks.

Most al-Qaeda 2.0 groups were founded and run by his lieutenants, and remained in contact with Bin Laden. This is not true of the newest crop of terrorist groups cropping up across the Middle East and Africa. Instead, the leadership of these new groups often learned their trade as lieutenants to al-Qaeda 2.0 leaders and have only the most tenuous connections to the core al-Qaeda group. This makes fitting them into the AUMF scheme difficult, creating questionable legal authority to use lethal force.

According to a senior Obama administration official,

“The farther we get away from 9/11 and what this legislation was initially focused upon, we can see from both a theoretical but also a practical standpoint that groups that have arisen or morphed become more difficult to fit in.”

Even the leaders with the firmest connections often pose legal problems: Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former fighter in Afghanistan and later leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), had broken ties with AQIM and formed his own group, the al-Mulathameen Brigade operating in Algeria and Mali. The threat he poses to the to the US is not diminished, however. He was the mastermind of the Algerian gas plant attack, which lead to the deaths of three US citizens. However, because he is no longer a part of al-Qaeda or one of its franchises, the administration determined that the AUMF would apply to him.

When those like Belmokhtar and the Benghazi attackers kill Americans, the US could capture them based on criminal law enforcement authorities. However, should we have to wait for US citizens to be victimized before we allow the government to take action, when we know that an individual or group has nefarious intentions? Should we also have to wait until they show up somewhere that we can execute an arrest without undue danger to our agents?

The Obama administration is now looking for ways to square this circle, and create a more permanent framework for dealing with these issues. However, they apparently do not like their options. Simply expanding the current AUMF is unappealing. “You can’t end the war if you keep adding people to the enemy who are not actually part of the original enemy,” according to one person who participated in the administration’s internal debates. But relying solely on the constitutional authority of the President are not appealing either.

And while the administration may be correct that there is little political appetite for it, what is needed is a new authorization, allowing the executive broader authorities to kill or capture terrorists that target US interests, not just those connected to specific prior attacks. But these authorities must be coupled with judicial and congressional oversight procedures to protect against abuse or overuse. In fact, failure to create these authorities with built-in checks will encourage future presidents to rely on their inherent authority to act to defend the country from foreign threats, thus seizing all of the power with none of the constraints.

A more comprehensive “Counterterrorism Operations Powers Act” would create checks on the President’s powers, while still giving him the ability to carry out his duty to protect the nation. It would also help to elucidate the line between law enforcement situations and national security/counterterrorism situations.

Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research