Mark Mazzetti at NYT:
The top American commander in the Middle East has ordered a broad expansion of clandestine military activity in an effort to disrupt militant groups or counter threats in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and other countries in the region, according to defense officials and military documents.
The secret directive, signed in September by Gen. David H. Petraeus, authorizes the sending of American Special Operations troops to both friendly and hostile nations in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa to gather intelligence and build ties with local forces. Officials said the order also permits reconnaissance that could pave the way for possible military strikes in Iran if tensions over its nuclear ambitions escalate.
While the Bush administration had approved some clandestine military activities far from designated war zones, the new order is intended to make such efforts more systematic and long term, officials said. Its goals are to build networks that could “penetrate, disrupt, defeat or destroy” Al Qaeda and other militant groups, as well as to “prepare the environment” for future attacks by American or local military forces, the document said. The order, however, does not appear to authorize offensive strikes in any specific countries.
In broadening its secret activities, the United States military has also sought in recent years to break its dependence on the Central Intelligence Agency and other spy agencies for information in countries without a significant American troop presence.
The Times did not report its original classified codename, “Avocado.” The name has since been changed.
Other “ex-ords” signed by combatant commanders include provisions for secret American bases and operations in countries like Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and in the Dagestan region of the North Caucuses. In the latter space, U.S. soldiers were tasked with tracking down members of identified separatist groups with loose ties to Al Qaeda. One of those groups was responsible for the March 31 bombings in Kizlyar, according to American intelligence officials.
The Obama administration had been reluctant to allow such an expansion of nontraditional military activities in countries where the U.S. formally has no presence. That practice was unfavorably associated with the Bush-Cheney administration’s disregard for international norms.
But political imperatives, the threat of terrorism, and the knowledge of what the U.S. military can accomplish if its strings are cut away has slowly changed the minds of some of Obama’s senior advisers. It is helpful that Congress has generally given the military a wide berth to conduct activities that intelligence agency paramilitaries would find objectionable.
Spencer Ackerman at The Washington Independent:
Petraeus’ spokesman declined comment. But if that’s faithfully reported, it sounds a lot like uniformed personnel could assume civilian cover for intelligence purposes. And that carries the non-trivial risk of unaffiliated businesspeople or academics or journalists or tourists in the Middle East or South Asia being presumed to be spies — and, hence, targets — by local security forces or extremists. Foreign allied governments in the region might also not like the U.S. sponsoring “local indigenous groups” that might destabilize their countries or threaten their rule.
The document does not authorize any offensive use of force activities; the purposes are apparently intelligence-gathering and relationship building, in friendly and hostile countries. Contingency plans related to thwarting expansion of terrorist networks as safe havens in AfPak and, presumably, Yemen are disrupted to other lightly governed or hostile places such as Somalia or Iran are important; likewise contingency plans around Iran nuclear weapons acquisition. Of particular interest, beyond the news report itself, is the article’s discussion of the relationship between “clandestine” military activities and “covert” CIA actions (the statutory definition of “covert” for purposes of the intelligence community is found at USC Title 50, 413(b)(e)). According to the article:
The order … calls for clandestine activities that “cannot or will not be accomplished” by conventional military operations or “interagency activities,” a reference to American spy agencies … Unlike covert actions undertaken by the C.I.A., such clandestine activity does not require the president’s approval or regular reports to Congress, although Pentagon officials have said that any significant ventures are cleared through the National Security Council. Special Operations troops have already been sent into a number of countries to carry out reconnaissance missions, including operations to gather intelligence about airstrips and bridges.
One of the assumptions many people seem to have is that the military is more accountable than the CIA in such activities. I’m not suggesting any problem with the activities described in this article by the military — far from it — but as the article says, these clandestine activities do not require the regular covert action accountability mechanisms required of the CIA as a matter of law, although NSC is involved in anything significant.
However, as these activities get closer to, well, “spying” in the traditional sense, then the line between clandestine and covert risks becoming blurred. Besides the statutory definition of covert, the term also refers to the fact that US military personnel, even though acting clandestinely, will be acknowledged by the US if taken prisoner and it will demand Geneva III treatment for them. But the article says that many in the military “are also concerned that as American troops assume roles far from traditional combat, they would be at risk of being treated as spies if captured and denied the Geneva Convention protections afforded military detainees.”
CIA civilian operatives do not have that assurance of being avowed, and of course in many circumstances — though not all, because covert refers to many things beyond the use of force, including information and disinformation activities, things that are not necessarily illegal under a country’s local law — their activities will be illegal espionage, and in other more extreme cases murder under local law. This is the whole issue of NOC. (BTW, there is a fun and useful FAQs page at the CIA’s website that covers a number of questions both policy and practical, including internship opportunities at the CIA.) Here is what the CIA itself tells the public about covert action on its web page (emphasis added):
7. Who decides when CIA should participate in covert actions, and why?
Only the president can direct the CIA to undertake a covert action. Such actions usually are recommended by the National Security Council (NSC). Covert actions are considered when the NSC judges that US foreign policy objectives may not be fully realized by normal diplomatic means and when military action is deemed to be too extreme an option. Therefore, the Agency may be directed to conduct a special activity abroad in support of foreign policy where the role of the US government is neither apparent nor publicly acknowledged. Once tasked, the intelligence oversight committees of the Congress must be notified.
These activities are not illegal under US law, of course, provided that the requirements of the different services — the military or the civilian agencies — are followed, including required accountability and oversight. Nor are they illegal, in my view, under international law; state practice by a wide variety of states has sanctioned espionage, up to and including uses of force illegal under the local law of the sovereign, so widely and for so long that the rule would have to be something like, “liable under local sovereign law but not contrary to international law,” including uses of force if they are correctly described as “self-defense.”
However, as a matter of US policy, the divisions between the various services matter over the long run, and so there are important questions as to the proper division of roles. Many people in the international law community — believing that all lawful use of force divide into law enforcement and armed conflict — naturally believe that as domestic law and policy, the CIA should not have a role in using force. As I remarked in a second round of Congressional hearings a few weeks ago on drone warfare (I’ll post this soon to SSRN), states have not generally found that the best solution to real-world problems. States want, and in my view of international law, have plainly preserved, the ability to use covert force and preserve deniability and indeed in an extreme situation disavow the civilian agent. It appears to many states an important security capability, including the United States.
On another hand, there are real questions as to whether — as a matter of policy, not law — the CIA is the right agency to conduct what increasingly looks to amount to a parallel conventional war using drones in Pakistan, not in a pure counterterrorism strategy, but really in support of the conventional war by Pakistan against the Pakistan Taliban. As a matter of internal US division of labor, there are policy (again, not legal) questions as to whether the CIA should be engaged in overt conventional war, or something starting to approach that. Yet the real world constraint — trumping, it would appear up to this point and probably for quite some time — is Pakistan’s desire to have a fig leaf of deniability as to a US military role.
Conversely, as the Mazzetti article signaled there are important questions as to whether it is a good idea to have the US military expanding further into clandestine, secret — covert, in the vernacular, not legal term-of-art, sense — operations. As I said, in some important respects, civilian oversight and accountability is stronger regarding the CIA — although I believe that in any case, the rise of new technologies such as smaller and smaller drones that allow for still more discrete uses of force argue for a review and revamping of oversight and accountability.
Uncle Jimbo at Blackfive:
Once again the NY Times is announcing a covert program to the world. The problem for us and anyone actually interested in vigorously prosecuting the overseas contingency operation to eliminate man-caused disasters is that there are those in DoD and other government agencies who don’t want us to. So when something happens that offends their delicate sensibilities they call the NYT who has proven they value anything that can draw attention to their dying rag more than they do our national security.
Publishing this is disgraceful and now has given ammunition to the most dangerous regime on Earth as they avoid sanctions and take the last few steps to become the least stable nuclear power on Earth. Well done you worthless scum. Just what is the justification for releasing this extremely sensitive information? There is no indication any laws are being broken by the military. There is simply disagreement about a policy. That does not and should not justify exposing classified information and endangering our operators in the field
Emptywheel at Firedoglake:
And to a detail Jeremy Scahill pointed out via Twitter this morning.
interesting that the Petraeus directive for Junc-WTF is exactly what Erik Prince discussed in January
Scahill’s talking, of course, of the big Vanity Fair piece in which Prince revealed that Blackwater had been tasked with just the kind of mission that JUnc-WTF envisions.
That’s the background, then, against which the military continues to build permanent prisons–at which we continue the abuse Cheney instituted–in Afghanistan and Obama prepares to ask Congress for more money to support the seemingly endless war there.