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.”


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