Friday, February 26, 2010

Damned if you do. Damned if you don't.

That's my initial response to this op-ed in the NYT.

The post title? Answer a cliche' with a cliche' I always say..

A Fiskin' I will go..A Fiskin' I will go, High Ho the Merry Oh, A Fiskin' I will go..

The piece is titled "An Eye for an Eye" [Fisking in plain font]

Back in 1976, a Chilean hit squad assassinated former Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and an American colleague in Washington. Letelier was one of the most prominent opponents of the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

A rough equivalent today would be China orchestrating the elimination in the United States of a prominent Uighur opponent, or the Russians assassinating a leading Chechen on a Georgetown street.

Needless to say, the U.S. government would be outraged at such extrajudicial executions on American soil. We don’t want to live in a world where nations blow up enemies, or smother them with pillows, in other countries with which they’re not at war.


I don't think the U.S. would be always and in every case outraged. Whether or not outraged, and to what extent would depend on several things: permission being sought, heads-up being given, and who it was that was doing the executing. Even without permission, let us suppose that Israel targets some Hamas operative in the U.S. Would we really be all that upset about that? Now compare with a similar circumstance only China doing the extrajudicial execution of some democratic activist. Cliche' invocation: 'It all depends.'

We do not want to live in a world where these sorts of things are numerous and frequent, but we already live in a world where they do exist. I'm not losing sleep over it. It's part of the rough and tumble of war.

But nor, of course, can we do less than everything possible to avert another 9/11, and that’s where things get murky.

[Editorial note: "But nor"? How about "but" or "nor" alone? Wouldn't that have worked?]

So let’s make a few things clear. Since 9/11, with greater intensity under the Obama administration, the United States has wordlessly lifted the ban in effect since the Ford administration on targeted killings by U.S. intelligence officers. Such killings are now taking place almost daily under a C.I.A.-directed covert program. Drones firing Hellfire missiles have eliminated several Al Qaeda leaders.


This raises the question as to how the Clinton administration got around this ban, if they in fact did not lift it. For it engaged in several attacks by missile brought on by Al Qaeda attacks on U.S. interests. The "since 9/11" claim here looks false, or perhaps myopic.


As for the present use of these missiles, the fact that we have taken out several important AQ folks, and damn near half the Taliban ruling council, I would say militates in favor of such tactics. So too does the fact that it places less of our military personel in harms way. Militating against: Loss of sources of actionable intel (should these same folks have been captured and interrogated using methods whose names shall not be uttered), and higher levels of collateral damage. More on that directly below.

The drone strikes are concentrated on Pakistan, with which America is not at war. The Obama administration has declined to say anything about this doctrine of targeted killing. It’s not clear how you get on a list to be eliminated; who makes that call; whether the decision is based on past acts (revenge, say, for the killing of C.I.A. agents in Khost, Afghanistan) or only on corroborated intelligence demonstrating that the target is planning a terrorist attack; what, if any, the battlefield limits are; and what, if any, is the basis in law.


This paragraph borders on naive. Yes, we are not at war with the Paks, but does anyone seriously believe that they have not given, if not permissions for specific strikes, a sort of blanket permission to strike Taliban and Al AQaeda? No doubt such blanket permission was sought because to ask for specific permission is to turn a blind eye toward the less than reliable elements in the Pakistani government and ISI, which have in the past, a track record of tipping off would-be missile recipients. As for the 'revenge' possibility, that's a red herring. Cohen may claim that the lack of transparency causes this to be a live possibility, but he should consider the obvious rejoinger; secrecy is essential to success in delivering missile gifts. The administration would be foolish to set about proving revenge is not the motive by revealing things. This brings us to the whole subject of secrecy.

Yes, of course the Obama administration is being cagey. It would be irresponsible of them to do anything else. You do not tip your hand, reveal capabilities, and options. Not if you are a nominally responsible executive.

However, it must be pointed out that the present administration has the decided advantage of a press that is generally positively disposed toward it. Hearken back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, the Bush years. He too was cagey and considered, as the revelations concerning various programs that the Obama administration has retained, and one that it has not, do in fact show. The CIA interrogation program is an example. We now know that the CIA and administration had put in place (and informed Congress about) careful procedures, legal and otherwise, to ensure the legality, morality and effectiveness of the program, and because Bush did not have the benefit of a press corps with benevolent predispostions toward him, he was hounded about it. The end result is that we have effectively removed an effective arm of our intelligence gathering, for now our enemies are thoroughly familiar with what was done in those dark days after 9/11. They are also conversant with what we will now limit ourselves to. The element of primal uncertainty removed, hardened enemy will not reveal information. That we will have to live with. Cohen must realize that similar revelations about the decision procedure surrounding the lobbing of misiles into A Q and Taliban redoubts will have similar deliterious effects.

The closest I can find to an official accounting of the drone program was from Senator John Kerry last October: “I am convinced that it is highly circumscribed now, very carefully controlled within a hierarchy of decision-making, significantly limited in its collateral damage, and profoundly successful in the impact it has had in putting Al Qaeda on the run. It is why we can now say that perhaps 14 of the top 20 Al Qaeda leaders have been eliminated.”

That success is significant, even if “on the run” is hyperbole. But the “collateral damage” is also substantial and has a cascade terrorist-recruitment effect. On balance, President Obama, who campaigned against the “dark side” of the war on terror and has insisted that America must lead by example as a nation of laws, owes Americans an accounting of his targeted killing program.

I have no doubt there is a seriously and carefully considered oversight of this program, just as Kerry claims. As to the cascading terrorist recruitment effect; I'm dubious. You've got to realize that terrorist recruiters will use all means necessary to find their cannon fodder. Of course they will use any and all deaths of innocents. But, if there are none, and they choose to be honest about that, they will find other ways to recruit. Witness the evolution of Bin Laden's own rhetoric. He has sited everything from U.S. presence in Saudi (since removed), to Israel and the ever beleagered Palistinians, to global warming, even the wisdom of Noam Chomsky. Well before Bush took office and moved to the dark side, utilized EIT and started the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bin Laden was recruiting, using any and all plausible fish hooks. The author is naive in thinking that we are going to experience a decided uptick in recruitment because of the missile strikes. He must know that there will be claims of collateral damage, even when there are none, and that gullible willing believers will always be available to take the bait. Bin Laden will no doubt continue to find recruits as Obama resorts to missiles and outsources interrogations to the Pakistanis (noted for their considerable lack of restraint as compared to the CIA interrogation program.)

Revenge killings don’t pass the test for me. They’re unacceptable under international law. I want to know that any target is selected because there is verifiable intelligence that he’s actively planning a terrorist attack on the United States or its allies; that the danger is pressing; that arrest is impossible; and that civilian lives are not wantonly risked.


Who said anything about revenge? This is twice he has mentioned this as a possible explanation for the strikes, but has no evidence to suggest it is the motivation. Nor, does he have an argument that revenge is a morally unnaceptable reason to strike, or engage in targeted assasination.

As to target selection, no doubt such careful 'last resort' considerations do go into the decision procedure. Now, Cohen may want to know about that procedure, would like to be informed either before or after the fact, but must know that he is probably not going to have the privalege until after the strike, and perhaps well after. Why? For the sake of continued fresh and useful intel. Go to the press too early, intel dries up. That's not rocket science. For, if the administration were to clear things with the press, either before or after a strike or series of strikes, then, quite apart from the positive press predisposition above cited, it would be increasing the probability that targets, present or future, would be tipped off.

Lastly about this bit of the piece, these words "impossible" and "wantonly risked" are hopelessly vague. What exactly would Msr. Cohen's criteria be here? Worthless for legal purposes. It also assumes or carries an implication that the decision procedure actually being used is wanton. What evidence is there for this assumption?

The bar of pre-emptive self-defense is then passed. A pinpoint strike is better than the Afghan or Iraqi scenarios. But that bar must be high. America departs at its peril from its principles.

Subtle swipe at Bush. What principles are in danger with Obama's present approach? Cohen is here playing Obama's "I aint Bush" rhetoric against Obama himself. He's accusing the present CIC of at least giving the appearance of going over to that "dark side" at least partially, in large part the charge rests on the use of missile strikes without Obama having made public the decision procedure.

Perhaps the writer also has in mind the targeted killing of the Hamas big-wig mentioned back at the beginning of the piece, but it's hard to see exactly how that has relevance to the U.S. Is he assuming we knew of the operation? Even if we did, and gave an OK, what exactly is morally wrong with the killing? On Cohen's own terms, it is targeted, the guy deserved it, and it had no collateral damage. Other than the fact that it was on the sovereign soil of another country, where's the beef?

I know, terrorists have no rule book, no borders and no compunction. The global war on terror (GWOT) is untidy. Still, the current accountability void for U.S. targeted killing is unacceptable.

A claim does not an argument make. What are your reasons for claiming that the administration should come forward with the details of its decision procedures? What do you say to the countervailing reasons? Little or no argument here. Vague talk of values, but no real argument.

America is treading a familiar path. Israel pioneered the use of unmanned drones to kill Hamas operatives. Gerald Steinberg wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal that “U.S. forces have copied Israel’s technique with their own drone killings of jihadi terrorists.” But, of course, the United States is not Israel. It’s not a small nation, surrounded by more numerous enemies, at war since its foundation against foes bent on its destruction. It’s not consumed by the specter of nonexistence.


Oh really? Tell that to the AQ types that have been pursuing WMD. So drone killings are only acceptable if there is an existential and geographically continguous threat? What if either of those conjuncts is false? Would there still not be a viable case to be made for drone attacks? Why or why not?

Vicky Divoll, a former C.I.A. lawyer, told The Los Angeles Times: “At one time, the United States did not kill in the shadows — until we became as afraid for our lives as the Israelis have been for decades.” That’s right — and unacceptable. Fear cannot be a global license for the United States of America to kill.

"Unnaceptable" because motivated by fear? As to fear as motivator, there are reasonable fears, and irrational fears. Methinks Cohen tends to consider the former to be a very small set indeed, or to be identical to be the latter, and is once again parroting the campaign rhetoric of Obama, using it as a weapon against Obama. That spectacle might give those of us that thought the attacks on Bush were unfair a bit of schadenfreude, but it does not make for very effective argument, and is far to quick to count as an argument.

My doubt level that the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, was behind the murder in Dubai last month of the senior Hamas operative, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, is about that of the Dubai police chief who said he was “99 percent, if not 100 percent” certain that Israel was responsible. An eye for an eye: al-Mabhouh was the murderer of two Israeli soldiers, as well as a shipper of arms to Hamas. I won’t shed a tear.


Wait a minute, that sure sounds like you just OK'd a revenge killing? Weren't you at least intimating a while back that revenge is not a morally acceptable motivation? I'm getting confused.

But what a messy trail: all that video, European passports belonging to Israelis whose lives are now at risk, diplomatic fallout. So what, argues Steinberg, who teaches political science at Bar Ilan University, al-Mabhouh was “probably making arrangements for the next round of attacks.”


Messy trail, perhaps, but surely they knew about all the CCT coverage, and it looks after all, like they well and truly pulled it off doesn't it? As for the innocent Israelis, how do you know their lives are now at risk? If it's common knowledge that they were not really involved, how are they at risk?

The next sentence is just a grammatical nightmare. Look at it again:

So what, argues Steinberg, who teaches political science at Bar Ilan University, al-Mabhouh was “probably making arrangements for the next round of attacks.”

Huh? What is that you are saying or reporting as having been said? Anyway, let it slide. He goes on:

Note the “probably:” That’s insufficient grounds for extrajudicial execution. Israel, too, must at a minimum have specific intelligence that a target is planning an imminent terrorist attack. Revenge is a blind alley.

And America must lead by its own — not a far more vulnerable ally’s — example or it will end up eyeless in GWOT.


I assume he's making a legal point with the "insufficient grounds" claim. I won't presume to know the answer to the question whether that claim is true. The more important question is whether or not the probability in question is sufficient moral grounds for the targeted killing. Well, according to this brief account, 'probably arranging for the next attack' aint good enough, but having specific intel that the guy is planning an imminent attack is good enough. A couple of questions:

Is such intel not in fact information that the guy is "probably making arrangements for the next round of attacks"? What is the subtle distinction here?

Secondly: Revenge, looks once again to be an unacceptable motive. So which is it?

So, in the end, I'm not quite sure what Cohen is on about in this piece. He doesn't like targeted assasinations. He doesn't like drone and missile killings. He doesn't like secrecy. All of these are essential ingredients in a succeful war on the barbarians in AQ. So, what exactly would he have us do?

Damned if you do. Damned if you don't.