In May 2011, shortly after a special operations team of Navy SEALs killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, there was a fresh surge of enthusiasm for covert operations. That is unfortunate because, behind the scenes, secret warfare is actually in crisis. We need to re-examine the suitability and constitutionality of covert operations and, among other things, devise a sound constitutional framework for conducting them.
I. HOST COUNTRY REACTIONS: PAKISTAN
A delegation of Pakistani officials recently completed a visit to Washington for very private talks about a secret war. Representing that nation’s premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and headed by its chief, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the Pakistani delegation came to America to rein in the CIA. While CIA spokesmen put the best possible face on this event – calling the talks “productive” – there was no real meeting of the minds. The raid on bin Laden, executed without reference to Pakistani sovereignty, added insult to injury, since Pakistani demands to be kept fully informed of U.S. activities were clearly ignored in the SEAL operation. And just to pile on, American pundits, including former CIA director Leon Panetta, proceeded to accuse Pakistan of complicity or incompetence, given bin Laden’s presence in a Pakistani garrison town. Observers should be in no doubt that this moment marks a watershed in the South Asian secret war. Much like the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam conflict, the event signifies the instant when U.S. capabilities peak, past which further escalation on any plane becomes less probable.
Leon Panetta appeared on PBS Newshour not long after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He was the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency at that time, and during the course of the interview he took up the question of the CIA’s role in the attack. It had been “a ‘title 50’ operation,” he explained, invoking the section of the U.S. Code that authorizes the activities of the CIA. As a result, Panetta added, he had exercised overall “command.”
This surely confused at least some observers. The mission had been executed by U.S. Navy SEALs from Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) after all, and both operational and tactical command seemed to have resided at all times with JSOC personnel. But for those who had been following the evolution of the CIA and JSOC during the post-9/11 period, Panetta’s account would not have been surprising. The bin Laden raid was, from this perspective, merely the latest example of an ongoing process of convergence among military and intelligence activities, institutions, and
As the United States continues to fight on multiple fronts to disrupt the efforts of al Qaeda and its affiliates, the U.S. government has slowly come to realize that military force alone cannot defeat radical Islamist extremism (hereafter “radical extremism”). Today, there is a growing consensus that countering the ideology that drives this extremism is a critical element in the overall effort to prevent extremist acts of violence. Despite this greater realization, developing a precise strategy to counter extremism effectively and empower mainstream alternatives has proved challenging. This issue posed a difficult challenge to the Bush administration and remains a daunting and urgent task for the Obama administration.