Micah Zenko

Outsourcing Lethality

When there's a foreign finger on the trigger, is Washington still accountable when innocents die?

U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock
U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock

"Outsourcing" is a dirty word in Washington these days. But officials are strangely silent when it involves targeted killings. This column has repeatedly focused on the scope, distinction, legality, and strategic effectiveness of America’s Third War of non-battlefield targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines. Among the most widely promulgated criticisms of U.S. drone strikes is the absence of any transparency in decision making, limited congressional and judicial oversight, and the potential for civilian harm without any apparent corrective action. Policymakers and analysts have offered suggestions for how — over 10 years after they began — the Obama administration could comprehensively reform its targeted killing policies. Finally, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder promised some reforms related to transparency "in the months ahead." That was several months ago. Given the Obama administration’s refusal to provide witnesses to recent congressional hearings on drones — or answer clarifying questions posed by journalists and policymakers — it is likely that forthcoming announcements will fall short of the president’s repeated goal of making his, "the most transparent administration in history."

However, if you’re concerned by the Obama administration’s targeted killing policies, don’t overlook similar attacks conducted by allies and partners who receive U.S. money, weapons, or actionable intelligence. When the United States provides other states or non-state actors with the capabilities that enable lethal operations — without which they would not happen — it bears primary responsibility for the outcome. Whatever drone strike reforms the White House offers, or if additional congressional hearings are held, they must take into account America’s troubling role in client-state targeted killings. Consider some of the most egregious recent examples which the United States directly abetted:

Somalia. Beginning in 2002, a small number of CIA officers and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces established a task force that attempted to capture or kill approximately 20 operatives from al Qaeda’s East Africa cell. The strategy for achieving this short-term objective was the "use of ‘non-traditional liaison partners’ (e.g. militia leaders)," as a leaked diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, later described it. For his unmatched history of U.S. counterterror operations, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, Jeremy Scahill interviewed one of these liaison partners, the warlord Mohamed Afrah Qanyare. As Scahill writes, in return for $100,000 to $150,000 a month from his CIA handlers, "Qanyare and his comrades engaged in an all-out targeted kill and capture campaign against anyone — Somali or foreign — they suspected of being a supporter of any Islamic movement." An intelligence source later told journalist Sean Naylor that the CIA warlords helped capture perhaps "seven or eight" al Qaeda figures in Somalia.

Northern Iraq. In November 2007, the United States opened a combined "intelligence fusion cell" in Ankara, Turkey, where, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable: "We have made available to the Turks a dedicated RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft, U-2 imagery, and full motion video from a Predator….U.S. and Turkish personnel work side-by-side to analyze incoming intelligence from these systems." As a Pentagon official characterized the cooperation soon after the Ankara cell opened, the United States was "essentially handing them their targets." Every State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices released since 2007 notes instances of civilians being killed in Turkish counterterrorism operations against suspected PKK militants, though there is never any mention of U.S. culpability.

In December 2011, a U.S. drone provided the initial video that led to a Turkish airstrike which killed 34 civilians, including 17 children. As a senior Pentagon official doth professed too much: "The Turks made the call. It wasn’t an American decision." The recently released State Department human rights report merely noted the catastrophe: "Opposition and human rights organizations alleged that the incident was the result of a failure to implement adequate controls to safeguard civilian life." Unmentioned is what controls at all are in place to prevent U.S.-supplied intelligence from being used in future Turkish airstrikes that place civilians at risk.

Joseph Kony. In December 2008, four Ugandan MI-24 helicopters launched rockets and opened fire against four camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Garamba National Park. As journalist Scott Johnson reported, earlier that day, at a staging base in Uganda, U.S. military advisers used maps to show the helicopter pilots the targets: "four distinct ‘fishhook shape’ camps spread out in cleared areas of the park." The operation was part of a significant U.S. military commitment to help the Ugandan government kill the Lord’s Resistance Army leader, which was apparently a priority for President George W. Bush. (A senior White House official later told me that in his second term, Bush asked about the efforts to kill Kony as much as he did Osama bin Laden.) The 2008 attack, however, was a failure: "the helicopter crews later stated that several dozen people, including women and children, had been caught in the open." Three years later, Obama authorized the deployment of 100 U.S. military advisers to "fuse [American] intelligence with [Ugandan] operational planning" to get Kony. As Pentagon official Alexander Vershbow told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that month: "We certainly are trying to enhance the capacity of our partners to capture or kill Joseph Kony and other commanders. But they will be doing the actual military mission on the ground."

Pakistan. In 2009, after five years of close cooperation in approving individual CIA drone strikes, Pakistan accepted the establishment of joint intelligence fusion cells. As a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from May of that year noted: "Pakistan has begun to accept intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support from the US military for COIN [counterinsurgency] operations." Sharing targeting intelligence with Pakistan’s military was intended to help Is
lamabad attack those same Taliban militants that were the focus of CIA missiles, without allowing Pakistani intelligence to tip off these targets in advance. Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate in April 2009 of instances where "an intelligence agency contact is warning [the Taliban] of an impending operation." As one notable example of this cooperation, in the fall of 2011, the United States provided Pakistan with the coordinates for a Taliban camp somewhere in the tribal areas. Using the advanced F-16s (Block 52) that the United States had sold them in 2010, the Pakistanis bombed the target, but hit "the wrong chain of mountains," according to an anonymous former U.S. official. Given the habitual practice of Pakistan’s security forces conducting extrajudicial killings during its COIN operations, bombing mountains was probably the best outcome.

Honduras. On two separate occasions in July 2012, Honduran fighter pilots — "using American radar intelligence" — shot down suspected drug smuggling planes above the Caribbean Sea. As Damien Cave and Ginger Thompson reported: "How many people were killed? Were drugs aboard, or innocent civilians? Officials here and in Washington say they do not know. The planes were never found." The policy of U.S. radar sharing with Tegucigalpa was suspended in August, but resumed in November due to, "a series of corrective measures Honduras has taken to avoid shooting down civilian aircraft," according to an U.S. embassy spokesperson. Given America’s insatiable demand for any illicit drugs the planes contained, providing the intelligence that led to their destruction and death of crew members was surely an ineffective, tactical response to drug smuggling.

Mali. Starting in February 2013, the military began flying a small number of unarmed drones out of a base in western Niger to track suspected al Qaeda affiliates and other Islamist militant groups in Algeria, Niger, and Mali. Though the Obama administration would not rule out equipping the drones with missiles in the future, one senior official proclaimed: "We don’t want to abet a lethal action." However, not long after these words were uttered, the United States began to "pass the raw [drone] video feeds and other real time data to French military and intelligence officers." As the Wall Street Journal reported in March, the drones "provided intelligence and targeting information that have led to nearly sixty French airstrikes in the past week alone." Among those reportedly killed was militant leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who the Obama administration was considering adding to a JSOC kill list, and who had been targeted in 2003 before the ambassador to Mali vetoed the operation.

There are many other recent examples of targeted killings executed by Washington’s clients, including counterterrorism operations conducted by Afghanistan, Kenya, the Philippines, Yemen, and elsewhere. The difference between U.S.-led and client-state targeted killing operations is that the latter more easily masks U.S. involvement and culpability. As Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Mike Rogers warned about sharing targeting intelligence last year: "What happens if this information gets to the [foreign] government and they do something wrong with it, or it gets into the hands of someone who does something wrong with it?"

This is a perplexing question coming from the policymaker who is supposed to be providing oversight of the CIA. If the White House and Congress finally agree to reform the legal and operational principles that guide U.S. non-battlefield targeted killings, those principles must also apply to those conducted on America’s behalf. It is important for U.S. policymakers to consider lethal operations in which a foreign finger is on the trigger, as this will likely increase over time. The core objective of the Pentagon’s expansion of "building partnership capacity" initiatives is to train, equip, and share intelligence with other militaries — to enable them to capture or kill those individuals that threaten U.S. interests. But when those operations can only be conducted and sustained with direct U.S. assistance, then the United States should ultimately be accountable.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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