CIA to End Undercover Vaccination Programs

Over a year after public health officials wrote to President Obama in anger that the United States had been using “sham vaccination campaign[s]” as a front for espionage, a White House official has pledged that the CIA will no longer use immunization programs as cover for spying operations. Continue reading

How do we define terrorism?

Last week’s shootings at Fort Hood have once again raised a seemingly simple question;

How do we define terrorism?

In the wake of the 2009 Fort Hood shootings, the Army and White House were hesitant to classify the tragedy as terrorism. Instead, the attack was labeled an incident of workplace violence, much to the disappointment of survivors and their advocates. In an article published earlier this week, The New York Times points out that the “t-word” was carefully avoided in reference to both Fort Hood shootings, but quickly associated with last year’s Boston Marathon bombings. Continue reading

The White House’s Handling of the Ukranian Crisis

From a national security perspective, the current Ukranian crisis serves as an unparalleled means to highlight the way in which the White House deals with a global crisis.

Congress Battling Over NSA Reform

As the debate over the NSA surveillance scandal rages on, two Congressional committees are now in the midst of a battle that will determine who gets the first crack at reforming the NSA’s intelligence gathering policies.  The battle between the House Intelligence Committee and House Judiciary Committee will largely determine the extent to which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) will be modified in the post-Snowden era.  While much is still unclear, a historical comparison to the Pike and Church Committees from the Cold War era may well demonstrate which stance the government should take on NSA reforms. Continue reading

Drone Strikes Remain in CIA Territory

Six months after the White House announced that drone strikes would move from the CIA’s authority to the DoD, new reports state that the transfer will not be happening any time in the near future.  President Obama originally claimed that the transfer was meant to increase transparency and open up debate in regard to the controversial drone strikes across the Middle East.  While many will undoubtedly criticize the delay, the situation may not be as bad as it appears on its face.  In fact, it may be that keeping drone strike capabilities in the hands of the CIA will actually be a positive in the long run. Continue reading

Force-Feeding Condemned by Top Congressmen

As the controversy surrounding force-feeding tactics at Guantanamo Bay continues, two top members of the U.S. Senate have spoken out in favor of ending the practice.  Senators Richard Durbin and Dianne Feinstein called on President Obama to stop force-feeding prisoners partaking in hunger strikes in protest of their status at Guantanamo.  This comes just days after a U.S. District Court Judge handed down a ruling stating that federal courts have no authority to shut down the force-feeding program, but agreeing with detainees and their attorneys that the practice is troubling and may violate human rights.  The decision put the burden solely on President Obama to address the situation, and it looks like he will be receiving pressure from Congress as well.

Senators Durbin and Feinstein did imply that there may be cases where force-feeding is medically necessary, but stated that the military does not observe proper guidelines and safeguards even in those cases.  This was not Senator Feinstein’s first attempt at convincing the government to stop force-feeding.  Last month she wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel after a visit to Guantanamo in which she called hunger strikes a “long-known form of non-violent protest aimed at bringing attention to a cause, rather than an attempt of suicide.”  This seems to imply that Feinstein’s views are in line with others who believe that force-feeding is inhumane in instances where protests do not threaten Guantanamo personnel and involve mentally competent detainees.

The White House turned to its usual response, stating that it does not want any detainees to die of malnutrition while in detention.  So it’s ok to hold them indefinitely with no hope of release even though we lack the necessary evidence to press charges, but it’s not ok for them to protest a largely unreasonable policy in a manner that poses no threat to the United States or its military personnel.  Got it.

The Senators also called on President Obama to make good on his long overdue promise to close Guantanamo Bay altogether, which was just another drop in the proverbial ocean of similar requests made since Obama took office.  As sad as it is, it’s almost laughable at this point to think that another request to close Guantanamo will make a difference with so many members of Congress still in favor of keeping it open.  But I guess it’s nice to know that there are still politicians out there who believe that it can be accomplished.

Do I think this latest effort to stop force-feeding and close Guantanamo will make any difference?  Not really.  Like I’ve said before, closing Guantanamo will be a long, painful process and there are still too many people who want to keep it open.  It’s not a groundbreaking prediction but I don’t think Guantanamo Bay will be closed any time in the near future.  I think our short-term goal needs to be putting an end to force-feeding.  If you believe Monday’s decision, we should be able to sidestep much of the political process and leave it up to President Obama if we focus on that.  That doesn’t mean we should abandon efforts to close the base, but we need to focus on the immediate problems that we can fix right now.

In a related story, two hunger-strikers dropped out of the over 4 month-long protest for unspecified reasons, bringing the total number down to 104.  However, 45 are still being force-fed on a daily basis.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Chemical Weapons Use by Syrian Government Leads to Direct U.S. Military Aid to Rebels

Syria, a country scarred by decades of violent repression, erupted into civil war in mid-2011. Students were tortured for anti-government sentiments and live ammunition was routinely fired into crowds of protesters. The Human Rights Watch revealed in July 2012 that the Syrian government maintained at least 27 torture centers. In time, an insurgency arose, resorting to militant means to overthrow the Assad government.

The US has been reluctant to intervene in Syria’s affairs, though the plea for help has grown stronger with each passing month. Despite the $515 million in humanitarian assistance delivered to the Syrian opposition, Congress has been pressuring the Obama administration to provide munitions (including missiles) and to declare of a no-fly zone. The most notable opposition derives from Republican Sen. McCain: “This is not only a humanitarian issue. It is a national security issue. If Iran succeeds in keeping Bashar al Assad in power, that will send a message throughout the Middle East of Iranian power.” In addition, Democratic Sen. Casey urges that even provision of heavy weaponry may not be enough support for the Syrian opposition.

On June 13, 2013, intelligence confirmed the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government on at least four occasions. The weapons have reportedly killed between 100 and 150 people. In response, President Obama announced that the Assad regime had crossed the “red line” the US had drawn and authorized direct military aid to rebel forces. The White House Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications stated, “The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has.”

So begins a new chapter in the Syrian civil war: Hope. A chapter the U.S. will help write.

Chelsea Perdue, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

NSA Phone Surveillance Scandal Sparks Different Reactions

On Wednesday, The Guardian released a story detailing how the National Security Agency obtained a secret court order compelling telephone giant Verizon Wireless to hand over phone records detailing all domestic calls made by its customers.  Specifically, the order, signed by a federal judge on April 25th, gave the NSA unlimited authority to collect phone numbers, location data, time and duration of calls, and other unique identifying data until July 19th.  As the article points out, the court order was unusual in that it targeted such a wide range of people.  Normally, this type of court order would be limited to an individual or a small group of people.

Now, I would venture to say that when most Americans first heard about this story, they envisioned a government agent sitting in a van with headphones on, listening to their individual phone calls.  However, as a follow-up article by The Washington Post explains, this is probably not the case.  Information obtained regarding the court order made no actual mention of audio recordings.  Although it is not out of the question that the NSA may have other programs aimed at obtaining audio files, they would not be able to acquire them under this order.  It appears that the NSA is only seeking paper and electronic records at this point.

But why would the NSA want these phone records?  Although the reasoning behind the court order is largely unknown at this point, the White House responded quickly by claiming that this was an anti-terrorism move.  Particularly, the NSA is probably seeking out patterns in the records that could reveal possible terrorist plots against the United States.  Even if this is the case, the methods the NSA uses to find these patterns have not been proven and have actually been questioned by experts in recent years.

The story has already sparked a great deal of outrage among the American public.  We have a high expectation of privacy and tend to think that we are immune to this type of surveillance, especially when it has not been proven to be effective.  But since specific details are still being withheld, we can’t be sure whether the NSA’s program is actually constitutional.  Putting that aside, there are a few different ways to look at the situation.  Like I said before, we tend to place a high value on privacy in the U.S.  The idea that the government can monitor our phone calls without notice of permission is unsettling to most, and understandably so.  Even if the government is not actively listening to our phone calls, it’s hard to say what else they ARE monitoring.  Prior to the enactment of the Patriot Act, this kind of surveillance would have been unthinkable.

On the other hand, some Americans are ok with the idea of the government monitoring private phone calls.  The program even received some support in Congress.  Senator Lindsey Graham defended the NSA’s program on Fox News, stating that it was a necessary step toward thwarting “homegrown terrorism.”  There are undoubtedly some Americans who agree and are ok with trading some amount of privacy for increased national security.  In the post-9/11 era, this is also understandable.  After all, what does the average American have to worry about if they have nothing to hide?  It’s not like the government has released the actual records to the public.  This might be true, and that argument might hold water, but the fact is that we don’t know where it stops.  Just to reiterate, specifics regarding the program are still unknown, and the NSA may have place self-imposed limitations on their surveillance, but we just won’t know until more details are released.  That’s the part that makes so many Americans uneasy.

Until then, we again have to ask ourselves a question that been asked over and over for the past decade:  What amount of privacy and liberty are we willing to give up in the name of national security?

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Pakistani Taliban will not attend peace talks, citing drone strike

After the recent drone strike in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region,  the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik e  Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) initially refuted claims that their number two commander and chief military strategist, Wali ur-Rehman, had been killed. The TTP have since admitted that Rehman was indeed killed in the strike, and cite that strike as the reason for refusing to attend the scheduled peace talks with the Pakistani government.

The Taliban’s spokesman blamed Pakistan’s civilian government for failing to put a stop to the CIA-run strikes:

“We announce an end to our peace overtures because we believe that the Pakistani government is equally involved in the drone attack,”

It has always been reasonably clear that the talks were not going to lead to much anyway, and it is likely that this simply presented the Taliban an excuse to pull out while appearing to take the high road. However, reports indicate that if anyone in the Pakistani Taliban was open to serious peace talks, it was probably Rehman.

Some here at home have also criticized the strike, since they see it as a breach of President Obama’s newly announced changes in our drone policy, first because it was run by the CIA rather than the DoD, and second because there is no indication that Rehman posed an imminent threat of the type Obama’s new policy would require for targeted killing. However, according to Foreign Policy’s Situation Report, the adoption of the new rules is not a simple matter of flipping a switch somewhere in the Oval Office:

“there is no timeline when it comes to migrating drone operations to the DOD. ‘You don’t move it overnight,” said the former senior official.’ “

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