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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You Might Have Missed: Threat Inflation, Transparency, and Drone Strikes

by Micah Zenko
March 8, 2013

U.S. Army general Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies on February 7, 2013 (Gary Cameron/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. Army general Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies on February 7, 2013 (Gary Cameron/Courtesy Reuters).

James Kitfield, “Outsourcing the Fight Against Terrorism,” National Journal, March 7, 2013.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. officers honed the tactics they teach here (Baker did several combat tours in Iraq), Americans led the fight against terrorists and insurgents. But in Washington, policymakers are now focused on shaving budgets and bringing home troops. And, Baker says, “there are not a lot of governments who want a big U.S. military footprint in their countries.” So Pentagon strategists need a cheaper way to fight militant Islamists—many of them operating, unmolested, in Africa—who would unseat our allies or attack our homeland.

In Africa, they think they’ve found it. The call it the “train, assist, and enable” model, and they’re testing it on a large scale. The officials teach the counterterrorism lessons learned in the last decade to foreign militaries, empower them with U.S. capabilities such as intelligence-gathering, and then let the African militaries police their own backyards. “That doesn’t mean the United States will never again intervene militarily in another country with boots on the ground,” Baker says. “But the more proactive we are in engaging with foreign partners, and the more predictive we are in identifying common threats, the less likely a future U.S. intervention will be necessary.” U.S. officials here call this “African solutions to African problems.”


Breanna Edwards, “Dianne Feinstein: Time to Set Drone Rules,” Politico, March 7, 2013.

“In some respects it’s a perfect assassination weapon. It can see from 17,000 to 20,000 feet up in the air, it is very precise, it can knock out a room in a building if it’s armed, it’s a very dangerous weapon. Right now we have a problem, there are all these nations that want to buy these armed drones. I’m strongly opposed to that,” Feinstein, who is the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC’S Chris Matthews.


Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Hearing on Department of Justice Oversight, March 6, 2013.

FEINSTEIN: I’ve just been sitting here reading the white paper that you sent to this committee on the subject of a lawfulness of a lethal operation directed against a U.S. citizen who was a senior operational leader of Al Qaida or an associated force. This is committee confidential. But it’s not classified.

And the fact of the matter is it’s a 16-page, very thoughtful, very impressive opinion, and yet it can’t go into the public domain. I can’t ask you about, even here, about some of the factors of this opinion. And I think that’s a mistake. And I think that the world that we’re now living in is so different and so imprecise that the legal underpinnings for action really are important.

Secondly, it’s one thing for a president to ask for a legal opinion prior to something that’s ongoing, maybe even ongoing. It seems to me that afterwards we should have the opportunity to assess the legality of that and if necessary, if it isn’t legal, be able to clarify law, change law, do whatever a constitutional legislative body does.

From an intelligence point of view, it is absolutely vital. And then I understand you get down to different committees. Let’s say the predator is taken out of the jurisdiction of intelligence and put into military. That transfers the jurisdiction to armed forces. Let’s say it’s used in some way that brings the jurisdiction to this committee.

So I think we now have to look at that arena and make some decisions as to the administration being more forthcoming with the legal advice that underpins lawmaking.

HOLDER: Yeah, and I have to say that I have heard you, the president has heard you and others who have raised this concern on — on both sides of the aisle and I think that what you will hear from the president in a relatively short period of time is — I don’t want to preempt this — but I mean we’ve talked about a need for greater transparency in what we share, what we talk about because I am really confident that if the American people had access to, for instance, and — and some of this stuff cannot be shared, I understand that.

But if at least people will be represented as the American people have the abilities as members of the intelligence committee have had to see some of those OLC opinions, there would be a greater degree of comfort that people would have to understand that this government does these things reluctantly but also we do it in conformity with international law, with domestic law and with our values as — as the American people.

And so I think there is going to be a greater effort at — at transparency. A number of steps are — are going to be taken. I expect you will hear the president speaking about this…

I think there is a greater need for transparency, a greater need for appropriately sharing information and we are struggling with how to do that, but it is something that the president feels strongly about. And as I said, over the next few months, I — I think you will see an effort on the part of the administration to be more transparent.

(3PA: This exchange contains two notable insights. On a positive note, the Attorney General reveals that the White House will take a number of steps in the next few months to provide greater transparency on targeted killings. On a deeply disturbing note, Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, did not know that the 16-page white paper was publicly available, having been first leaked to NBC News and later formally released by the Department of Justice. It recalls former CIA director Michael Hayden’s repeated assertion that even he is unclear what is properly classified, and what he is allowed to say about targeted killings. It is also unfortunate that Feinstein thinks the memo is a “very thoughtful, very impressive opinion,” given the imprecise language it contains, and disconnect between the justifications provided and actual practice of targeted killings.)


Geoff Dyer, “Pentagon Warnings Unheeded as Cuts Approach,” Financial Times, March 6, 2013.

Facing the prospect of new cuts, senior military officials have run the risk of what in Washington is called “threat inflation” and in the rest of the country scaremongering. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, declared last year that “in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now”. His colleagues have made a series of similar statements.

Just as with the sequestration warnings, however, such dire predictions are falling on deaf ears, either because the country is war-weary or because most Americans do not share such a bleak view of today’s world.


Greg Miller and Karen DeYoung, “Administration Debates Stretching 9/11 Law to Go After New al-Qaeda Offshoots,” Washington Post, March 6, 2013.


Remarks with Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al Thani After Their Meeting, March 5, 2013.

PRIME MINISTER HAMAD: I will speak in Arabic, so if you want to use your headphone. First of all, thanks God that North Korea is far away from here. (Laughter.) So you cannot blame us also for that.


Jeremy Page, “New China Leader Courts Military,” Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2013.

Last year, the Pentagon estimated China’s actual military spending in 2011 at between $120 billion and $180 billion. However, an article by two Western scholars to be included in this month’s China Quarterly academic journal argues that China’s official military budget increasingly reflects actual spending, and also includes some items—such as disaster-relief operations—that aren’t usually calculated as part of Western defense budgets.

“Increases in the official defense budget are roughly consistent with GDP growth and constitute a declining percentage of central government expenditures,” wrote Adam Liff, a doctoral candidate at Princeton University, and Andrew Erickson, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College.


Declan Walsh, “U.S. Disavows Two Drone Strikes Over Pakistan,” New York Times, March 4, 2013.

“They were not ours,” said one of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the drone program’s secrecy. “We haven’t had any kinetic activity since January.”

(3PA: Read more about the long history of shifting and deflecting blame and responsibility for drone strikes between the United States and targeted countries.)

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