Shadow Wars

What's the difference between a spook and a special operator?

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

What happens when the covert goes semi-overt, and the overt goes semi-covert?

What happens when the covert goes semi-overt, and the overt goes semi-covert?

That’s not one of those sadistic Sphinxian riddles designed to make children feel dim-witted — It’s one of the many unanswered questions created by recent seismic shifts in the national security landscape.

Particularly since 9/11, the lines between the military and the intelligence community have gotten fuzzy. The CIA has moved increasingly into paramilitary activities, while the military has moved increasingly into what look like covert intelligence activities. These trends are the result of natural (and largely praiseworthy) efforts by DoD and the intelligence community to respond to changing threats with creativity and agility — but the end result is confusion and lack of accountability.

The covert goes (semi)-overt

Start with the intelligence community. After the CIA debacles of the ’60s and ’70s (Bay of Pigs, anyone? Poisoned cigar?), the intelligence community shifted away from lethal covert action. An executive order prohibited assassinations, and Congress tightened covert-action notification requirements. Yes, espionage remained a dangerous game, operating in a sort of legal twilight. But in the 1980s and ’90s the intelligence community focused mainly on collection and analysis rather than on the covert use of force. The 9/11 Commission report concluded that prior to 9/11, many in the intelligence community in fact believed that using covert lethal force was prohibited.

After 9/11, this changed fast. CIA personnel were the first American government agents to enter Afghanistan, paving the way for Army Special Forces; in some cases, CIA personnel reportedly fought (and died) alongside Afghan Northern Alliance soldiers. CIA personnel also reportedly participated actively in the Battle of Tora Bora and Operation Anaconda, and in the years that followed, the CIA has substantially beefed up its paramilitary side, recruiting heavily within the military special operations community.

Today, the CIA is widely reported to engage in raids against high-value terrorist targets. In particular, the CIA is reportedly responsible for scores — possibly hundreds — of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. Collectively, CIA drone strikes are thought to have killed as many as several thousand people.

I keep using that weasely word "reportedly" because officially none of this is happening. Or, rather, although the government is happy enough to take credit for turning live terrorists into dead terrorists, the government officially insists, "Whether or not the CIA has the authority to be, or is in fact, directly involved in targeted lethal operations remains classified." What’s more, "Notwithstanding widespread reports that drone strikes occur, the CIA has never confirmed or denied whether it has any involvement or intelligence interest in any of those drone strikes."

Still not clear enough for you? In response to recent Freedom of Information Act requests for records relating to drone strikes, the CIA was unambiguously ambiguous: "The CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of responsive records because the existence or nonexistence of any such records is a currently and properly classified fact that is exempt from release."

So is the CIA conducting lethal drone strikes, or not?

You be the judge. The investigative journalism group Pro Publica has compiled a detailed list of press reports in which anonymous senior officials have discussed those reported CIA drone strikes, together with seemingly confirmatory quotes from several guys who ought to know, including Secretary of Defense (and former CIA director) Leon Panetta and President Obama. 

In 2009, for instance, then-CIA Director Panetta responded to a question about CIA drone strikes by saying, "These operations have been very effective…. I can assure you that in terms of that particular area, it is very precise, and it is very limited in terms of collateral damage, and, very frankly, it’s the only game in town in terms of confronting and trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership." Hmmm.

Two years later, after taking over the helm at DoD, Panetta cheerfully told a military audience, "Having moved from the CIA to the Pentagon, obviously I have a hell of a lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had at the CIA, although the Predators weren’t bad."

What happens when activities that are officially covert become so extensive and sustained that they essentially move into the overt world? Someone is using drones to go after Pakistani militants, and the U.S. military says it ain’t them. After a decade of drone strikes and dead bodies, it gets harder and harder to insist that what the CIA is (reportedly!) doing is covert.

As former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair put it in December 2011, "Covert action that goes on for years doesn’t generally stay covert…. [I]f something has been going for a long period of time, somebody else ought to do it, not intelligence agencies."

But even as covert CIA lethal activities appear to have become more and more overt, more and more military activities appear to be moving into the covert realm. In particular, the role of special operations forces — Navy SEALs, Army "Green Berets," Air Force Special Tactics, and the like — has dramatically expanded in recent years, and special operations forces are increasingly engaging in activities designed to remain unattributable and unacknowledged.

The overt goes (semi)-covert

After 9/11, the expansion of special operations forces (SOF) activities was virtually inevitable. America’s conventional general-purpose forces are fantastically good with tanks and artillery and moving large numbers of people and machines from one place to another, and as the 1991 Gulf War demonstrated, they can roll over enemy armies with ease. But as we know, terrorist organizations don’t fight like conventional armies. They eschew uniforms and traditional military command structures and rely instead on stealth, subterfuge, and asymmetrical attack. They blend easily into local civilian populations. As a result, they often confound U.S. conventional forces.

Special operations forces, in contrast, were designed to handle unconventional threats. Various organizations within the SOF community emphasize different skills. SEALs take pride in their ability to conduct lightning raids on high-value targets. (The raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound is a classic example.) Army Special Forces, meanwhile, emphasize their ability to keep a low profile and work closely with foreign armed forces, something that takes sophisticated linguistic and cultural skills as well as all-around military expertise. (Full disclosure: My husband is one of these guys, and he’s awesome.) Other organizations within the SOF community bring their own unique skills to the table — including, not coincidentally, skills related to the operation of armed drones.

Put all these skills together, and you have a group of military personnel with precisely the skills needed for the long war. No surprise, then, that both the Bush and Obama administrations have come to rely heavily on special operations forces. Army Special Forces helped Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance defeat the Taliban in the fall of 2001, and SEALs played a crucial role during Operation Anaconda.

Since those early post-9/11 days, special operations forces have played an ever-larger role in an expanding number of countries. SOF personnel embedded in over a dozen U.S. embassies conduct counterterrorism-related information operations, and SOF personnel embedded with foreign militaries continue to serve as trainers and advisers. SOF personnel can offer quiet assistance to foreign governments interested in capturing or killing terrorists in their territory, and, if necessary, they can take direct action themselves. They have increasingly been relied upon to capture or kill suspected terrorists outside of "hot battlefields," sometimes through quick cross-border raids, and increasingly through the use of armed, unmanned aerial vehicles.

Much of the time, their precise role is — of necessity — kept secret. Foreign governments may want U.S. military help, but only if they can deny any American role. And when military operations raise difficult questions about sovereignty, keeping them secret is often less diplomatically embarrassing for all concerned. Still other military activities rely on secrecy even more directly: For instance, some foreign information operations may be ineffective if everyone knows that a particular radio show or television program is U.S.-funded.

Of course, engaging in covert activities has traditionally been an intelligence community job, not a military job. The CIA and other intelligence agencies must report to the House and Senate select committees on intelligence, but the military reports to the armed services committees, and both the Pentagon and the armed services committees have a strong aversion to letting the intelligence committees horn in on their territory. Regardless of who’s doing what, though, all covert activity requires a presidential finding and subsequent notification of the intelligence committee (even if just the Gang of Eight) — a fact that gives the Pentagon a strong incentive to insist that whatever it is that special operations forces are doing, it’s not covert activities.

Conveniently, the Intelligence Authorization Act, which lays out most of the rules for covert activities, exempts "traditional military activities" from its definition of covert action. The definition and scope of "traditional military activities," however, remains hotly contested.

The increasing fuzziness of the line between the intelligence community and the military creates confusion and uncertainty: Who decides which agency should take the lead, and on what basis? How are activities coordinated and de-conflicted? What’s the chain of command? What law governs each entity’s activities? Must the CIA comply with the laws of war? Does covert military activity risk depriving the military personnel involved of protection under the Geneva Conventions? No one seems to know — or at least, no one’s saying.

All this creates a strange irony. As the administration continues to expand its use of lethal force overseas, the CIA is fighting to insist that its alleged drone strikes are and must remain covert. At the same time, the Pentagon is fighting to insist that its secret special operations missions should not be categorized as covert action. In both cases, the intent — or at least the result — is to shield the activities at issue from scrutiny. The CIA wants to keep journalists and the ACLU off its back; the military mostly just wants the intelligence committees to leave it alone.  

Regardless, the end result is the same: When the covert goes semi-overt, and the overt goes semi-covert, the public is left in the dark.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Twitter: @brooks_rosa

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.