Tech Companies: Don’t Tell Us How to Reform Government Surveillance

Just before the U.S. holiday season, I wrote a post at FPRI entitled “Post-Snowden: The Hypocrisy of Tech Company Calls for Surveillance Reform“.  For some reason, I got the feeling this posting did win over many people.  But, I stand by my argument, that tech companies, the most pervasive electronic surveillance perpetrators in the world, should not be telling the U.S. government how to reform surveillance.   If anyone is going to be scaling back surveillance, I think it should be the American public – who needs to decide how much privacy they are willing to trade off to maintain their national security.

I’ve usually gotten two criticisms of my argument.

First is that tech companies issue terms of service to their customers explaining how their information is being used. Thus its on the customers, if they don’t like their user information being exposed, then they can quit using the service.  For this, my counter is that the majority of users, even if they did read the terms of service, would not even be able to understand them and tech companies by issuing long terms of service filled with technical jargon are being deceptive about their practices.  From what I understand, there is a court ruling (for which I’m searching for, please post if you have it) that says these terms of service are incomprehensible and users can’t be held to closely to them.

The second argument is usually something like “Tech companies can’t through me in jail, but the government can!” For this I counter with show me the evidence of widespread NSA violation of American privacy resulting in jail time.  I know, I know, some will immediately push back on this, which I’ll follow up in a separate post.  But, I’m not aware of mass American imprisonment coming from NSA surveillance.  If that is happening, please explain, as I’m not aware of it from observing or personally dealing with the U.S. government.

My push against tech companies reforming surveillance hinges on several things I discuss in the article.

  • When tech companies call for government surveillance reform, they do this to protect profits, not customers. My experience with NSA personnel has always been that they put the security and privacy of U.S. citizens above all other interests.
  • Tech companies called for government surveillance reform after Snowden’s revelations and in direct response to U.S./NSA actions.  But these same companies have been penetrated aggressively by countries like China and called for no such reform.  When tech companies are targeted by China, Russia or Iran, they run to the U.S. government for help, but don’t call for reform. I call this two-faced.
  • If tech companies didn’t like the surveillance they were complying with before Snowden’s revelations, they could have banded together to say something.  They could have petitioned legislators to change the laws.  But they did no such thing.  Tech companies only care about privacy after Snowden’s revelations because it might impact their profits.
  • Tech companies across the board, as I discuss in the article, are not transparent about how they mine user information.  They should not demand such transparency from the government if they are not willing to clearly explain their data mining.  The more I learn of the electronic surveillance of companies like Google (See the article), the more I’m convinced Google’s “Don’t Do Evil” slogan is the equivalent of the Fox News slogan “Fair and Balanced”.

Here is the introduction to the article and see the rest of at this link.

The recent call by certain technology corporations to reform government surveillance makes for great public relations, but underneath these calls reek of hypocrisy.  Despite stating the desire for “the world’s governments to address the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information,” the call clearly comes only after Edward Snowden exposed that these companies were the primary points by which the NSA accessed information for intelligence efforts.  The Snowden revelations shook these companies to their core.  Why? Well, its not about customer privacy, instead its about Internet company business models.”

Americans: If You Don’t Want To Get Killed By A Drone, Avoid These 4 Things!

The much anticipated Department of Justice memo authorizing the use of drones to target Americans….scratch that.  A white paper from the Department of Justice outlined what might be the U.S. government’s position with regards to the killing of Americans via the use of unmanned drones.

Screen Shot 2013-02-05 at 10.37.32 PM

Twitter erupted with claims that this memo provided the President unprecedented powers to kill any American, anywhere, for any reason.  Well, I read the memo, and I’m fairly certain that is not what it said. (I think @blakehounshell was the first to point this out.) However, in reading this memo, which may or may not exactly detail U.S. policy, I did identify four important points for Americans if they want to avoid getting a warhead to the forehead.

Americans, if you are trying to avoid being transformed into a red mist;

  1. Don’t join al Qaeda outside the United States- Who knew that if you are an American and you decide to join al Qaeda that you might get smacked in the face with a Hellfire missile.  Unbelievable, the nerve of the American government to hold a grudge for so long.  Can you believe the Executive Branch would be willing to kill members of the terrorist organization, including American members, that committed the largest terrorist attack in history on American soil?  Absolutely absurd! However, simply being a member of al Qaeda won’t necessarily get a drone sortie on your hut.   
  2. Don’t become a Senior Leader of al Qaeda overseas - Even more shocking, if you are an American citizen and you join al Qaeda, and then later, you become one of the senior leaders of that organization, you might just wake up to a mouthful of hell’s fire! Unbelievable!  To think that you could join a terrorist group and openly advocate for the killing of your fellow citizens, and then be so good at promoting terrorism against your homeland that you would be honored by al Qaeda with a promotion….to think you could then be killed for that promotion.  I can’t imagine.  Who are these barbarians?
  3. Don’t actively plan to kill or actually attempt to kill Americans – It turns out that if you are an American and you join al Qaeda overseas and then you plan to kill or actually try to kill Americans, you could get shot in the face with a missile.  Ridiculous.  What right do U.S. citizens have to try and prevent terrorists from attacking them?  Surely if you join al Qaeda, recruit a guy off the Internet, and then help wrap his junk with explosives before setting him off to take down an airplane over Detroit on Christmas day, you should be allowed to hide out overseas and enjoy another opportunity to try a better, more sophisticated attack against the U.S., right?
  4. Don’t make it difficult to be arrested - This is where the white paper gets completely ludicrous.  It seems that if the U.S. government cannot figure out a way to arrest you since you’ve joined al Qaeda, been promoted, tried to attack the U.S. and have been hiding in a failed state with no functioning law enforcement, they will then maybe send a drone after you.  How insulting! How is this possibly fair to American terrorists that join al Qaeda?

Screen Shot 2013-02-05 at 10.50.54 PM

Unlike the folks I witnessed on Twitter suggesting this document provides the President unbounded power to kill Americans, I see the inverse – a legal opinion particularly crafted to pursue one Anwar al-Awlaki.  As has been seen in other public domains, Awlaki, an American, served as the head of external operations for AQAP in Yemen (a senior leader position), was being considered for promotion to head of AQAP (a more senior position) and was actively participating in plots to attack the U.S. (See Underwear Bomber).  This uniquely qualifies him for targeting according to this white paper.  The question should now be: what other Americans could be legally targeted by the U.S.?  Adam Gadahn maybe? The list seems to be fairly short and not expansive in the way suggested by drone conspiracy theorists.

Drone critics – what do you want?

Look anti-drone critics, I get it.  You are worried that the President might become Judge Dredd - prosecutor, judge and executioner without any oversight.  I understand this.  I also know you have seen the Terminator one too many times and feel as if drones are somehow autonomous killing machines different from other technology the U.S. has used to carry out airstrikes for decades (namely cruise missiles & manned aircraft).  However, drones have proven highly effective at dismantling al Qaeda in its safe havens – Bin Laden himself attested to their effectiveness. Drones have also limited the large scale military interventions you so ardently protested against the past decade.  While you continue to call for a “law enforcement” only approach where each individual is indicted, captured and convicted, this one system fits all approach just doesn’t fly in the modern age of warfare.  Terrorists use the limitations of “law enforcement only” approaches to their advantage.  At the same time, the “law enforcement only” approach requires a detention policy and an extradition policy.  Drone critics, you also didn’t seem to like Guantanamo Bay or renditions either (See “Counterterrorism 2012: No Drones, No Rendition, No Detention“).  When someone actually tried to put a structure in place to legally and morally conduct counterterrorism with the appropriate amount of force to sustain pressure against terrorists (John Brennan and the “Disposition Matrix”), you punched him straight in the face and are now threatening his nomination to Director of the CIA. Drone critics: you are being ignored because you are against all actions. You are thus advocates for inaction. And inaction cannot be our counterterrorism strategy.

Drone critics – Give us your plan

The biggest thing holding back drone critics is their inability to articulate, in clear terms, what exactly they would like the policy to be with regards to the use of drones – “Indict, Arrest and Convict” just doesn’t cut it.  Likewise drone critics, you have not done sufficient research into what happens if we don’t use drone strikes to pursue terrorists – namely that it pushes the U.S. to use proxies (foreign militaries and local militias) in the pursuit of al Qaeda and its affiliates.  Make sure you are comfortable with the counterterrorism options you are indirectly supporting by taking drone operations off the table.

I’ve had some productive discourse with Greg Johnsen and Frank Cilluffo and I have written some longer pieces on drones which can be found at these eight links (#1#2#3#4#5#6#7, #8).  But again, I’ll re-post my recommendations for creating an improved and more accountable drone targeting process.  Drone critics: take any of these and run with them. Refute them if you want. But whatever you do, please offer solutions to what you want the drone process to be. Otherwise you will continue to be ignored.

Here’s an excerpt from “The “Disposition Matrix” – Drones, Counterterrorism & National Security for the next decade” posted on October 25, 2012.

“There are several points where I think drone targeting, and counterterrorism more broadly, can be improved and refined.

  •  Detention Policy – We don’t have one!

The article states:

“Obama’s decision to shutter the CIA’s secret prisons ended a program that had become a source of international scorn, but it also complicated the pursuit of terrorists. Unless a suspect surfaced in the sights of a drone in Pakistan or Yemen, the United States had to scramble to figure out what to do.”

For drone critics, I noted this past summer the lack of a detention policy has led the U.S. to pursue more drone strikes.  U.S. counterterrorism planners are restricted from or encouraged not to do the following:

  • Detain terrorists and send them to Guantanamo Bay – a good thing.
  • Conduct renditions of terrorists and ship them to black site prisons – probably a good thing.
  • Detain terrorists and turn them over to their home countries if they might be subjected to torture – a likely occurrence with respect to virtually all of our Middle Eastern, North Africa or South Asian counterterrorism partners.

So what is the counterterrorism planner to do?  Lacking any way to detain a terrorist, it likely becomes much more appealing to kill a terrorist.  So drone critics, when you are whining about drone targeting are you also advocating alternatives for a detention policy that doesn’t involve Guantanamo Bay, renditions, and human rights abuses by counterterrorism partners?  I’m not hearing many solutions to this conundrum, which directly encourages further drone targeting.

  • Oversight of the Executive Branch

The article notes:

“With no objections — and officials said those have been rare — names are submitted to a panel of National Security Council officials that is chaired by Brennan and includes the deputy directors of the CIA and the FBI, as well as top officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and the NCTC.”

As drone critics point out, the President and the Executive Branch holds all the power with drone targeting.  This summer Frank Cilluffo and I offered:

“The U.S. might examine the establishment of a secret panel of judges and policymakers that hear cases for placing individuals on a targeting list. A single individual, as suggested in recent articles – even the Commander-in-Chief, should not be the lone arbitrator for each person proposed for targeting. An established process involving a collective judgment will render more defensible and consistent rulings. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court might provide an example structure for how secret information can be protected while evaluating the evidence for placing a terrorist on a targeting list.”

A judicial panel could be appointed and authorized, similar to the FISA court, to provide oversight and accountability on drone targeting.  This judicial process could provide documented deliberation, justification and accounting of drone targeting allowing for periodic review in terms of effectiveness and investigation when civilians are errantly engaged.

  • Interdisciplinary “Devil’s Advocate” Red Team

The article notes:

 “Counterterrorism experts said the reliance on targeted killing is self-perpetuating, yielding undeniable short-term results that may obscure long-term costs.” ….

For a decade, the dimensions of the drone campaign have been driven by short-term objectives: the degradation of al-Qaeda and the prevention of a follow-on, large-scale attack on American soil.

Side effects are more difficult to measure — including the extent to which strikes breed more enemies of the United States — but could be more consequential if the campaign continues for 10 more years.”

I would recommend that a threat or geographically oriented team of interdisciplinary “Devil’s Advocates” be injected into the targeting process.  Drone targeting by its nature focuses on the short term tactical goals of counterterrorism.  The “Devil’s Advocates” team could provide cleared country experts, cultural studies folks, PHD’s in terrorism and strategists that can anticipate the long term “blowback” implications of pursuing immediate term drone strikes in a given country outside of declared war zones.  In the Yemen example, the panel might include development specialists, diplomatic ditherers, regional experts and strategists familiar with the Yemeni context and able to plot alternative worst-case scenarios of what might happen if drone strikes go bad.  This can provide a valuable check for those consumed with the day-to-day tracking and engagement of terrorists.

  •  Publicly Disclosed Targeting Justification – Post Mortem

The secretive nature of today’s drone targeting leads to conspiracy theory generation by drone critics.  As part of the approval process for drone targeting, a declassified justification for targeting individuals (that protects intelligence sources and methods) could be drafted.  Immediately upon interdiction of terrorist targets, the White House could disclose this justification publicly serving two purposes.  One, it would allay the conspiracy theories of those that believe the U.S. is unjustly killing individuals for no good reason.  Two, it would put an informal check on the intelligence process encouraging planners and policymakers to get their intelligence and resulting justifications correct, as once a justification is openly published it would allow the public and the media to do their own checking if they choose.

  • Expand the use of information operations in concert with drone strikes

As part of the effort to minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage from drone strikes, where possible, I think the U.S. could expand its information operations in the locations where they are targeting terrorists.  As much as possible, I’d dump the equivalent of ‘Wanted Posters’ throughout areas where terrorists operate and let people know that terrorists are in their midst and that if they associate with said terrorist they might just get hit by a drone.  Some would argue this alerts terrorists that they are being targeted, but I imagine most terrorists already know the U.S. could put a warhead-on-their-forehead at any given time.  The information campaign would work much like the “Wanted” posters in the old west, many smart people would begin distancing themselves from those being targeted, maybe even cough up some terrorists to local law enforcement and it could inform local populaces as to who is being targeted and why they are being targeted.  I don’t think this will win any hearts-and-minds per se, but it does help people unknowingly enmeshed with terrorists make better decisions about who they hang out with.

  • The temptation to overreach – finding a definition of “al Qaeda”

Critics cited in the article rightfully note that drones make killing easy as compared to other counterterrorism options.  As the U.S. has relatively decimated the upper tier of al Qaeda’s leadership, the targeting list has continued to add members.

“Is the person currently Number 4 as good as the Number 4 seven years ago? Probably not,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official involved in the process until earlier this year. “But it doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous.”

This begs the question, “Are we really even fighting al Qaeda anymore?”  As al Qaeda members flee Afghanistan and Pakistan, we must begin addressing who our adversaries are and how far we will go to pursue them.  As of now, there is no common understanding of what al Qaeda is. As seen with the Benghazi attack, new militant groups with a handful of al Qaeda members or supporters are scattered around the globe. These groups will cooperate at times and compete at other times in pursuit of their goals, which vary from place to place and include different elements of al Qaeda’s ideology based on local conditions.  Essentially, which of these new militant groups, regardless of the title al Qaeda, are truly threats to the U.S. and require dedicated counterterrorism action?  Until the U.S. clearly identifies its adversaries and its interests, its likely to go too far in pursuit of some counterterrorism objectives and completely fail to address key threats in other locations.

 “We didn’t want to get into the business of limitless lists,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who spent years overseeing the lists. “There is this apparatus created to deal with counterterrorism. It’s still useful. The question is: When will it stop being useful? I don’t know.”

Screen Shot 2013-02-06 at 9.02.02 AM

The “Disposition Matrix” – Drones, Counterterrorism & National Security for the next decade

Last night, the Washington Post published the next installment in its series on U.S. drone warfare providing more clarity on the targeting process and a broad snapshot of how the U.S. may be moving to build a counterterrorism strategy for the longer run.  The article “Plan for hunting terrorists signals U.S. intends to keep adding names to kill lists,” provides excellent detail and discussion on current counterterrorism challenges.

The distracting counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan for many years delayed intelligent thought on how the U.S. would pursue non-state actors in an asymmetric security environment.  While many will narrowly focus on the drone specific aspects of this article, the broader context shows a smarter approach to national security where the U.S. realizes:

  1. We will have non-state adversaries (terrorists in this case) for the foreseeable future.
  2. These adversaries cannot be defeated through regime change (i.e. Iraq), nation-building (i.e. Afghanistan), solely working through counterterrorism partners (i.e. Sahel) or strictly via law enforcement approaches (i.e. Somalia).
  3. These non-state adversaries will move freely through and to weak and failing states seeking safe haven where the U.S. is least able to interdict their actions.
  4. We need to build a legal, bureaucratic, intelligence and military architecture to pursue non-state actor threats using the most effective and efficient counterterrorism practices developed since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Drone critics might temper their criticism until they learn more about the development of this system as I believe the few details revealed in this article reflect a smart and long needed transition to a counterterrorism architecture and ultimately a strategy freed from the ideological dogma that got us into engagements such as the Iraq conflict – pursuing an al Qaeda threat that arrived after, not before, the deployment of force.

The article blurs the connotation of the term ‘disposition’ at times by placing more emphasis on the “disposition of terrorists” than the disposition of U.S. methods for interdicting terrorists.  Of equal importance with this matrix is the analysis of options available to counterterrorism planners as terrorists move from the primary theaters of conflict (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq) to new safe havens hoping to survive and regenerate on other days in future forms.  If you have time, I also recommend watching the article’s accompanying author video interview (below) dubbed with unneeded melodramatic music of a sinister nature.  The author, Greg Miller, makes several contrasting points with respect to the article, the most important being the desire by many military and interagency members to explain drone and counterterrorism targeting calculus inferring “if you could see what we see, you would understand why we advocate what we advocate.”

The articles slips in a sort-of justification/reference for ‘signature strikes’ such as “packing a vehicle with explosives, for example.” (lame). Maybe post election, a presidential administration can make this happen and bring about the transparency so desired by drone critics.

The article also links to a graphic discussing drone targeting.  The graphic is a little Clip-Art-ish for a newspaper like the Washington Post but the depiction does show a general process for drone targeting of which I have several points – some of which carry over from Frank Cilluffo and I’s follow up article reference drones and Yemen from this summer – “Drones in Yemen: Are We On Target?”.  There are several points where I think drone targeting, and counterterrorism more broadly, can be improved and refined.

  •  Detention Policy – We don’t have one!

The article states:

“Obama’s decision to shutter the CIA’s secret prisons ended a program that had become a source of international scorn, but it also complicated the pursuit of terrorists. Unless a suspect surfaced in the sights of a drone in Pakistan or Yemen, the United States had to scramble to figure out what to do.”

For drone critics, I noted this past summer the lack of a detention policy has led the U.S. to pursue more drone strikes.  U.S. counterterrorism planners are restricted from or encouraged not to do the following:

  • Detain terrorists and send them to Guantanamo Bay – a good thing.
  • Conduct renditions of terrorists and ship them to black site prisons – probably a good thing.
  • Detain terrorists and turn them over to their home countries if they might be subjected to torture – a likely occurrence with respect to virtually all of our Middle Eastern, North Africa or South Asian counterterrorism partners.

So what is the counterterrorism planner to do?  Lacking any way to detain a terrorist, it likely becomes much more appealing to kill a terrorist.  So drone critics, when you are whining about drone targeting are you also advocating alternatives for a detention policy that doesn’t involve Guantanamo Bay, renditions, and human rights abuses by counterterrorism partners?  I’m not hearing many solutions to this conundrum, which directly encourages further drone targeting.

  • Oversight of the Executive Branch

The article notes:

“With no objections — and officials said those have been rare — names are submitted to a panel of National Security Council officials that is chaired by Brennan and includes the deputy directors of the CIA and the FBI, as well as top officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and the NCTC.”

As drone critics point out, the President and the Executive Branch holds all the power with drone targeting.  This summer Frank Cilluffo and I offered:

“The U.S. might examine the establishment of a secret panel of judges and policymakers that hear cases for placing individuals on a targeting list. A single individual, as suggested in recent articles – even the Commander-in-Chief, should not be the lone arbitrator for each person proposed for targeting. An established process involving a collective judgment will render more defensible and consistent rulings. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court might provide an example structure for how secret information can be protected while evaluating the evidence for placing a terrorist on a targeting list.”

A judicial panel could be appointed and authorized, similar to the FISA court, to provide oversight and accountability on drone targeting.  This judicial process could provide documented deliberation, justification and accounting of drone targeting allowing for periodic review in terms of effectiveness and investigation when civilians are errantly engaged.

  • Interdisciplinary “Devil’s Advocate” Red Team

The article notes:

 “Counterterrorism experts said the reliance on targeted killing is self-perpetuating, yielding undeniable short-term results that may obscure long-term costs.” ….

For a decade, the dimensions of the drone campaign have been driven by short-term objectives: the degradation of al-Qaeda and the prevention of a follow-on, large-scale attack on American soil.

Side effects are more difficult to measure — including the extent to which strikes breed more enemies of the United States — but could be more consequential if the campaign continues for 10 more years.”

I would recommend that a threat or geographically oriented team of interdisciplinary “Devil’s Advocates” be injected into the targeting process.  Drone targeting by its nature focuses on the short term tactical goals of counterterrorism.  The “Devil’s Advocates” team could provide cleared country experts, cultural studies folks, PHD’s in terrorism and strategists that can anticipate the long term “blowback” implications of pursuing immediate term drone strikes in a given country outside of declared war zones.  In the Yemen example, the panel might include development specialists, diplomatic ditherers, regional experts and strategists familiar with the Yemeni context and able to plot alternative worst-case scenarios of what might happen if drone strikes go bad.  This can provide a valuable check for those consumed with the day-to-day tracking and engagement of terrorists.

  •  Publicly Disclosed Targeting Justification – Post Mortem

The secretive nature of today’s drone targeting leads to conspiracy theory generation by drone critics.  As part of the approval process for drone targeting, a declassified justification for targeting individuals (that protects intelligence sources and methods) could be drafted.  Immediately upon interdiction of terrorist targets, the White House could disclose this justification publicly serving two purposes.  One, it would allay the conspiracy theories of those that believe the U.S. is unjustly killing individuals for no good reason.  Two, it would put an informal check on the intelligence process encouraging planners and policymakers to get their intelligence and resulting justifications correct, as once a justification is openly published it would allow the public and the media to do their own checking if they choose.

  • Expand the use of information operations in concert with drone strikes

As part of the effort to minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage from drone strikes, where possible, I think the U.S. could expand its information operations in the locations where they are targeting terrorists.  As much as possible, I’d dump the equivalent of ‘Wanted Posters’ throughout areas where terrorists operate and let people know that terrorists are in their midst and that if they associate with said terrorist they might just get hit by a drone.  Some would argue this alerts terrorists that they are being targeted, but I imagine most terrorists already know the U.S. could put a warhead-on-their-forehead at any given time.  The information campaign would work much like the “Wanted” posters in the old west, many smart people would begin distancing themselves from those being targeted, maybe even cough up some terrorists to local law enforcement and it could inform local populaces as to who is being targeted and why they are being targeted.  I don’t think this will win any hearts-and-minds per se, but it does help people unknowingly enmeshed with terrorists make better decisions about who they hang out with.

  • The temptation to overreach – finding a definition of “al Qaeda”

Critics cited in the article rightfully note that drones make killing easy as compared to other counterterrorism options.  As the U.S. has relatively decimated the upper tier of al Qaeda’s leadership, the targeting list has continued to add members.

“Is the person currently Number 4 as good as the Number 4 seven years ago? Probably not,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official involved in the process until earlier this year. “But it doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous.”

This begs the question, “Are we really even fighting al Qaeda anymore?”  As al Qaeda members flee Afghanistan and Pakistan, we must begin addressing who our adversaries are and how far we will go to pursue them.  As of now, there is no common understanding of what al Qaeda is. As seen with the Benghazi attack, new militant groups with a handful of al Qaeda members or supporters are scattered around the globe. These groups will cooperate at times and compete at other times in pursuit of their goals, which vary from place to place and include different elements of al Qaeda’s ideology based on local conditions.  Essentially, which of these new militant groups, regardless of the title al Qaeda, are truly threats to the U.S. and require dedicated counterterrorism action?  Until the U.S. clearly identifies its adversaries and its interests, its likely to go too far in pursuit of some counterterrorism objectives and completely fail to address key threats in other locations.

 “We didn’t want to get into the business of limitless lists,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who spent years overseeing the lists. “There is this apparatus created to deal with counterterrorism. It’s still useful. The question is: When will it stop being useful? I don’t know.”

 
 

Counterterrorism 2012: No Drones, No Detention, No Intervention

Counterterrorism after Bin Laden has entered a messy period.  Americans and the international community as a whole have grown tired from more than a decade of war.  The sting of 9/11/2001 has worn off.  Americans desire an end to conflict; regardless of whether the threat of terrorism still remains.  Last week, Frank Cilluffo and I released a follow up discussion on the use of drones in Yemen; a hotly debated topic in recent months and one needing exploration.

Ironically, David Ignatius, whose continuous reporting on drones at The Washington Post has stirred debate about U.S. counterterrorism policy, appeared on Morning Joe and surprisingly Joe Scarborough engaged Ignatius smartly on why we have gotten to our current place in counterterrorism (CT).  Here’s the link to the discussion on Morning Joe between Ignatius and Scarborough.  Scarborough rightly points out that the U.S. has gravitated to drones because so many CT options have been taken off the table – intervention, black sites, rendition, GITMO, etc.  Scarborough brings up good points, gets off base a couple times talking about drone casualties, and gets brought back into reality by Ignatius actually.  Watch this clip for an interesting discussion (6:37 to 17:15):

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

U.S. CT operations come in a variety of forms and rarely in isolation.  Over ten years fighting al Qaeda, the U.S. has utilized every option at different times and places.

On the direct military engagement end, the U.S. undertook regime change and large scale counterinsurgency operations to rid safe havens of extremists and their base of popular support.  The results were mixed, the costs were high, and the U.S. has decided post-Afghanistan “Surge” 2009 to move away from this large scale hearts-and-minds approach.

Starting immediately after 9/11/2001, U.S. counterterrorism also undertook a more nimble intelligence approach capturing terrorists around the globe, executing renditions, sending terrorists to black sites and Guantanamo Bay.  In concert with these overseas operations, the U.S. passed the PATRIOT ACT, stepped up domestic law enforcement operations and increased electronic surveillance.  Wow, Americans really hated this!  Renditions, illegal detentions, surveillance and GITMO were declared over – probably a good thing.  Side effect of this:  1) the U.S. has no method for detaining terrorists captured on global battlefields.  Lacking a detention policy, terrorists lacking sufficient evidence for prosecution are turned back to their home countries.  (See this morning’s Eli Lake Daily Beast story on Somalia prisons.)  2) Without the ability to pursue a law enforcement approach (Corrupt/incapable CT partners) or detain those captured, the U.S. reverts to drone warfare to interdict terrorists in safe havens.  Again, critics don’t like drones or returning prisoners to their home countries.

The alternative put forth by CT critics is “smart power” – diplomacy, economic development, information operations, etc.  These non-kinetic options have proven unsuccessful as well.  Diplomacy with corrupt regimes makes backlash.  Diplomacy with inept regimes wastes time and puts the country at risk in the near term.   Development as a CT tool rewards countries for having terrorists.  Likewise, ten years of building girls schools in Afghanistan, while a noble effort, had no impact on al Qaeda’s operations in Pakistan.  Assessing the effectiveness of hearts-and-minds Information operations (PSYOPS, Strategic Communications, etc.) have proven nearly impossible to estimate while being costly to execute – recently being slashed by Congress.

So what remains?  A host of covert actions to include arming and training foreign militaries and building up local militias to undertake CT actions on our behalf.  When all other options are removed, the U.S. will be forced to engage in proxy battles through surrogates to interdict terrorists stowed away in third world safe havens; sacrificing operational control, abdicating responsibility and placating an unknowing American public.  Yes, we’ve done this before, one of these groups was called the mujahideen, some of them were later called al Qaeda.

Counterterrorism remains a challenge and no perfect blend of tools, policy and options can be outlined – for in all scenarios there will be risks, costs and unintended casualties.  But I encourage those critics to ask two questions as they rightfully critique U.S. counterterrorism options:

  1. If you advocate the end of counterterrorism policy, option or tool (drones being only one example), what are the consequences and resulting effects of your objections?
  2. The U.S. should and will pursue terrorists around the world.  The U.S. should protect its values while protecting its citizens.  If you are not comfortable with how the U.S. conducts its counterterrorism, what counterterrorism strategy would you be comfortable with? And would that strategy protect U.S. citizens while suiting your values?

Busy Week in Counter Terrorism

Counterterrorism efforts around the world hit peak levels this past week. The flurry began with reports last week of potential “Mumbai Style” (not to be confused with “Hunan Style” which would be breaded and deep-fried) terrorist attacks in Britain, France, Germany and maybe the U.S.  The pace thickened with several significant counterterrorism actions.  Here is a quick recap. I may be missing some events so chime in if I left something out.

  1. Background: July 2010: A German citizen of Afghan origin from Hamburg was captured in Afghanistan.  Prior to his capture, Ahmed Sidiqi had traveled to Waziristan and received weapons training.
  2. Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010: German officials believe up to 70 Germans had undergone training in Pakistan and up to 40 fought in Afghanistan.  German nationals have been reported leaving Europe to join the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
  3. Saturday, Oct. 2, 2010: A French citizen of Algerian origin, Ryan Hannouni, was arrested in Italy near the Naples train station allegedly carrying bomb-making materials.
  4. Saturday, Oct. 2, 2010:  Kenyan anti-terrorism units detain a German convert to Islam near Mombasa.  The German, Sascha Alessadro Bottcher, penned a letter to his mother saying he “would never return alive” and allegedly wanted to join al Shabaab in Somalia. Kenyans deported him back to Germany on Tuesday, October 5.  (This one’s probably unrelated but still interesting)
  5. Sunday, Oct. 3, 2010: U.S. State Department issues a travel advisory for Europe warning of potential terror attacks in European cities.
  6. Monday, Oct. 4, 2010:  Between three and eight German Nationals were killed in a drone stike in the town of Mir Ali, FATA, Pakistan. “The militants were said to be members of Jehad al-Islami and their deaths follow reports that a group of jihadists from Hamburg is at the center of an al Qaeda plot for coordinated terrorist attacks in European cities.”
  7. Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010: French police arrest 12 people in two separate raids.  Three are suspected of providing false papers for jihadists returning from Afghanistan, while eight are being held for trafficking firearms and explosives.  The contact information for three of the arrested men came from the cell phone of Ryan Hannouni, caught in Naples on Saturday, Oct. 2.
  8. Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010:  French authorities issue a travel warning to their citizens that the risk of a terrorist attack in Britain is high. (Ohh the French, nothing hurts worse than a retaliatory travel warning, take that Britain.)

Wow, so what do we make of this?  Here are some of my thoughts and questions.

1)    Significantly improved counterterrorism efforts

Yes, I believe recent events illustrate massive improvement in counter terrorism.  I know, I should stay with the “Terrorism Fear Posse” (TFP for short). But, this week’s actions represent a global disruption effort across at least seven or more countries; hitting operational safe havens with drone strikes, rolling up known al Qaeda logisticians, and preemptively arresting those that can facilitate foreign fighter returnees from AFPAK.  This past week, effective information sharing between multiple countries produced rapid action against a decentralized al Qaeda related threat.  Finally, we are getting there.

True, there could still be an attack (in fact, there will ultimately be another attack in the West, we need to accept that). But deliberate, simultaneous CT actions in Pakistan, France, Britain, and Germany will put any terrorist plot that might be in motion into disarray.  I see this recent counter terrorism flurry as a positive sign.  We’re much closer to defeating al Qaeda.  However, one last step remains, the most challenging one; derailing al Qaeda recruitment.

2)    Lessons learned in countering violent extremism

Al Qaeda and affiliated groups will survive as long as they can replenish their recruitment pool.  Countering violent extremism (CVE) and disrupting al Qaeda recruitment remains the biggest challenge. German national villages emerging in Pakistan.  German nationals training and fighting in Afghanistan to then return and attack in Europe.   Big problems!

Why German nationals? Some are radical converts but most are of Turkish descent from what I’ve read.  The UK, Germany and France provide forces to ISAF in Afghanistan.  Does this really radicalize such a large number of European recruits?  If so, why so many Germans; more than Brits and French it seems?

I don’t know the answer to these questions but I do wonder how each country’s approach to CVE has affected their indigenous recruitment to al Qaeda.  From my limited knowledge, it appears each country chose a different CVE strategy post 9/11.  The Brits established relationships, funded organizations, allowed open dialogue and tried to work with Muslim groups to build bridges.  France constructed an organized council of Muslim groups tied directly into the government.  Meanwhile, Germany appears to have rejected any and all dialogue; banning entire Muslim groups from the country and disengaging from vulnerable populations.

I don’t know enough to accurately gauge how Germany’s CVE approach relates to the current surge in German recruitment, but I do believe the U.S. should examine these three countries to identify the risks and rewards of utilizing different CVE techniques in the States.

3)    The government had to issue travel warnings

Stop crying! The media and public bashing of the U.S. government for issuing a European travel warning is ridiculous.  They have to issue a warning.  If they don’t issue the warning and an attack occurs, then the American public would be outraged that the government wasn’t “doing anything” or “wasn’t aware” of the terrorist threat.

“Well, it was too vague, what should I do, wawawawa…”

Look if the U.S. government knew there was a terrorist plot at a specific place, on a specific day, at a specific time, they wouldn’t issue a warning.  They would just go stop the plot.

So, stop crying about the warnings, the government is doing the best they can, and they are getting a lot better at counterterrorism.  So be happy, not angry!

Connecting Counterterrorism Dots: Need Better Analysis, Not More Dots

Recent terrorist near misses on Christmas Day 2009 and in Times Square in May 2010 received the usual call from policymakers and pundits: “We need to connect the dots.” However, calls for “More Intelligence” and “Connecting the Dots” quickly contort into counterproductive policy and unnecessary expenditures that hamper our counterterrorism abilities for several reasons.

1-We still don’t understand the threat

The Christmas Day underwear bombing attempt suggests ‘a lack of intelligence’ isn’t the problem.  A plethora of intelligence clues turned up in the aftermath of this failed bombing attempt.  The bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, bought a ticket in cash, had been denied a visa to enter Britain, was detected by the NSA and tipped off to the U.S. Embassy.  All of these tell tale terrorism dots were not connected.  Why? Analysis is the culprit, not data.

2-We are overwhelmed with data, most of it worthless

Analysts failed to detect the Christmas day plot, but to their credit, they are overwhelmed with reporting.  Unfortunately, policymakers and counterterrorism officials will rush to create “more intelligence” such that this “never happens again.”  To prove to Congress expanded capability, government officials will publish more intelligence reports. These officials will brief Congress in subsequent rounds of testimony where they state, “Senator X, since the last time we spoke, our agency has generated 300 gazillion intelligence reports on al Qaeda which is a 30% increase in intelligence over last fiscal year”.  The session will end, Senator X will be happy there is more intelligence reporting and a few months later, another terrorist plot will sneak by U.S. CT analysts.

Why does ‘more intelligence’ fail to stop terrorism?

Imagine you are a kid taking swimming lessons. You show up to the lesson, receive a quick briefing from your swim instructor and then you are dumped into the center of the pool.  You throw your arms haphazardly at the water, thrashing violently, barely keeping your head above the surface.  You try to reach the side and you don’t make it.  The instructor jumps in and saves you.

The instructor gets you out and says, “well you didn’t make it to the side of the pool, but maybe we’ll try a different method next time.” During the next swimming lesson, the instructor boats you a couple miles into the ocean and throws you in saying, “now, try to swim to shore.”  You quickly drown.

This silly story mirrors our repeated approach to counterterrorism.  Except the analyst or investigator is the swimmer, intelligence data is the water, and detection of the terrorist plot is the edge of the pool or shore.  Our counterterrorism approach has been to detect the next terrorist plot by turning our intelligence pool into an ocean.  Subsequently, we are less likely, not more likely, to detect and disrupt the next plot.  There is just too much data, too much reporting, to make sense of what is happening.

3- We invest in CT stuff far more than we invest in CT people

Each terrorist attempt results in further spending to improve counterterrorism.  Except buying more counterterrorism stuff remains far easier than investing in CT people.  Rather than train our analysts and investigators sensibly to build accurate analytical models of the threat, officials will buy more plasma TV’s, databases and software that produces really neat looking charts with lines connecting colorful shapes of differing sizes.

Each increase in CT technology stuff distracts the CT personnel who must learn how to query an intelligence database they will seldom use.  Each database further segregates information bits creating technological silos where key information is overwhelmed by other worthless information.

So what do we do to fix this?

First, train analysts and investigators on analytical methods representative of the threat we face.  We have the intelligence, but we don’t routinely recognize the equation.  The Christmas attempt follows the exact model al Qaeda has used for more than a decade; Recruit, Indoctrinate, Train, Equip, Attack.  Al Qaeda recruited Abdulmutallab during university time in London which has been a worry for years.  Indoctrination occurred in Yemen where he received training, an explosive device previously utilized in Saudi, and targeting guidance.  He attacked via commercial aviation defeating weak security measures previously defeated by Richard Reid, the 9/11 hijackers, the Bojinka plot, etc. Al Qaeda has not significantly changed their approach, and it appears, unfortunately, we have not significantly changed our approach either.

Second, narrow our intelligence streams to what is useful.  Many agencies maintain upwards of 30 or more counterterrorism databases; each requiring special access passwords and dedicated training.  These databases contain thousands of reports; 98% of which say something like, “Osama Bin Laden is awful and we should stop him!”  Two percent of these intelligence reports prove to be useful, but our technology silos prevent rapid discovery and utilization.

Third, eliminate redundant counterrorism bureaucracy.  I’ll write much more on the counterterrorism behemoth, but the volume of people working on CT is counterproductive.  Too many people in too many agencies trying to do the same thing with limited information.  Consolidate and reduce the counterterrorism effort and we will likely have greater success.