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: Syria Intervention, WMDs, the “Black Budget”

by Micah Zenko
August 30, 2013

chemical weapons inspector in Syria A member of the United Nations chemical weapons inspection team, examines one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Damascus' suburb of Zamalka, Syria (Abdullah/Courtesy Reuters).

Barton Gellman and Greg Miller, “U.S. spy network’s successes, failures and objectives detailed in ‘black budget’ summary,” Washington Post, August 29, 2013.

The $52.6 billion “black budget” for fiscal 2013, obtained by The Washington Post from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, maps a bureaucratic and operational landscape that has never been subject to public scrutiny…Spending by the CIA has surged past that of every other spy agency, with $14.7 billion in requested funding for 2013…

U.S. intelligence officials take an active interest in foes as well as friends. Pakistan is described in detail as an “intractable target,” and counterintelligence operations “are strategically focused against [the] priority targets of China, Russia, Iran, Cuba and Israel.”

There is no specific entry for the CIA’s fleet of armed drones in the budget summary, but a broad line item hints at the dimensions of the agency’s expanded paramilitary role, providing more than $2.6 billion for “covert action programs” that would include drone operations in Pakistan and Yemen, payments to militias in Afghanistan and Africa, and attempts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.

The black budget illuminates for the first time the intelligence burden of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For 2013, U.S. spy agencies were projected to spend $4.9 billion on what are labeled “overseas contingency operations.” The CIA accounted for roughly half of that figure, a sum factored into its overall $14.7 billion budget…

The CIA has deployed new biometric sensors to confirm the identities and locations of a-Qaeda operatives. The system has been used in the CIA’s drone campaign.


Adam Entous, “U.S. Fears Aleppo is next for Chemical Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2013.

Obama administration officials said they believe they must respond quickly to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons, or else the regime will deploy them again in Syria’s largest city, now a key stronghold of the opposition. “Aleppo would probably be one of the likely targets,” said a senior administration official.

“What does it say to the world if a government can get away with using the most heinous weapon, chemical weapons, on its own people?” the official said.

(3PA: Chemical weapons are not “the most heinous weapon”–read the classic 1979 Office of Technology Assessment primer on the effects of nuclear weapons.)


James Blitz, “Concerns mount over risk of triggering deeper conflict in Syria,” Financial Times, August 28, 2013.

“The idea that the west can neatly restrict any attack to a short duration punishment with the limits drawn exclusively by us is naive in the extreme,” says a senior British military commander, speaking privately. “Ultimately, one can’t help but think that these attack plans are more about restoring US authority than about helping to resolve a vicious civil war in Syria.”

In the US, military analysts are expressing similar doubts. “The comments from anonymous senior officials that a potential strike against Syria would be “punitive” are alarming,” says Christopher Harmer of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. “A strike taken to punish leaders does not constitute a strategy or even a sound military objective.”

(3PA: In the New York Times this week, I discussed why a limited strike will lead to deeper intervention.)


Thom Shanker, C. J. Chivers, and Michael R. Gordon, “Obama Weighs ‘Limited’ Strikes Against Syrian Forces,” New York Times, August 27, 2013.

A wide range of officials characterized the action under consideration as “limited,” perhaps lasting no more than one or two days. The attacks, which are expected to involve scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from American destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, would not be focused on chemical weapons storage sites, which would risk an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe and could open up the sites to raids by militants, officials said.

The strikes would instead be aimed at military units that have carried out chemical attacks, the headquarters overseeing the effort and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks, according to the options being reviewed within the administration.

An American official said that the initial target lists included fewer than 50 sites, including air bases where Syria’s Russian-made attack helicopters are deployed. The list includes command and control centers as well as a variety of conventional military targets.

(3PA: Remember the last time we attacked Syria? If curious, I’ve also written a book on what limited air strikes and cruise missiles can achieve.)


Jim Miklaszewski, Courtney Kube, and Eric McClam, “Military strikes on Syria ‘as early as Thursday,’ US officials say,” NBC News, August 27, 2013.

Senior officials told NBC News that Defense Department planning had advanced to the point that three days of strikes were anticipated, after which strategists could run an assessment and target what was missed in further rounds.

U.S. missile strikes would almost certainly be launched from Navy destroyers or submarines in the Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. in recent days has moved destroyers closer to Syria, which sits on the sea’s eastern edge, but that was mostly a symbolic move. U.S. Tomahawk missiles are so precise that they can hit not just buildings but also specific windows, and they could hit Syrian targets from far farther west in the Mediterranean.


Secretary Hagel’s Remarks at Malaysia’s Institute of Defence and Security, U.S. Department of Defense, August 25, 2013.

HAGEL: I think the world has had enough war.  And I think one of the things that we have learned over the years, regardless of the region of the world, is that wars can’t resolve differences, and not in the world that we live in today, especially, that is so interconnected and so interdependent.  It is a world where we must respect each other and each other’s rights.

(3PA: The following day Hagel added: “I didn’t say, would never say, have never said, that no nation should ever go to war. I wish the world was such that nations didn’t go to war.”)

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    The black ops budget demonstrates that much of American foreign policy is directed in secret, and of course this invites abuse of power. A detailed investigation by congress of this black ops budget and how it has been applied ought to reveal if war crimes and violations of US law have occurred. (For example, there have been reports that black ops have been engaged in the Libyan and Syrian conflicts.) Penalties for such behavior will help deter any further abuses and violations. Without some deterrent, it will appear that such behavior is being rewarded, which, of course, is why it has proliferated.

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Thanks for the update,

    I was relieved to see Zenko’s memorandum on transferring drone attack authorization to DoD. It is a prudent step. As I’ve commented before, a representative government cannot admit long of a vast, growing number of historical events wrapped in the secrecy of national security. This relegates the participating populace to ignorance and darkness with a corresponding poor quality in vote decision-making. It breeds moral hazard and is unsustainable.

    Now, for a tour of the big picture less traveled:

    My sense is that USG is fighting a resource war that it would rather not admit to the general public. For a fraction of what has been spent already on these conflicts USG could have financed a robust, dramatic and full scale crewed space flight program to recover resources from asteroids and the moon. It may sound like science fiction, but it is well within our technological grasp. It is time to stop thinking of space as a far away science laboratory and look upon it pragmatically.

    The petroleum industry leases rigs costing over 5 billion a pop and hauls these all over the planet to drill at a cost of millions a day. They can do this because it makes actuarial sense. We need to make space flight actuarially sound so the same scale of endeavor can be applied there.

    Space transportation systems are nearing a paradigm shift in reusability and dramatically reduced costs. The last turbo pumps flown on the shuttle have solved the problem of refiring and SpaceX is perfecting multi-flight airframes. Fuel and other vital materials can be harvested from space to “finance” the operation. We need to dream once again, not turn inward to ignorance and superstition, imo. By turning to conflicts of real estate we are merely invoking the darkness of religious turmoil that such conflict engenders.

    To solve the energy crisis, which, alongside the depletion of economically viable access to natural elements on Earth, is driving all this, and fusion power needs to be taken more seriously as a practical research option. Fusion is a long bunny trail, but meanwhile, we need to develop (and yes, publicly fund the high safety costs) of improved, safer fission reactors until this gap can be closed (see Mr. Gates’ fission project). They should be located in remote areas in large numbers and this program should be aggressive and comprehensive, to include the power infrastructure necessary to deliver output from farms of reactors. The Army Corps of Engineers could be utilized for site preparation. And everything needs to go electric. It will still cost far less than the path of conflict, both financially and in all the intangibles it implies (the tab is over 700 billion at this point).

    I believe northern Alaska and northern Canada provide prime location sites, both areas being regions well within the sphere of USG influence and dominance. Canada is essentially the United States when it comes to allies. We have shared a northern defense radar system with them for decades and there should be no concern there.

    Yes, there are unknowns, like the limitations of energy density in battery technology, but we cannot afford to continue to look inward to darkness and ignorance. We must strive to achieve with the same confidence and vigor our military has done now for over ten years when faced with the impossible.

    This is a choice. I pray humanity chooses wisely.

    - kk

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