Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Targeted Killings and Congressional Oversight

by Micah Zenko
June 18, 2012

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC (Jim Young/Courtesy Reuters). The U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC (Jim Young/Courtesy Reuters).

Late Friday afternoon, the Obama administration marginally pulled back the curtain on targeted killings conducted by the U.S. military—but not those carried out by the CIA—in Somalia and Yemen. Under the 1973 War Powers Resolution (WPR), whenever the U.S. military is involved in “hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicate by the circumstances,” the president is required to report every six months to Congress “on the status of such hostilities or situation as well as on the scope and duration of such hostilities or situation.”

In the previous WPR report to Congress from December 2011, the White House fuzzily and obliquely referenced U.S. military operations in Somalia and Yemen:

In furtherance of U.S. efforts against members of al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, and associated forces, the United States continues to work with partners around the globe, with a particular focus on countries within the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility…As necessary, in response to the terrorist threat, I will direct additional measures against al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, and associated forces to protect U.S. citizens and interests. It is not possible to know at this time the precise scope or the duration of the deployments of U.S. Armed Forces necessary to counter this terrorist threat to the United States.

In contrast, Friday’s report provided more detailed information regarding the geographic location of such “efforts:”

In Somalia, the U.S. military has worked to counter the terrorist threat posed by al-Qa’ida and al-Qa’ida-associated elements of al-Shabaab. In a limited number of cases, the U.S. military has taken direct action in Somalia against members of al-Qa’ida, including those who are also members of al-Shabaab, who are engaged in efforts to carry out terrorist attacks against the United States and our interests.

The U.S. military has also been working closely with the Yemeni government to operationally dismantle and ultimately eliminate the terrorist threat posed by al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most active and dangerous affiliate of al-Qa’ida today. Our joint efforts have resulted in direct action against a limited number of AQAP operatives and senior leaders in that country who posed a terrorist threat to the United States and our interests.

For those unfamiliar with Pentagon-speak, “direct action” is a phrase specifically chosen by the Obama administration for its definition and supporting doctrine. According to the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, direct action is defined as: “Short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions conducted as a special operation in hostile, denied, or diplomatically sensitive environments and which employ specialized military capabilities to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover, or damage designated targets.” For how direct action should (theoretically) be used, see the latest Joint Publication 3-05 (JP 3-05), Special Operations. (Actually, for those who believe that America’s global problems can be solved by deploying Navy Seals or Army Delta teams, read JP 3-05.)

Major media outlets consistently misrepresent U.S. targeted killings. For example, many are carried out by off-shore missiles, AC-130 gunships, or special operations forces raids, rather than all by drones. At the same time, many reports describe targeted killings as if they occurred in a vacuum with little to no historical context. The headlines of the WPR did not disappoint: “U.S. Acknowledges its Drone Strikes,” blared the Wall Street Journal, despite the fact the report made no mention of drones; “U.S. Declassifies Attacks in Yemen, Somalia,” read the Associated Press, even though senior counterterrorism adviser John Brennan did just that months ago.

In addition, the WPR is not the first time that the United States publically acknowledged the use of military force outside of traditional battlefields. As long ago as June 25, 2007, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations wrote a letter to the UN Security Council, which declared: “The United States has conducted several strikes in self-defense against al-Qaida terrorist targets in Somalia in response to on-going threats to the United States.”

Rather than releasing more narrowly-focused or vague speeches and reports, Obama administration officials should directly answer questions about U.S. counterterrorism operations. If nothing else, additional information would provide much-needed clarity for administration officials and members of Congress who seem to know little about targeted killings—at least based on their public statements.

Given the amount of publically available information, congressional armed services and foreign relations committees should now finally hold hearings about the expanding scope of U.S. targeted killings. It is indefensible to maintain the claims, such as by Senator Diane Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, that congressional oversight of targeted killings exclusively by the intelligence committees in closed sessions is adequate. For example, an exchange at a House judiciary committee hearing on June 7 revealed that the White House has not yet given a copy—or a briefing—on the memo that provided the legal justification for killing U.S. citizens like Anwar al-Awlaki.

Congress should be ashamed that White House revealed more (albeit not much more) in a mandatory letter about U.S. targeted killings than in any congressional committee hearing. As Senator James Webb recently noted, “Year by year, skirmish by skirmish, the role of the Congress in determining where the U.S. military would operate, and when the awesome power of our weapon systems would be unleashed has diminished.” In fact, Congress has not declared war since June 1942 against Bulgaria. According to Pentagon statistics, over one hundred thousand U.S. servicemembers have died in wars since World War II.  In an age of cyber attacks, special operations raids, and drone strikes—all of which greatly diminish the risk to U.S. troops—will Congress be more likely to fulfill its oversight role, or less?

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