Counterterrorism Policy (Drones) And Hot Dogs: Don’t tell us how they are made!

Last week saw Rand Paul of Kentucky perform a 13 or so hour filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to the position of Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.  Paul’s filibuster surprised many because he actually advocated for a cause he believed in while also bizarrely focusing on domestic drone targeting above all other aspects of the program.  After Paul’s filibuster theater, the nomination cleared Congress last week and Brennan has assumed his role as Director – a good thing in my opinion.  So after all the emotion, has anything really been accomplished in the drone debate?  Will any changes in policy arise?

Drone policy changes can occur in a few ways.  First, Congress could make laws limiting their use.  I doubt this will happen because the greatest irony of the Paul filibuster is that he comes from the political party that is naturally more supportive of drone use. Second, the executive branch could self-regulate and it appears they have been trying to do this over the years.  The latest New York Times article “How a U.S. citizen came to be in America’s cross hairs” provides even more details and clarity on the lengths the Obama administration went to find legal justification for their use of drones to pursue Anwar al-Awlaki.  As I noted in months past, the DOJ memo, in my opinion, didn’t provide endless powers to the President but instead developed specific authorities for the pursuit of Awlaki – a policy built on a unique case. This may or may not be a good idea.

The article provides the chronology for why the U.S. became so alarmed by Awlaki.

By 2008, said Philip Mudd, then a top F.B.I. counterterrorism official, Mr. Awlaki “was cropping up as a radicalizer — not in just a few investigations, but in what seemed to be every investigation.”

However, this evidence represented protected First Amendment speech so did not justify lethal action.  It wasn’t until the Abdulmutallab interrogation that the Obama administration changed course.

“He had been on the radar all along, but it was Abdulmutallab’s testimony that really sealed it in my mind that this guy was dangerous and that we needed to go after him,” said Dennis C. Blair, then director of national intelligence.

and then more attacks emerged….

Meanwhile, attacks linked in various ways to Mr. Awlaki continued to mount, including the attempted car bombing of Times Square in May 2010 by Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American citizen who had reached out to the preacher on the Internet, and the attempted bombing by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula of cargo planes bound for the United States that October.

I recommend that everyone check out the New York Times article as it provides real depth in reporting. The article also briefly mentions the revelations from Morten Storm – an alleged Danish agent that supposedly helped track Awlaki in Yemen.  I’m not so sure I buy into the whole Morten Storm story, but here is one interesting note from The Daily Beast that caught my eye. Storm claims Awlaki:

“He [Awlaki] wanted to attack the big shopping centers in the West … by using biological weapons. But I said that I didn’t want to take part in killing civilians—I could only agree to attacking military targets,” Storm says. “Of course I wouldn’t have helped him carry out any kind of terrorist actions. But I had to let him think that I was on his side.”

Well, if true, I’m sure the idea of a ‘biological weapons attack in a shopping mall’ certainly got the administration’s attention and hurried along the justification.

So will the executive branch continue to check itself? I think so, but will it be enough.  The debates may have at least sent a message to the administration.  Unfortunately, it will be entirely up to the Obama administration to check itself as I doubt Congress has the ability to do much of anything. BTW, did anyone catch that John Brennan was sworn in on an original draft of the Constitution? I assume he hears everyone’s concerns, good for him.

In conclusion, Americans continue to struggle with how best to conduct counterterrorism more than ten years after the 9/11 attacks.  For the most part, Americans want their counterterrorism strategy to be like hot dogs – it should taste good but don’t tell them how its made.  As time passes from the trauma of the 9/11 attacks, the American stomach for killing terrorists lessens – when the hot dogs get cold, no one wants to eat them.  Thus by advocating only one solution (law enforcement only – no drones), Americans would be choosing 1) either inaction and eventual attack or 2) counterterrorism by proxy where Americans temporarily enjoy a “Hear No Evil, See No Evil” approach likely to render long term negative consequences such as the backing of corrupt dictators, repression of freedom and the empowering of future non-state threats (like al Qaeda).  On the flip side, the Obama administration will continue to be able to use drone strikes until innocent people are killed again by an errant shot based on poor intelligence – a roughly 100% chance this will happen.

For many opposed to targeted killing by drone, they would prefer all enemies in a new asymmetric world be adapted such they can be mitigated through legal processes created in a more than 200 year old document. They like their threats to be either criminals or enemy nations; not a blend of the two.  Unfortunately, America’s adversaries have adapted as threats as a direct result of the U.S. system.  As America is successful in law enforcement and military operations, enemies morph straddling the lines of sovereignty, exploiting weak states, using disruptive technology, riding ideologies that rally the disenfranchised and hitting seams between bureaucracies and nations.  Protecting America’s values and effectively deterring terrorists and other threat actors (like cyber) requires new laws and new processes.  Barring another major attack, the momentum to make change appears too weak – status quo will likely reign.

As for Awlaki, from my perspective, there’s only two differences between him and Bin Laden.  Bin Laden’s attacks 1) succeeded and 2) were of a far greater magnitude than Awlaki’s.  Bin Laden, like Awlaki, never personally executed attacks on the U.S. – he advocated them, approved of them and helped finance them, but he didn’t personally execute the attacks. Likewise, both Bin Laden and Awlaki were only partially involved in the design of actual attacks (KSM largely played that role for UBL and presumably Asiri for Awlaki). Yet, no one thought twice about the elimination of Bin Laden which was seen as an act of warfare more than law enforcement action.  If the biological attacks on a shopping mall threats were true, one might even argue that Awlaki was more personally involved in attacking the U.S. than Bin Laden. If Abdulmutallab had detonated his device over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, I doubt many Americans would be too squeamish about Awlaki getting smacked by a drone.  I realize Bin Laden was indicted in a U.S. court, but that still wasn’t sufficient for two different administrations to aggressively pursue him through a targeted killing.  It was debated, but only committed to post-9/11.

So should the U.S. kill Awlaki before a plane blows up over Detroit or before a biological attack hits a mall? Or should the U.S. wait until after an attack and engage in a ten year war to root out an amorphous enemy and spend a fortune to rebuild a failed state?  Without new laws and new processes, the U.S. will always be in limbo riding a pendulum swinging back and forth between inaction and overextension.

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