April 25, 2015–Among other things this is the 40th anniversary year of the investigations of U.S. intelligence that took place in 1975. The Church Committee, Pike Committee, and Rockefeller Commission, with journalists hard on their heels, explored many facets of U.S. intelligence activity. Among them was counterintelligence, where the public would be startled to discover that the vaunted CIA and other agencies had been twisted up in knots by suspicions that enemy spies lurked behind every corner. It got so bad in the late 1960s that CIA operations against the Soviets virtually ground to a halt amid accusations–largely unanswerable since they were about “proving” the negative–against a wide array of the top agency talent on the Soviet account. Journalist David Martin got hold of this story and investigated it for his book A Wilderness of Mirrors. Martin’s point about the counterspies was that paranoia in excess becomes self-damaging.
Today we have reached the same place with our war on terror, in particular the drone war. The spectacle of the President of the United States having to stand up and take responsibility for the United States government illegally killing American citizens–in this case a citizen held hostage by terrorist adversaries–is something not seen in three decades of covert operations–not since Ronald Reagan stood up to admit he was illegally trading anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles with terrorists to recover U.S. citizens held hostage.
The current situation is worse than deplorable. It has been the position of the United States government at least since the Reagan era that there should be no bargaining for hostages. Thus the Obama administration has consistently obstructed efforts by American families to recover loved ones held hostage overseas, even while countries allied with us work to free their nationals. In the present case, as the public discovered upon revelation of the killing of Warren Weinstein, the family had actually paid a ransom, obtained no assistance from the U.S. in freeing Mr. Weinstein, and now the United States itself kills Mr. Weinstein.
Not knowingly. That is the feeble official defense. The CIA carried out five drone strikes in Pakistan this past January. One of them killed Mr. Weinstein–along with an Italian hostage, two more Americans (who were affiliated with Al Qaeda), and two other persons. The first the CIA knew anything was wrong came when Pakistanis retrieved too many bodies from the rubble. No excuse for that. The January attack was one of those so-called “signature strikes” that have been conducted without specific authorization. There were plenty of complaints at the time these were revealed that the procedure was inherently dangerous and the worst would happen, and now it has.
The presence of the other two Americans killed with Weinstein was also, it is reported, unknown. Both of these men had been sought–one was on the FBI’s “most wanted” list for nearly a decade–but neither figured as a target for this attack. No “Hit List” was approved, Mr. Obama did not deliberate on the mission as he has said he does. Instead, two bad guys are killed by coincidence in an attack deliberately targeting a facility where a good guy dies. “Not knowingly” does not begin to cover the excesses here.
A longstanding complaint about the drone war has been that it amounts to extrajudicial killing–especially egregious where Americans are victims since they possess rights under the U.S. Constitution. The defense has lain precisely in the assertion that due diligence is exerted in making determinations for targets, who are sought only when they cannot otherwise be apprehended. What you see here is the day-to-day reality. In the Gulf War of 1991 they called it “tank plinking.” It’s a blind effort to neutralize targets the CIA or U.S. military assumes have something to do with the enemy. This is an interdiction campaign, not a planned strategy.
Paranoia regarding the terrorist threat has led us to self-defeating tactics. To illegality under the rules of war, extraconstitutionality with respect to American citizens, disutility in serving as a recruiting mechanism for the adversary, and plain bull-headed stupidity, we can now add that any positive effects of the drone war are likely as not accidental. The public can’t know because, of course, that is all secret. There is no accountability whatsoever. It’s no way to run a railroad!