By Ty Cobb* —
Barack Obama has transformed himself from the Peacemaker President to Conan the Al-Qaeda Killer, confusing his liberal supporters and conservative critics alike. The President has reversed himself on a number of Bush-administration counter-terror policies that he had earlier criticized, and in some cases, overturned, not only now embracing those policies but pursuing them with a vengeance. He has also engaged the U.S. deeply in the effort to cripple the Iranian nuclear program through controversial “cyber-warfare” initiatives, has assumed the role of personally approving targeted assassinations, and has accelerated the use of drones on suspected terror camps even when collateral damage is likely, i.e., civilian casualties.
During the campaign and early in his Presidency, Obama pledged to close the controversial prison at Guantanamo. When the impracticality and unpopularity of that decision emerged, he quietly abandoned that policy and is filling the prison with as many terrorists as possible. He demanded an end to brutal interrogation techniques, but now permits those very methods of “enhanced interrogation” to be employed, albeit under tight restrictions. He condemned the tactic of “renditions”, under which CIA agents would capture suspected terrorists off the streets of foreign cities, and transfer them to secret prisons located in East Europe and elsewhere. Now, we believe, renditions are continuing and the prisons are operating. Oh, excuse me, they are not “prisons” now, the New York Times reports, but “detention facilities” designed to hold suspects only for a short-term, transitory basis. Oh sure. Finally, remember the campaign against “military commissions” and the demand to replace them with civilian courts? That’s dead, too.
Drone Strikes and Targeted Assassinations
In a rather remarkable series of stories on the new U.S. drone policy and “kill lists”, the New York Times has provided extraordinarily detailed descriptions not only of the programs but of the President’s deep and personal involvement in the planning and, particularly, in approving specific individuals to be taken out. The backgrounding given to the Times reporters is both disquieting and reassuring. On the one had I am shocked at the level of specificity administration officials have provided and can’t help but be very concerned over the wisdom of sharing openly what should be protected and denied. Obviously part of the motivation is to portray the President not as weak and indecisive in this political year, but as a strong-willed, highly-focused President deeply involved in the counter-terrorism strategy and execution. That is, as critic Charles Krauthammer observes, to change Obama’s image as “nuclear disarmer and apologizer to the world” for America having lost its moral compass, to “Zeus the Avenger”, smiting by lightning strikes evil wherever it lurks in the world.
Undoubtedly part of this image creation is politically motivated. Still, when one examines the record, it is clear that this President is deeply involved in counter terrorism policy development, and more importantly, its daily execution. Further, he has himself assumed direct responsibility for the moral implications of his controversial policies, including the civilian casualties, short-circuiting the judicial process, and engaging the U.S. in a Cyber War that has great potential for future “blowback”—unintended consequences.
The so-called “Kill List” is the novel departure from previous practice. When President Obama convenes the regular Tuesday morning counter-terrorism meeting in the “Sit Room”, the process he oversees specifically designates suspected terrorists for killing or capture. According to the NYT reports, Obama insists that he himself approve each individual on the list. This is an interesting change from the lawyer so interested in civil rights to a President aggressively prosecuting the “war on terror”. The dedicated campaign on terror has skirted legal niceties and sidelined moral qualms. As a result, Al Qaeda itself has been largely decimated.
This is not to say that collateral damage—civilian casualties—are ignored. However, critics, including former Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair, cast doubt on how non-participant deaths are counted. If a group is killed by a drone attack, the White House has leaned to simply describing all of them as “militants”. This has led to what some consider being deceptively low estimates—in the single digits—of civilian deaths.
The other issue is that Mr. Obama—a student of the philosophical debates over what constitutes a “Just War”—has avoided the complications that detention and trials would ensue, that is, best to take no prisoners alive. As the NYT reports, scores of suspects have been killed, but only one new prisoner has been brought into American custody. The Times reports that one critic caustically noted that if the CIA saw “three guys doing jumping jacks”, it was automatically a terrorist camp!
Among those who have been approved for the “kill list” have been American citizens. This has been the case only a few times, but the example of Al-Awlaki is often cited. While Awlaki had clearly been a rabble rouser against U.S. interests, could the President order the killing by drone attack of an American in a country with which the U.S. was not at war (Yemen). This was not a hard decision for the President—he gave the order and Awlaki was killed last September.
Assassination by drones in countries where we are not at war has become almost routine, and has resulted in the decimation of Al-Qaeda and reduced the ranks of other terrorist organizations. Still, in many countries, and for some here in the U.S., the drones have become a symbol of American power run amuck—trampling over the national sovereignty of neutral countries and killing some innocents.
Cyber Warfare—the New Global Battleground
We are all aware of the Stuxnet virus that was implanted in the Iranian nuclear research network and that destroyed several centrifuges. The virus caused centrifuges to spin out of control and virtually destroyed their effectiveness. The insertion of the computer virus likely set back the Iranian program, perhaps as much as two years, but did not destroy it.
Given the complexity of Stuxnet, we had assumed that it was prepared and deployed by a nation state, most likely Israel. We now learn, from the NYT analyses, that the virus was developed as part of a bi-national U.S.-Israeli program that began during the Bush administration. And, while the two nations worked together for the most part, it appears that Israeli experts went off on their own at times with unilateral measures.
The United States has not officially admitted being a participant in any Cyber Warfare initiative, although it acknowledges that it does have an active CyberWar effort ongoing. The articles in the Times, however, seem to confirm U.S. involvement in the effort to stymie the Iranian nuclear program, and raised suspicions of previous efforts against Al-Qaeda and Libyan computer systems. But the intrusion against Iran—dubbed the “Olympic Games”—took the program to unprecedented levels.
There is speculation that Washington was in a box. If it did not actively pursue a sanctions regime against Iran, and assist in the computer virus insertion, it ran the risk that Tel Aviv on its own would launch a military attack on Iran. In order to dissuade Israel from carrying out a pre-emptive attack on Iranian facilities, the Americans needed to convince the Israelis that sanctions and cyber-insertion were working.
We have recently learned of another presumably state-sponsored Cyber intrusion, this one called “Flame”. Like Stuxnet, Flame is a technologically sophisticated virus that is affecting computers in the mid-East and particularly again in Iran, a virus that could only have been created by a government. Flame seems to be more an information-seeking implant rather than a destructive virus, with the capability, for example, of turning on Bluetooth-enabled devices that not only steal information but can listen in on user conversations.
The initial U.S.-Israeli cooperative effort against Iran worked, at least in slowing down the nuclear program. However, Stuxnet and Flame are only the beginning of a wave of state-sponsored Cyber warfare, at least for now. Later on we should anticipate Cyber attacks by criminal gangs and non-state actors.
The genie is out of the bottle and there is no guarantee that the United States as well could not be crippled by a cyber attack on its computer systems. Indeed, no other country on earth is probably as vulnerable to attack than the U.S. It may only be a matter of time before this country’s infrastructure is struck, as we and the Israelis have been doing against Iran.
I would assume that China has or will shortly have the capability in a time of conflict to cripple the American economic and military infrastructure by a massive Cyber campaign. But that is another story for another time.
Whither the Obama CT Strategy?
The Obama administration’s success in decimating Al Qaeda and crippling the Iranian nuclear program has raised a number of issues. Some of his core supporters are perplexed by the transformation of the liberal law professor into a form of Dr. Strangelove. They worry about kill lists, targeted assassinations, and collateral damage assessments skewed to reflect minimal civilian casualties, and launching drone strikes into sovereign nations, even against American citizens. They worry that the jump into an active Cyber War program will lead to similar devastating attacks on the U.S. infrastructure.
Others are buoyed by the President’s aggressive counter-terrorism policies. They applaud his keeping Guantanamo open, continuing renditions, secret prisons or detention sites, and drone strikes. They applaud his policy of “taking out” high value targets rather than capturing them and going through all those legal niceties. They strongly support an active US-Israeli effort to cripple the Iranian nuclear program.
We aren’t sure where all this will lead, nor are we sure why the administration has chosen to make so much of this information public. Clearly part of the rationale is to portray the President as s stalwart and determined prosecutor of the war on terrorism. In that they have succeeded.
Now if someone could just enlighten me as to where all this will lead.
*Dr. Cobb was a professor at West Point and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army in the years just prior to the Reagan Administration. He consulted with the National Security Council during the latter half of the Carter administration and the early Reagan administration on international energy issues. At the start of the Reagan administration, Dr. Cobb was on an exchange in the Soviet Union. After the change in National Security Advisor to William Clark and Deputy Robert “Bud” McFarlane, Cobb was asked to submit strategy papers regarding the long-range strategic position of the United States vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. As a result of these papers he was asked to join the NSC staff as a member of the European and Soviet Affairs Directorate to work on European issues and Canada, and to provide some input on long-range strategic Soviet policy. He took Dennis Blair’s slot within this directorate. Cobb worked very closely with Peter Sommer and they divided responsibility for 34 countries among themselves. Cobb was responsible for France, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Austria, the Vatican, etc. As part of his Soviet responsibilities, Cobb attended the Geneva and the Reykjavik summits. In 1988, Cobb took Robert Dean’s place as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of the International Programs and Technology Affairs Directorate, with responsibility for science & technology agreements, export policy, United Nations issues, and the environment. He became President and CEO of the Business Executives for National Security (BENS) in 1991, then left to become President/CEO of the Yosemite National Institutes (1995-2002). He returned to his home town of Reno, NV, where he heads up the Northern Nevada Network as well as the National Security Forum. Dr. Cobb received a Ph.D. from Georgetown University, an M.A. from Indiana University, and a B.A. from the University of Nevada. He is married to Suellen Small of Reno, NV. They have three children.