Abu Ghraib Closed by Iraqi Government

Earlier today, the Iraqi government announced that it has shut down the Abu Ghraib prison. According to Iraqi officials, the closure is due to growing concerns that Sunni insurgents in the area may have the capabilities to launch an attack against the prison, possibly freeing some of the roughly 2,400 prisoners. Those prisoners have now been moved to more secure locations in central and northern Iraq. It is unclear at this point whether Abu Ghraib will reopen if the Iraqi government is able to secure the area. Continue reading

Media Irresponsibility is Hurting Veterans

News broke this past Wednesday afternoon of yet another tragic mass shooting at Fort Hood, the second in the base in just five years. While TransparentPolicy‘s primary focus is the United States’ response to foreign terrorist threats, this is an issue that warrants our attention, largely in part to the widespread implications the news coverage of these events will have on the general public’s perception of service members and military veterans, which will ultimately affect the long-term well being of those who have served our country in the post-9/11 military. 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

Bradley Manning Sentencing Begins

Early yesterday, the sentencing phase of the trial of Bradley Manning, the source of the Wikileaks scandal, began at Fort Meade.  As I said yesterday, Manning was acquitted of aiding the enemy, the most serious charge against him.  Still, Bradley Manning was convicted on 20 of 22 counts, including charges of violating the Espionage Act of 1917.  The prosecution and defense both agreed with Col. Denise Lind that Manning faces a total of 136 years in a military prison for his crimes.

On top of the potential 136-year prison sentence, the parties also agreed that Bradley Manning will be demoted to the rank of enlisted private, dishonorably discharged from the Army, and stripped of all pay and benefits that he would have otherwise received.

The star witness of yesterday’s sentencing hearing was Brig. Gen. Robert A. Carr (ret.), who is now an executive at defense contractor Northrop Grumman.  General Carr’s expertise on the matter comes from a long career overseeing the Army’s intelligence gathering operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia.  His last assignment as a member of the Army was to gather information and assess the extent to which information released by Wikileaks harmed soldiers in the field and jeopardized American national security.

Now that the bulk of Bradley Manning’s sentence has already been settled, all that remains is to determine how much of the potential 136-year sentence he will actually serve and what monetary fines the court will impose on him.  I find it hard to believe at this point that Manning, who is just 25 years old, will ever be a free man.  I guess that’s just what 20 separate convictions for espionage will get you.  But now that he has been stripped of all benefits and pay and will probably spend most or all of his life behind bars, arguing about monetary fines is basically just a formality.  It’s probably not very realistic to expect him to pay up.

Anyways, General Carr’s testimony centered around whether or not Bradley Manning’s crimes actually led to any deaths in the field.  General Carr claimed that exactly one death, an Afghani national with ties to the U.S. government, occurred as a result of the Wikileaks scandal.  The Taliban reportedly killed him after obtaining the information.  However, when pressed by the defense, General Carr admitted that the man was never named in war logs released by Julian Assange and any mention of the death was stricken from the official record.  General Carr still insisted that Bradley Manning’s crimes had put U.S. soldiers and Afghani allies at risk by detailing the relationship between certain Afghani forces and the U.S. military.

It’s interesting that not even General Carr, the prosecution’s authority on the supposed damage caused by Bradley Manning, could not point to a single instance where the leaks led to even one casualty.  The only such accusation was quickly stricken from the record.  To me, this shows just how desperate the government was to make an example out of Manning with the aiding the enemy charge.  There’s really no other explanation for moving forward with that charge with only one precarious piece of evidence.

The trial still has a long way go.  The defense is still days, maybe weeks away from presenting evidence of mitigating circumstances that could soften the blow of Bradley Manning’s 20 convictions.  Like I said before, Manning isn’t going to be a free man any time soon.  But if today was any indication, he might not be looking at a 136-year sentence after all.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Signature Strikes are as Old as War

Arianna Huffington recently wrote on the Huffington Post about the Obama Administration’s use of so-called “signature strikes” by drones in Pakistan and elsewhere. Underlying much of her criticism is a basic assumption that signature strikes are a new form of targeting that is more pernicious than the more targeted strikes that we are used to. This assumption is perfectly true, if your sense of history goes back no more than about decade.

Signature Strikes are the norm, not the exception

The truth is that what we now call “signature strikes” used to just be called “targeting the enemy.” The practice is in fact so old that it is impossible to trace its origins. In fact, some of the earliest accounts of armed conflict speak about the use of “signatures” or qualities that allow a soldier or government agent to identify an unknown person as a probable member of an enemy group. The Old Testament is replete with examples, including David’s use of foreskins to identify Philistines, and the Gileadites’ use of the word “shibboleth” to identify and kill the Ephraimites.

In fact, knowing the identity of your enemy with any precision was extraordinarily rare until the last ten years. Granted, targeted killing of one sort or another (even leaving aside clear cases of political assassination) has existed for time immemorial as well, but was definitely not the norm. It was instead an unusual undertaking, and attempts rarely led to success. For eons, the standard approach to warfare has been to assemble together a large group of men, few of whom are expected to know any of the enemy by name (with the exception of their king or president), and effectively set them loose on a collection of the enemy population. In later more “civilized” times, these armed groups would mostly only attack one another, although this was never a perfectly uniform practice. These soldiers, whether professionals or conscripts, would not identify an enemy by name, position, or other individualized characteristic. It was always enough that they “look like the enemy.”

This is what has always been expected of soldiers, and to a great extent, still is. We now have more rigorous standards of conduct, laws to mitigate civilian damage done during an attack on enemy forces, and clearly spelled out rules of engagement. Even still, in my four years in US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, I was shown a picture of an individual enemy that we planned to kill or capture on a handful of occasions. The rest of the time we were just expected to use the same standard as is used for pornography: you know it when you see it. In other words, we were expected to use the ground combat equivalent of signature strikes. Warfare is just not that individualistic, even today.

Signature strikes may not be new, but our new techniques are helping reduce civilian harm, despite the “evidence”

Still, the US military and intelligence community is becoming impressively proficient at identifying and locating individual members of the enemy. Despite the much publicized (but mostly classified) report recently published by the Center for Naval Analysis’ Larry Lewis, most reliable evidence says that drones, even when used for signature strikes, are much more discriminant and precise, killing or injuring fewer civilians per strike, and far fewer per militant killed. Much of the evidence to the contrary is in fact gained from anonymous sources linked to the Pakistani military or to the militants themselves. Given the sourcing–the enemy and their patrons–it is a little surprising that the claimed number of civilian deaths is in fact so low, even including signature strikes. Maybe these sources are willing to double the number of civilian casualties, but tripling it seems a bridge too far (except for a stalwart few who transparently either fudge their numbers or need to retake middle school pre-algebra).

As a case in point, even the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who appears at first to be an honest broker of information on drone strikes, upon deeper investigation, are highly biased. They reported yesterday that the number of civilian deaths due to drone strikes in Pakistan has been underreported by 81. They describe this as a “high civilian death toll,” but for a campaign waged over the course of nine years, this is actually an extremely low death toll. I challenge anyone to find another military campaign that lasted nine years yet killed fewer than 45 civilians per year (according to their numbers). However, even these numbers are suspect, as can be seen from their source document, a leaked Pakistani summary of drone strike casualties. Setting aside the arithmetic problems (4+5=8? Apparently, in Pakistan. See line 78), several problems indicate unreliability.

First, the number of civilians killed is not always as clear as the Bureau would have it. In the vast majority of “civilian” casualty cases, the number of civilians are not specified, and is indictated only by inclusion of the word “civilian” in the remarks column. It is not clear whether this means all dead and wounded were civilians or whether one or some of them were. However, in other cases, the number is given, or the remarks indicate that they were “all civilians.”

Second, and more damning, only two references were made to militants out of the nearly 750 dead in 84 attacks. However, one entry refers to “miscreants,” and several others list foreigners as among the dead. This raises the suspicion that the number of militants killed is actually under-reported, and thus the possibility that some listed as civilians are in fact militants.

Third, and worst of all for the reliability of this information, it is apparently obtained secondhand and from afar. Several of the entries indicate that the information is “reported” or “yet to be received.” Local elders and even local political administrations are often pro-Taliban or otherwise compromised (e.g. by bribery which constitutes the majority of their income).

The hard truth is that coming to even a good, ball-parked number of civilian dead is extremely difficult. But what is clear is that the US drone campaign, even when using signature strikes, has a remarkably low rate of civilian casualties when compared to other available options, given their advanced optics, long loiter times, and precision munitions. Those who advocate against drones tend to focus on the technology, when what they are actually opposed to is the use of force in general. This is a laudable sentiment, but these same folks never seem to be willing to offer workable alternatives.

The truth is that drones are here to stay, because they are an extremely useful, discriminating weapon system. Given that we are involved in a protracted conflict with an enemy that hides among the civilian population, our drones and drone pilots are doing a remarkable job. Of course, as I will describe in a later post, relying solely on drones to win this conflict for us is in the end counterproductive. More on that soon.

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

Bradley Manning’s Top Charge to Remain

Earlier today, a military court judge dismissed a motion by Bradley Manning’s defense team to drop “aiding the enemy” from the list of charges against him.  Manning, who is now definitely facing life in military prison without the possibility of parole, is the U.S. Army intelligence analyst accused of leaking the information that eventually ended up on Wikileaks.  He was arrested in 2010 in Iraq and charged with 22 separate counts related to the release of over 700,000 documents to Wikileaks.  Though he plead guilty to 10 of the 22 counts back in February, Manning’s trial did not start until early last month.

The decision was left up to Colonel Denise Lind, the judge presiding over the case at Fort Meade in Maryland.  She rejected the motion based on the “accused’s training and experience and preparation,” as well as Manning’s knowledge that terrorist organizations would have access to the leaked documents on the Internet.  The defense’s motion claimed that the government had failed to show that Manning possessed “actual knowledge” that he was providing information to the enemy, and could only show that he unintentionally or accidentally gave terrorist organizations access to the documents.

I think it’s worth noting that there’s a pretty sharp difference between “knowingly” and “intentionally” aiding the enemy, a difference that the defense seems to have overlooked.  I agree that Manning’s intent probably wasn’t to provide al-Qaeda with sensitive government documents. The way he went about releasing the information wouldn’t make any sense if that scenario were true.  But at the end of the day, his intent isn’t what matters if you read Article 104, the charge which Manning’s defense appealed:

Any person who—
(1) aids, or attempts to aid, the enemy with arms, ammunition, supplies, money, or other things; or
(2) without proper authority, knowingly harbors or protects or gives intelligence to, or communicates or corresponds with or holds any intercourse with the enemy, either directly or indirectly;
shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial or military commission may direct. This section does not apply to a military commission established under chapter 47A of this title.

What matters in regard to this charge is that Manning knowingly released classified government documents that he knew could indirectly reach terrorist organizations.  You can argue all day about whether or not Manning actually deserves to be charged under Section 104.  But if we’re going by the book, Judge Lind made the right call.

Putting aside the technical aspects of the case, journalists are all in a tizzy about what this means for investigative journalism.  Many are claiming that the Obama administration is trying to make an example of Manning by bringing the hammer down on a highly visible whistleblower.  They are concerned that the threat of life in prison without the possibility of parole will prevent others like Manning to come forward when they believe the government is doing something unethical or shady.  These are valid concerns.  There is a reason why freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy.  If we aren’t aware of what our representatives are doing, how can we vote them out of office if we disagree with their policies?

Still, I think the government has a legitimate concern as well.  Sure, we over-classify and give security clearances to far too many people, but that doesn’t mean it should be a free-for-all.  There is plenty of classified information that I’m sure I wouldn’t want to go public, and the government has a right to protect that information in the name of national security..  But the solution isn’t to throw Manning into prison for the rest of his life; it’s to fix the system.  Because of the aforementioned over-classification, the government has created a climate in which someone almost HAS to leak classified information to get to the bottom of any real stories.  Since we seemingly classify everything nowadays, what should be public and what should be classified gets lumped together and we see exactly what happened in Manning’s case.  And when we have an estimated 4 million people with top-secret security clearance, let’s not act too surprised when that happens.

Did Bradley Manning do something stupid?  I think he did.  Did terrorist organizations gain access to classified government documents because of his actions?  Undoubtedly.  But the government needs to realize that the guilt doesn’t lie solely with Manning.  If we’re really worried about protecting classified information, we need to start being selective in regard to what we classify and who we give clearance to.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Some problems with the charges filed against Boston Marathon bombing suspect

Well, it seems that Tsarnaev has now been read his rights.

The FBI filed charges against the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, alleging “using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction.” But Tim Noah has pointed out an interesting conundrum in his article on FP.com: How do relatively small improvised explosive devices (IEDs) amount to weapons of mass destruction?

18 USC § 2332a defines “weapon of mass destruction” as:

“(A) any destructive device as defined in section 921 of this title;

(B) any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors;

(C) any weapon involving a biological agent, toxin, or vector (as those terms are defined in section 178 of this title); or

(D) any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life.”

Since the pressure-cooker bombs made by the brothers did not (so far as we know) use  any toxins, poisons, biological agents, or radioactive elements, then the definition of WMD in operation in this case must be that of a “destructive device” which then allows in “any explosive bomb.” Firecrackers, too, apparently (Section 921 defines “Attorney General,” but not “bomb”).

But even setting aside the idiocy of language of the statute, it’s ridiculous to call the low-powered bombs  in Boston “weapons of mass destruction,” even if they did wound scores of innocent civilians. After all, as Tim Noah points out,

“If any old bomb can be called a WMD, then Saddam most definitely had WMDs before the United States invaded Iraq 10 years ago. And if an IED is a WMD, then Iraq actually ended up with more WMDs after the U.S. invasion than before (and isn’t entirely rid of them yet).”

For the sake of clarity, I do not advocate “going easy” on Tsarnaev. He should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, which is what the federal government appears to be doing. But neither do I support equating the employment of ordinary bombs and IEDs with true weapons of mass destruction.

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

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

Panetta Says the US Didn’t Need EIT’s to Get UBL

Over the past few weeks, the film “Zero Dark Thirty” has undoubtedly brought heightened  attention to the United States’ hunt for bin Laden (UBL).  In the film, some of the more shocking scenes include those in which the main characters, CIA agents, are interrogating detainees at various detention facilities.  The film shows some of the more frequently discussed EIT’s, or Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (arguably, just a more palatable euphemism for torture), including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, food deprivation, stress positions, blasting loud music, and playing off the detainees’ fears and cultural beliefs.

Regardless of whether director Kathryn Bigelow took artistic license when developing these scenes in the film, it is indisputable that EIT’s have been regularly used by the United States in the decade that has passed since the 9/11 attacks.  With the secrecy that shrouded the mission leading to the capture of UBL, it is only natural that the public is hungry for the details regarding how the intelligence leading to that fateful night in Abbottabad .

In an interview on “Meet the Press” that aired Sunday night, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the search for UBL included piecing together a great deal of disparate information, and admitted that some of the information came from EIT’s, saying “Yes, some of it came from some of the tactics that were used at that time – interrogation tactics that were used.”

However, he continued on to say “I think we could have gotten Bin Laden without [EIT's]“- essentially revealing that the controversial EIT’s were not necessary to achieve the United States’ most significant accomplishment thus far in the Great War on Terror, capturing UBL.