The Buzz

Who Are We at War With? The Answer Is (Still) Classified

It’s long been known that the U.S. government considers itself to be at war with Al Qaeda and its “associated forces.” But exactly which groups does that include? Earlier this week, I noted that the list of organizations that the Pentagon sees as meeting this standard remains classified. In a May congressional hearing, Senator Carl Levin asked Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, to provide his office with the “existing list of groups that are affiliated with al Qaeda,” and Sheehan promised to do so. Since then, the Pentagon has apparently provided Levin’s office with the list, but refused to disclose it to the public.

Today, ProPublica’s Cora Currier followed up on this question to ask for the rationale for keeping the list secret. She reports:

A Pentagon spokesman told ProPublica that revealing such a list could cause “serious damage to national security.”

“Because elements that might be considered ‘associated forces’ can build credibility by being listed as such by the United States, we have classified the list,” said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Jim Gregory. “We cannot afford to inflate these organizations that rely on violent extremist ideology to strengthen their ranks.”

So, to summarize, the argument is that if this list were made public, groups that were named as enemies of the United States would be able to use this fact as a recruiting tool of sorts, allowing them to enhance their capabilities and making them stronger.

This is deeply unconvincing. At Lawfare, Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor and head of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush administration, calls this rationale “weak” and provides a thorough rebuttal. Two points of his are especially worth highlighting. The first is that the Pentagon spokesman appears to greatly exaggerate the harm that might be caused by naming these groups and thus “inflating” them. As Sheehan said at the hearing, to qualify as an associated force a group “has to be in co-belligerent status with al Qaeda operating against the United States.” Presumably, then, as Goldsmith notes, they are already “on the receiving end of U.S. or U.S-supported military operations,” a fact that would already be well known on the ground in whichever country they operate in. That would be “a spur to recruitment” whether or not Washington officially acknowledges it. Put another way, if an organization is already doing something that makes it enough of a threat to the United States to be put on this list, it’s hard to see what officially naming it as such would do to meaningfully add to this threat.

Second, whether or not there is a marginal benefit to keeping the list classified, the Pentagon’s statement fails to take into account any of the corresponding costs. In Goldsmith’s words:

There is a countervailing interest in disclosure that the DOD statement does not discuss: The American People’s interest in knowing against whom, and where, U.S. military forces are engaged in war in its name. Such knowledge – which at the May AUMF hearing many members of even the Armed Services Committee seemed to lack – is minimally necessary for the American people to assess the quality, prudence, and necessity of our military efforts.

This is the key point: it is quite simply impossible for the U.S. public to exercise any level of democratic accountability over its government on issues of war and peace when the government will not even say publicly who it considers itself to be at war with.

In his May 23 speech at the National Defense University, President Obama said, “We must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror,’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” This is an entirely sensible reframing, both for the government in conducting its operations and for the public in making sense of them. But if the president is really interested in getting the public to think about the conflict as a series of “targeted efforts” rather than a boundless global war, the least he could do is define for us exactly who those efforts are targeted against.