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: U.S.-China Relations, Olympics, and Intelligence Assessments

by Micah Zenko
February 21, 2014

The Olympic and Russian flags are raised during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, on February 7, 2014. (Blinch/Courtesy Reuters) The Olympic and Russian flags are raised during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, on February 7, 2014. (Blinch/Courtesy Reuters)

Rear Admiral John Kirby, “Department of Defense Press Briefing with Rear Admiral Kirby in the Pentagon Briefing Room,” Department of Defense, February 20, 2014.

Q:  I’d like to ask you about this Human Rights Watch report on the drone strike in Yemen from December 12th.  They say that this JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] operation with the drone targeted a convoy of 11 vehicles and that civilians were killed and injured, including a bride.  How does that reconcile with the president’s guidance that civilians would not be targeted in drone strikes and that drones wouldn’t be authorized to target and kill someone, if there were civilians in the vicinity?

REAR ADM. KIRBY:  There’s a lot there, Jen.  So, first of all, we just — just like you, we just got this Human Rights Watch report, and so we’re working our way through it.  I’m not going to talk about specific operations from the podium.  What I can tell you is that, look, the guidelines are pretty clear about these type of operations and how we conduct them.  If there are allegations or suspicions that civilians were hurt or injured in them, we investigate those thoroughly.  And I can also tell you that nobody takes more care than we do to try to prevent unintended casualties when — when any military operation is conducted, to include those kinds of missions.

The president was very clear back in his May speech about transparency and due care and due process in conducting these missions.  And believe you me, we take that guidance very, very seriously here.

Q:  So have you launched an investigation (OFF-MIKE)

REAR ADM. KIRBY:  Whenever there are allegations regarding the — the potential loss of life of civilians, we investigate thoroughly, and that’s about as far as I’m going to go on this.

Q:  Right now, you’re saying that today was the first time that you realized that there may have been civilian casualties in this specific…

REAR ADM. KIRBY:  I didn’t say that.  I said we just got the Human Rights Watch report, and we’re going through it.  I’m also not talking about any specific operations here or that specific one that was written about.  I would also point you to comments made by the Yemeni government itself with respect to that operation, that they believed very strongly and had reason to believe that — that there were some pretty bad folks that were killed in that operation.

Q:  Yeah, but 11 vehicles in a convoy — are you saying that there was no suspicion up until now that there were civilians in that convoy?

REAR ADM. KIRBY:  That’s not what I said, Jen.  I’m not going to talk about the specific — specifics of any operation.  So I’m just not going to — I’m not going to go there with respect to the operation that was written about in the Human Rights Watch report.

I’d just reiterate what I said before.  The Yemeni government itself said that — that very dangerous individuals were targeted in an operation in December.  And I’ll — and then separately from that, whenever we have reason to believe that we — that we may have unintentionally hurt or killed civilians, we investigate thoroughly.

Q:  Were you aware that the Yemenis paid blood money to the relatives of those who were killed?

REAR ADM. KIRBY:  I’m not going to speak to the actions of a foreign government.  Again, we’re working our way through this Human Rights Watch report.

(3PA: Note that the Pentagon spokesperson highlights alleged statements made by the Yemeni government that support the U.S. drone strikes, and seconds later says “I’m not going to speak to the actions of a foreign government.” An astonishingly fast contradiction in principles.)


Geoff Dyer, “US v China: is this the new cold war?Financial Times, February 20, 2014.

One senior Pentagon official insisted to me, “This is not an anti-China battle plan.” But when the Pentagon starts to describe the threats it is facing – long-range, precision-strike missiles that can restrict the movements of its ships, advanced submarines and expertise in cyberwar – it becomes clear that AirSea Battle is primarily about China. The hypothetical threat that the Pentagon planners outline describes accurately the precise ­strategy that China has been developing to restrict US access to the western Pacific. No wonder US military officers sometimes refer to China as “Voldemort” – in the Pentagon’s new battle plan, China is the enemy whose name they dare not speak.

Amid the military jargon there lies an idea that – if taken to its logical conclusion – is fraught with peril. In early 2012, the Pentagon released a document called “Joint Operational Access Concept” (known in the building as Joac). In the event of a ­conflict, the paper says, the US should “attack the enemy’s cyber and space” capabilities. At the same time, it should attack the enemy’s anti-access forces “in depth”. The clear implication of this advice is that, if war ever were to break out, the US should plan to launch extensive bombing raids across mainland China. China’s “anti-navy” of missile bases and surveillance equipment is based at facilities spread across the country, including in many built-up areas. The basic idea behind AirSea Battle leads to a fairly uncompromising conclusion that, in the early stages of a conflict with Beijing, the US should destroy dozens of military sites. It is the navy’s version of “shock and awe” for 21st-century Asia.


Karen DeYoung, “U.S., allies agree on standards for which opposition groups in Syria will receive aid,” Washington Post, February 20, 2014.

The senior administration official discounted reports this week of major changes in the administration’s Syria policy — spurred by recent statements from Secretary of State John F. Kerry and others — as “overstated. You would think we had a formal tasking” to come up with new options, the official said. “That is not the case.”


Bruce Horowitz, “Olympic sponsors on edge before Winter Games,” USA Today, February 6, 2014.

Major sponsors all have multimillion-dollar campaigns in place, many featuring Olympic athletes. Most also have, at least on paper, ads of compassion and support that could air following any incidents of terrorism. “Any delay in these communications would show you’re not as caring,” notes Bernstein.


Kathleen M. Vogel, “Expert Knowledge in Intelligence Assessments,” International Security, Vol. 38, No. 3, Winter 2013/14.

Within a month of Fouchier’s announcement, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, revealed that members of his laboratory had also created a different kind of mutated, air-transmissible H5N1 virus. Locked in a tight race for credit for their scientific discoveries, Fouchier and Kawaoka announced that they had submitted manuscripts to the journals Nature and Science for publication. Soon, government officials and the media were raising alarms about the wisdom of publishing such experimental methods and results in the open scientific literature. Their concerns sparked a large public controversy about these experiments and whether they should be published at all.

As news of Fouchier’s and Kawaoka’s experiments spread, U.S. intelligence analysts began assessing the potential security implications of their pending publication. They wrestled with questions such as: How much of a threat do scientific publications such as these pose for bioterrorism? Could a terrorist, criminal, or state easily replicate these experiments and create mutated viruses for bioweapons use?…

In contrast to most commentaries on the H5N1 publication controversy, the focus of this article is not on Fouchier or Kawaoka or on the U.S. policy officials and science advisers involved in the controversy. Instead, it examines how U.S. intelligence analysts, invisible in public accounts of the controversy, sought to assess the potential security threat posed by the publication of the H5N1 experiments. The study yields three important findings. First, U.S. intelligence analysts do not have adequate social and material resources to identify and evaluate the tacit knowledge, or know-how, that underpins dual-use experiments such as those in the H5N1 case. Second, they lack dedicated structures and methods to sort through the politics that characterize the use of technical expertise in such controversial biosecurity issues. Third, they require new types, structures, and assessments of expert knowledge to enable them to make more informed and balanced judgments of biosecurity threats.

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