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.

Print Print Email Email Share Share Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close

loading...

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

by Micah Zenko
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.


Adam Entous, Drew Hinshaw, and David Gauthier-Villars, “Militants, Chased from Mali, Pose New Threats,” The Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2013.

In the last four months of fighting in Mali, the French government says its warplanes and commandos have killed an estimated 800 militants linked to al Qaeda and its allies, helping the West African country to recover control over its territory and setting the stage for free elections.

(3PA: The French killed more suspected militants in Mali in four months, than all suspected militants and civilians killed in all U.S. drone strikes in 2012 and 2013 (644 total), according to The Long War Journal)


Ray Takeyh, “In Syria, Go Big or Go Home,” New York Times, May 27, 2013.

The sort of intervention needed to bring about a decisive rebel victory would require more than no-fly zones and arms. It would mean disabling Mr. Assad’s air power and putting boots on the ground. America would have to take the lead in organizing a regional military force blessed by the Arab League and supported by its own intelligence assets and Special Forces. After that would come the task of reconstituting Syria and mediating its sectarian conflicts. As the war in Iraq painfully demonstrated, refashioning national institutions from the debris of a civil war can be more taxing than the original military intervention.

Because it would take all of this to oust Mr. Assad and end the violence, America must accept the need for a robust intervention…

Paradoxically, an intervention intended to persuade Iran’s leaders of the viability of American red lines could instead convince them that their nuclear program is safe from American retaliation.

(3PA: Intervening massively in a state neighboring Iran in order to demonstrate U.S. credibility is an absurd and wasteful objective. Also, as the U.S.-led Afghanistan and Iraq military campaigns have proven, this does not in any way threaten Iran. For more see: “Hawking Something.”)


Jay Carney, “Press Briefing by Secretary Jay Carney 5/29/13,” The White House, May 29, 2013.

Q: Last week, the President spoke about greater transparency in its drone program.  And in that spirit, I want to ask whether you can confirm reports of a drone attack that killed a Pakistani Taliban leader today in Pakistan?

MR. CARNEY:  While we are not in the position to confirm the reports of Waliur Rehman’s death, if those reports were true or prove to be true, it’s worth noting that his demise would deprive the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan of its second in command and chief military strategist.  Waliur Rehman has participated in cross-border attacks in Afghanistan against U.S. and NATO personnel and horrific attacks against Pakistani civilians and soldiers.  And he is wanted in connection to the murder of seven American citizens on December 30, 2009, at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan. So while I am not in a position to confirm the reports of his death, it’s important to note who this individual is…

Q: Would you in the future then, if you have knowledge, would you be releasing this kind of information as part of this strategy that the President –

MR. CARNEY:   I think it’s important to note that as part of this commitment to transparency, the President’s speech at NDU laid out the legal and policy standards that guide our actions at great length, against whom and under what circumstances we take direct action.  Those standards are now there for the American public and the world to see.  That does not mean that we would be able to discuss the details of every counterterrorism operation, but it does mean that there are standards in place that are public and available for every American to review.

We will continue to take strikes against high-value al Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces.  By the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection and the progress we have made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.

(3PA: Carney claims that the legal and policy standards for U.S. targeted killings are found in Obama’s speech. If you actually read the speech (or the presidential policy guidance white paper), they are not. Those standards were only made available through leaks to journalists (See: Confront and Confused for more on this). Moreover, Carney implies that after 2014, the need for “force protection” drone strikes in Pakistan will be reduced. However, the current U.S.-Afghanistan partnership agreement is reported to extend through 2024, and will include U.S. access to nine military bases, according to the last draft proposal presented by the Americans.  Thus, according to the White House’s own standards, there could be U.S. drone strikes into Pakistan for another decade, to protect whatever U.S. forces remain beyond the end of 2014.)


UN Human Rights Expert Calls for a Moratorium on Lethal Autonomous Robots,” United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, May 30, 2013.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, today called for a global pause in the development and deployment of lethal autonomous robots (LARs), to allow “serious and meaningful international engagement on this issue before we proceed to a world where machines are given the power to kill humans.”

“This may make it easier for States to go to war; and raises the question whether they can be programmed to comply with the requirements of international humanitarian law, especially the distinction between combatant and civilians and collateral damage,” he explained.


Karen Parrish, “Cyber May Be Biggest Threat, Hagel Tells Troops,” American Forces Press Service, May 31, 2013.

“Cyber is one of those quiet, deadly, insidious unknowns you can’t see,” Hagel added. “It’s in the ether -it’s not one big navy sailing into a port, or one big army crossing a border, or squadrons of fighter planes. … This is a very difficult, but real and dangerous, threat. There is no higher priority for our country than this issue.”


Not Always With Us,” The Economist, June 1, 2013.

In 1990, 43% of the population of developing countries lived in extreme poverty (then defined as subsisting on $1 a day); the absolute number was 1.9 billion people. By 2000 the proportion was down to a third. By 2010 it was 21% (or 1.2 billion; the poverty line was then $1.25, the average of the 15 poorest countries’ own poverty lines in 2005 prices, adjusted for differences in purchasing power). The global poverty rate had been cut in half in 20 years.


Adam Roston, “Update: SOUTHCOM ISR Helped Kill 32 ‘Narco-Terrorists’,” Defense News, May 30, 2013.

Earlier this year, leaders of U.S. Southern Command told Congress that ISR support provided to nations south of Mexico had led to more than “32 high-value narco-terrorists killed in action.” Just who were these individuals killed with U.S. help? SOUTHCOM’s posture statement didn’t say. So we asked. It turns out they were members of Colombia’s FARC and ELN rebel groups or of Peru’s Shining Path, according to an emailed response from SOUTHCOM spokesman Jose Ruiz.

(3PA: This is an example of the trend of “Outsourcing Lethality.”)

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Javed Mir

    –The men and women who hack for the NSA belong to a secretive unit known as Tailored Access Operations.–

    If so, then why to complain about the Chinese cyber attacks which have recently been declined by the Chinese ambassador to USA?

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    A thought-provoking distinction from Michael Hayden–

    “States spying on states, I got that,” says Hayden, now a principal at the Chertoff Group, a Washington security consulting firm. “But this isn’t that competition. This is a nation-state attempting espionage on private corporations. That is not an even playing field.”

    It’s not an even playing field. But I thought it was US policy to always have an uneven playing field in national security (in its favor, of course). So what’s all this belly-aching about an uneven playing field?

    This playing field is uneven in China’s favor, is the only problem.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required