Category Archives: International Security

Shadow Wars

Those of us who remember the 1980s lived through the Iran-Contra Affair and its labyrinth of arms-for-hostages deals, secret transfers of U.S. government funds, backdoor support for the Nicaraguan Contras after Congress cut off funding, and the duplicity of Reagan administration officials who tried to hide and then cover up what they were doing. Some of us even recall the covert war in Laos and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s where the U.S. military, the CIA, and various paramilitaries pursued Communist forces in campaigns that were common knowledge in the region but kept secret from Congress and the American people. A few seasoned chroniclers of our national security are even able to remember earlier secret support for paramilitary forces, coup attempts, and a plethora of covert operations that were undertaken by the United States as an adjunct to its Cold War with the Soviet Union.

In the post-9/11 environment, the United States confronted the Taliban, al Qaeda, and associated terrorist and insurgent groups, where the conventional military force that quickly forced Iraq’s retreat from Kuwait and subdued the Milosevic regime in Kosovo in the 1990s was far less effective. Paramilitary campaigns waged by the CIA and contractors became an integral part of the counterterrorism response to these new enemies, and our military greatly expanded its own capabilities to collect intelligence and carry out clandestine operations. Over time, first in the Bush administration and now in an expanded and more aggressive strategy by the Obama administration, the United States has been conducting what The New York Times described as a “shadow war against Al Qaeda and its allies”:

In roughly a dozen countries – from the deserts of North Africa, to
the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by
ethnic and religious strife – the United States has significantly
increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy
using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to
spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists.

Conducting Shadow Wars

When al Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks, it also thrust the United States on a decade-long (and counting) search for the best way to combat the unconventional threat posed by terrorism. That search evolved into a competition of sorts between the military’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) and the paramilitary operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the prestige and resources that went with leading the fight against terrorism. Within less than a decade, however, various officials involved in counterterrorism policy were trying to combine the two groups of operators in a way that maximized the advantages and minimized the risks and constraints of each group.

Many critics of the George W. Bush administration’s wholehearted push into the realm of shadow wars – covert operations in countries with which the United States was not at war – assumed that the situation would improve when Barack Obama became President. To the surprise of many, if not most, of his campaign supporters, however, President Obama has, in some ways, become an even more ardent supporter of shadow wars than his predecessor. And, as this article will show, just about every indication points to a further expansion of this hybrid military and intelligence activity in countries beyond war zones. It is imperative, therefore, that we more clearly understand how these shadow wars are being conducted and by whom, and whether they are subject to adequate oversight and accountability.

Spies Without Borders: International Law and Intelligence Collection

To the surprise of many, it turns out that Canada’s chief security intelligence agency – the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) –may not legally collect covert intelligence abroad. That is at least one interpretation of a Canadian Federal Court decision issued in October 2007, but only released publicly in 2008. At issue was whether the court had the jurisdiction to issue a warrant under the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act (CSIS Act) in investigations concerning Canadians taking place overseas. CSIS had sought the warrant because the targets of the investigations, as Canadians, potentially enjoyed privacy rights under Canada’s constitutional bill of rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Faced with this conundrum, there were two plausible courses of action open to the court. First, it could have concluded that the CSIS Act’s warrant provisions extended only as far as authorizing searches and seizures in Canada. While this approach would have left open the question whether constitutional rules applied to CSIS’s extraterritorial conduct, it would have allowed the court to avoid the incongruity of a Canadian court “legally” authorizing an invasion of privacy taking place in a foreign jurisdiction whose own laws would probably be violated by the action.

Second, the court could have reached even further and concluded that CSIS itself has no statutory authorization to conduct extraterritorial investigations, pursuant to its core, statutory mission to collect intelligence relating to threats to the security of Canada. This approach would avoid the constitutional question entirely, but with the consequence of greatly limiting the scope of CSIS’s basic jurisdictional competence.