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.

You Might Have Missed: Drone Transparency, Cyber Warfare, and Syria

by Micah Zenko Friday, May 31, 2013

Michael Riley, “How the U.S. Government Hacks the World,” Bloomberg Businessweek, May 23, 2013.

The men and women who hack for the NSA belong to a secretive unit known as Tailored Access Operations. It gathers vast amounts of intelligence on terrorist financial networks, international money-laundering and drug operations, the readiness of foreign militaries, even the internal political squabbles of potential adversaries, according to two former U.S. government security officials, who asked not to be named when discussing foreign intelligence gathering. For years, the NSA wouldn’t acknowledge TAO’s existence. A Pentagon official who also asked not to be named confirmed that TAO conducts cyber espionage, or what the Department of Defense calls “computer network exploitation,” but emphasized that it doesn’t target technology, trade, or financial secrets. The official says the number of people who work for TAO is classified. NSA spokeswoman Vaneé Vines would not answer questions about the unit. Read more »

Obama’s Low Bar for Drones Transparency

by Micah Zenko Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Obama Counterterror Speech at National Defense University U.S. President Barack Obama listens to an audience member interrupting his speech on the administration's counterterrorism and drone strike policies at the National Defense University on May 23, 2013 (Reuters/Courtesy Downing).

I had a column published at Foreign Policy today that analyzes the divergence between what President Obama said about drone strikes in his counterterrorism speech last week, and what his senior aides selectively leaked to journalists. Subsequently, many columnists and journalists have mistakenly characterized Obama’s speech as placing tight restrictions on who can be targeted with drone strikes. Others listened to the speech and believed, as National Public Radio stated: “Obama Pledges To Be More Transparent About Drone Program.” Read more »

Ten Whats With…Michael A. Levi

by Micah Zenko Tuesday, May 28, 2013
The Power Surge by Michael Levi The Power Surge by Michael Levi

Michael Levi is the David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and Director of the CFR Program on Energy Security and Climate Change. Michael is the author of the new book The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future (Oxford University Press, 2013). He holds a Bachelors of Science in mathematical physics from Queen’s University, an MA in physics from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in war studies from the University of London.  Read more »

The AUMF and America’s Forever War

by Micah Zenko Sunday, May 19, 2013

See below for the most important and alarming sections from Thursday’s Senate Armed Services Hearing with senior civilian and military officials on the Pentagon’s interpretation of legal authorities for conducting counterterrorism operations. The hearing, “The Law of Armed Conflict, and the Use of Military Force, and the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force,” contained several revelations these Pentagon officials that suggest that President Obama’s repeated claim that “the tide of war is receding” is not the operative guidance for the U.S. military. The four witnesses were: Michael Sheehan, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict; Acting Defense General Counsel Robert Taylor; Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, Deputy Director for Special Operations/Counterterrorism, J-37, Joint Staff; Brig. Gen. Richard Gross, Legal Counsel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Read more »

Formalizing Oversight of Military Targeted Killings

by Micah Zenko Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Six members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including Mac Thornberry (R-TX) who stands at the podium, hold a press briefing at the Pentagon on November 6, 2003 (Ward/Courtesy Department of Defense).

On Friday, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), vice chairman of the house armed services committee (HASC), introduced a bi-partisan bill with twenty-nine co-sponsors. The full text of the bill (H.R. 1914) was only made available today by the Library of Congress. The “Oversight of Sensitive Military Operations Act” essentially formalizes into law existing oversight procedures for non-battlefield capture or targeted killing operations conducted by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces. As Thornberry acknowledged last week, “We’ve been doing a lot of this oversight anyway,” with the military briefing the HASC’s subcommittee on intelligence, emerging threats, and capabilities within “hours or days” after drone strikes or other “lethal targeting actions.” This is much faster reporting than required under current law—a “global update on activity within each geographic combatant command” every three months. Read more »

Demanding CIA Accountability for Drone Strikes

by Micah Zenko Monday, May 13, 2013
Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense, during his final visit to the CIA headquarters in McLean, Virginia, on February 14, 2013. (Fawcett/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense)

Leon Panetta had unique and unprecedented access into U.S. targeted killing programs as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (February 2009–June 2011) and secretary of defense (June 2011–February 2013). As Daniel Klaidman revealed last year, one procedural change implemented early in the Obama administration was that “the CIA director would no longer be allowed to have his deputy or the head of the counterterrorism division act as his proxy in signing off on strikes. Only the DCI would have sign-off authority.” While he was the director of the CIA, Panetta personally approved roughly two hundred drone strikes in Pakistan. Read more »

Robert Gates on Benghazi, Syria, and America’s Biggest Threat

by Micah Zenko Sunday, May 12, 2013

Former secretary of defense Robert Gates is a self-described foreign policy “realist”—in his last major policy address in office, given at the American Enterprise Institute, he noted, “As I am fond of saying, we live in the real world.” However, he also contended that the United States should promote democratic governments—through diplomacy and soft-power—and admitted his “fundamental belief: that America does have a special position and set of responsibilities on this planet.” Gates most notably expressed skepticism about using military power for contingencies that were poorly conceived, impractical to execute, or not in support of vital national interests. As secretary of defense he also opposed bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities until diplomacy was exhausted, supporting Israel’s airstrikes against a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria, and intervening in Libya’s civil war —though he justified America’s military role in Libya as necessary since it was in the national interest of U.S. allies, and their troops were needed in Afghanistan. Read more »

You Might Have Missed: Syrian Air Defenses? Drones, and Benghazi

by Micah Zenko Friday, May 10, 2013
Witnesses Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for counterterrorism, Gregory Hicks, foreign service officer and former deputy chief of mission/charge d'affairs in Libya at the State Department, and Eric Nordstrom, diplomatic security officer and former regional security officer in Libya at the State Department, are sworn in at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, on May 8, 2013 (Gripas/Courtesy Reuters). Witnesses Mark Thompson, Gregory Hicks, and Eric Nordstrom are sworn in at the May 8, 2013, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya (Gripas/Courtesy Reuters).

Syrian Lethal Aid, Drones Over Yemen, and Isolationism

by Micah Zenko Friday, May 3, 2013
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters after reading a statement on chemical weapon use in Syria during a news conference in Abu Dhabi. (Jim Watson/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters after reading a statement on chemical weapon use in Syria during a news conference in Abu Dhabi. (Jim Watson/Courtesy Reuters).

Nussaibah Younis, “Why Maliki Must Go,” New York Times, May 2, 2013.

Given the two-year-old Syrian civil war escalating next door, a sectarian crisis and political collapse in Iraq would be a disaster at the worst possible time. It would blur the boundaries between the two conflicts, bring additional misery to Iraq and pose enormous challenges for Iraq’s neighbors and the United States. Read more »