Tag: Dennis Blair

The Convoluted Debate on Drones

The same week U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta declared “we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda”—an assessment that many believe reflects the efforts of seven years of CIA drone strikes—former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair called America’s “unilateral” drone war in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia a mistake. “Because we’re alienating the countries concerned,” Blair said, “because we’re treating countries just as places where we go attack groups that threaten us, we are threatening the prospects of long-term reform.”

Given that our Nobel Peace Prize–winning president has drastically escalated the use of these flying, robotic hitmen, there seems to be some confusion at the White House.

Speaking to attendees at the Aspen Security Forum, Blair said drone strikes in Pakistan should be launched only when America had the full cooperation of the government in Islamabad and “we agree with them on what drone attacks” should target. As explained elsewhere, this author accepts the efficacy of America’s drone war, but with enormous reluctance. That said, part of Blair’s assessment seems wildly out of touch. Why would Washington wait for permission from Islamabad to hunt al Qaeda?

First, individuals either within or with ties to Pakistan’s spy agency have collaborated with insurgents that frequently attack U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. That doesn’t speak well for Blair’s call for joint cooperation. Second, we’ve known for years that elements within Pakistan have thwarted — on several occasions — foreign-led attempts to find and take out terrorists. Even someone who is not wildly enamored with drones understands the argument for employing them unilaterally when confronted with uncooperative governments. Policymakers, however, should be weighing the ability to keep militant groups off balance against the costs of facilitating the rise of more terrorists, particularly in a country as volatile as Pakistan.

A statement even more out of step than Mr. Blair’s came from Michael E. Leiter, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center. Earlier this week at the Aspen Security Forum, Leiter contended that assessments that al Qaeda was on the verge of collapse lacked “accuracy and precision” and that al Qaeda’s leadership and structure in Pakistan “is still there and could launch some attacks.” He also raised concerns about the possible long-term effects of intensive CIA paramilitary operations on conventional espionage and analysis for issues like China: “The question has to be asked: Has that in some ways diminished some of its strategic, long-term intelligence collection and analysis mission?”

Leiter’s comments are troubling due to the basis for his concern about the effectiveness of counter-terrorism. To emphasize why the growing consensus that al Qaeda is “on the ropes” is premature, Leiter noted that the failed plot to blow up a vehicle in Times Square in May 2010 was carried out by an American trained by the Pakistani Taliban. This statement is misguided in what it implies. By no means can America ensure that terrorists never come from Pakistan, or anywhere else. Such an aim epitomizes our overreaction to terrorism. It gives planners in Washington not only a convenient justification to prolong the wars we’re already in, but also an open-ended rationale to intervene anywhere else. Let’s remember that the United States is already fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is threatening to launch a third against Iran, bombs remote villages in nuclear-armed Pakistan, and has expanded operations into Somalia, Yemen, and possibly elsewhere. This is especially concerning given the current construction of a not-so-secret U.S. air base in the Middle East for more targeted strikes in Yemen.

Unfortunately, the president’s choice to replace Mr. Leiter, Matthew Olsen, said at his confirmation hearing this week before the Senate Intelligence Committee that he would define the strategic defeat of al Qaeda as “ending the threat that al Qaeda and all of its affiliates pose to the United States and its interests around the world.” This, too, is problematic. U.S. policy toward “ending the threat” from al Qaeda has been mainly through wars and intervention, and one of the many unintended consequences of American intervention has been the radicalization of Western-born Muslims.

Take, for instance, Somalia, where Washington has repeatedly tried and failed to bring order. Over the past two years, as many as 20 Somali-American men have disappeared from the Minneapolis area. Many analysts fear these men were recruited to fight alongside al-Shabab (“The Youth”), the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government the United States and Ethiopia overthrew in 2006. In describing Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized American of the Somali diaspora believed to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing, FBI director Robert Mueller said, “It appears that this individual was radicalized in his hometown in Minnesota.” Somalia is a classic case of how American intervention is forever self-perpetuating.

Debates over drones should not be cut and dry. Scholars, no matter the subject, should be “intellectually honest.” Supporters of counterterrorism can and should feel comfortable having reservations about the tactics employed, given Washington’s tendency for threat inflation. Drones may well become America’s new permanent wartime footing. Sadly, we will have learned nothing from 9/11 if drones provide policymakers a more antiseptic avenue for satiating their endless appetite for intervention.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

Terror Threat: The Calamity Is the Reporting

Early this year, the New York Times published a story entitled “Senators Warned of Terror Attack on U.S. by July.”

America’s top intelligence official told lawmakers on Tuesday [Feb. 2] that Al Qaeda and its affiliates had made it a high priority to attempt a large-scale attack on American soil within the next six months.

The assessment by Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, was much starker than his view last year, when he emphasized the considerable progress in the campaign to debilitate Al Qaeda and said that the global economic meltdown, rather than the prospect of a major terrorist attack, was the “primary near-term security concern of the United States.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked Mr. Blair to assess the possibility of an attempted attack in the United States in the next three to six months.

He replied, “The priority is certain, I would say” — a response that was reaffirmed by the top officials of the C.I.A. and the F.B.I.

One can draw any number of conclusions from the fact that it is August, and no attack has materialized. I’m inclined to focus on the role of the Times and reporter Mark Mazzetti in misconstruing what officials said, while writing a technically accurate account of events.

Read again the blockquoted paragraphs: Officials told lawmakers that al Qaeda and its affiliates had made it a high priority to follow up on the failed attack of December 25th. Asked to assess the probability of attack, DNI Dennis Blair said: “The priority is certain”—whatever that means.

Intentions or priorities are quite distinct from capability, which is an essential prerequisite of committing any attack. Were intelligence officials obscuring this difference? Why didn’t any Senator challenge Blair’s evasive answer? Mark Mazzetti and the Times didn’t tell us.

Instead, the Times reported it as though it were a warning of terror attacks within six months. Mazzetti—a professional writer of English—didn’t investigate the flag Blair sent up with his contorted language.

In our book Terrorizing Ourselves, an excellent group of contributors analyze many different dimensions of the terrorism problem. In this case, I think we have an example of how different segments of our own society—intelligence officials, senators, a major newspaper, and a national security reporter at that newspaper—combined to maintain public fears in the aftermath of the Dec. 25th failed attack.

Is the Threat of Cyberattack Growing?

The New York Times dutifully reports that the Director of National Intelligence says it is. But it’s hard to know what that means. The word “cyberattack” has no usefully fixed definition.

And the important questions—plural—include: 1) whether cyberattacks—plural—are growing in number and sophistication more quickly than the capability of infrastructure owners to fend them off and recover from them; 2) which, if any, owners lack incentives to secure their infrastructure and what security externalities they might create; and 3) what levers—such as contract liability, tort liability, or regulation—might correct any such market failures.

Some lines in Director Blair’s statement are quite telling. Compare this:

Terrorist groups and their sympathizers have expressed interest in using cyber means to target the United States and its citizens.

to this:

The cyber criminal sector in particular has displayed remarkable technical innovation with an agility presently exceeding the response capability of network defenders.

Now, which class of actors are you going to worry about—the ones that dream of doing something bad? Or the ones that have the sophistication to do something bad? Probably the latter.

While calling for a federal intelligence-community role in “cybersecurity,” Blair confesses that this is more of a crime problem that the business sector needs to handle than a true national security issue in which the leading role would be played by government.

The good news is that crime syndicates don’t prosper by killing their hosts. Don’t look for catastrophic failure of our technical infrastructures arising from this most serious of “cyber” threats.

There’s no question that cybersecurity is important. But it’s also manageable. I shared my thoughts on “cybersecurity” last year with the House Science Committee.