Drones and Congressional Power (II)

The Buzz

Last week, The Buzz highlighted a new report by Micah Zenko on drone strikes, which argues for reforms in U.S. policies concerning targeted killings overseas. Among the points Zenko makes is that the drone war that the Obama administration is conducting is proceeding with limited to no oversight from Congress. As he notes, “Despite nearly ten years of nonbattlefield targeted killings, no congressional committee has conducted a hearing on any aspect of them.”

This subject is particularly timely. The beginning of 2013 saw a noticeable uptick in the frequency of drone strikes, with the United States conducting seven strikes in Pakistan over the first ten days of the year (compared to an average of about one per week in 2012). During this time, President Obama also nominated John Brennan, his chief counterterrorism adviser and the principal architect of the U.S. drone program, to serve as the next director of the CIA. Brennan’s nomination and confirmation hearings, therefore, should serve as an opportunity for senators to assert their role in overseeing the drone program and ask serious questions about where U.S. drone policy is going in the next four years.

A welcome step in this direction came today from Senator Ron Wyden, who serves on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In a letter to Brennan, Wyden requests answers on a whole range of issues related to targeted killings. Chief among them is the important question of under what conditions the U.S. government has the legal authority to kill American citizens. Wyden notes that “senior intelligence officials have said publicly that they have the authority to knowingly use lethal force against Americans.” However, this authority is justified by “secret legal opinions issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel,” which Wyden says he has asked to see repeatedly but has been so far denied. In response to the lack of concrete answers, Wyden makes the crucial point:

This situation is unacceptable. For the executive branch to claim that intelligence agencies have the authority to knowingly kill American citizens but refuse to provide Congress with any and all legal opinions that explain the executive branch’s understanding of this authority represents an alarming and indefensible assertion of executive prerogative.

Wyden’s letter is worth reading in full, but one other aspect of it is especially noteworthy. On the second page there is this rather amazing statement:

My staff and I have been asking for over a year for the complete list of countries in which the intelligence community has used its lethal counterterrorism authorities. To my surprise and dismay, the intelligence community has declined to provide me with the complete list.

What a quaint notion: the idea that the American people—or, at the very least, their elected representatives on the relevant congressional committees—have a right to know in which countries their government has killed people overseas. The fact that Wyden (not to mention the rest of us) has been refused this information so far is a scandal. We can only hope that as Brennan’s confirmation process proceeds and as the second Obama term unfolds, other members of Congress will join him in taking their oversight role seriously and demanding answers to these types of questions.

TopicsCongressDefenseMilitary StrategyPoliticsSecurity RegionsUnited States

U.S. Military Suicides Exceed Combat Deaths

The Buzz

The AP reports that U.S. military suicides have surged to the highest level ever recorded:

Pentagon figures obtained Monday by The Associated Press show that the 349 suicides among active-duty troops last year were up from 301 the year before and exceeded the Pentagon’s own internal projection of 325. . . . Last year’s total is the highest since the Pentagon began closely tracking suicides in 2001. It exceeds the 295 Americans who died in Afghanistan last year, by the AP’s count.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that the military is dealing with some tough issues these days. While not explicitly linked, the concurrent modern-day epidemics of suicide and rape in the armed forces are rather unnerving. Particularly disturbing is the seemingly rampant abuse of the "adjustment disorder" diagnosis. In a reported piece titled "The Enemy Within" earlier this year, National Journal's James Kitfield found that sexual-assault victims, often viewed within the forces as "problematic" to their units, were labeled as having so-called adjustment disorders and washed out of the military. Similarly, the AP report on one particular suicide seems to set off warning bells as the same adjustment-disorder language crops up again:

One such case was Army Spc. Christopher Nguyen, 29, who killed himself last August at an off-post residence he shared with another member of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., according to his sister, Shawna Nguyen.

“He was practically begging for help and nothing was done,” she said in an interview.

She said he had been diagnosed with an “adjustment disorder” — a problem of coping with the uncertainties of returning home after three deployments in war zones. She believes the Army failed her brother by not doing more to ensure that he received the help he needed before he became suicidal.

Kitfield's piece earlier this year followed Petty Officer 3rd Class Jenny McClendon:

McClendon says she was assaulted again by an investigator while based in Norfolk, Va. This time, when she reported the attack, her lieutenant called her a “whore” and sent her to a Navy therapist, who suggested that she was a bad fit for the Navy. “Essentially, I was diagnosed with a personality disorder for failing to adjust adequately to being raped,” McClendon says, even though “borderline psychotics. . .could never make it through boot camp.”

It seems, if anything, that the military is not adequately adjusting to the reality of these sad and tragic problems. So far, no additional measures have been taken to combat the unprecedented number of military suicides, and there is still no civilian oversight agency for the reporting of violent crimes in the forces.

TopicsState of the Military RegionsUnited States

Hollande Goes into Mali

The Buzz

Over the weekend, French armed forces announced Operation Serval, an intervention against the Islamic extremists in breakaway northern Mali. This is likely to be a positive development on two fronts. First, northern Mali was becoming a potential source of global danger as an attractant for jihadists. The operation might not wipe them out, which is a shame, but it should make it harder for them to train and coordinate. Second, the intervention is being carried out by somebody other than the United States. Its global reach gives it some ability to address almost any security problem, but trying to address them all at once (as it often does) dissipates its strength. Mali is a former French colony and a member of the Francophonie, and it’s much closer to France than to the America. It also has stronger human ties to France, making instability and radicalization there particularly likely to reverberate against French regional interests and la Métropole itself. Some of the interventionist voices in Washington have been flogging Mali for months, but this has always been Paris’s problem. Expecting the party with the greatest interest to bear the greatest burden is not leading from behind.

That invites a second thought. Mali has more at stake in the conflict than France. What should its role be? Though the intervention in Libya stirred up the north, the failure to control its own territory or to manage the aspirations of the Tuaregs (who started the rebellion, only to be supplanted by radicals) must land squarely on the doorstep of the Presidential Palace in Bamako. Despite being a massive and divided country near a range of trouble spots, Mali has only a few thousand men under arms. This is hardly enough to exercise sovereignty in the north in a time of peace, let alone when there is active resistance. An expansion of the Malian military is clearly in everybody’s interests, and with unemployment at 30 percent, there should be no shortage of able men. If funding is an issue, the international community has an interest in providing it, with France and Mali’s ECOWAS neighbors again taking the lead.

The true problem may be maintaining discipline—despite years of American training programs, the army reacted to the Tuareg rebellion provoked rapid retreats and ultimately a coup. Many Tuareg officers left the army to join the rebels. Many of these probably now regret creating an opening for the extremists that are now terrorizing their homeland and destroying its cultural heritage. Mali’s leaders would be wise to draw attention to this, and to offer the Tuaregs a new national relationship in return for aid in driving out the fanatics.

TopicsSecurity RegionsMali

A Revived Radicalism

Paul Pillar

A public discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations last week was concerned with identifying particular trouble spots and troublesome issues around the world that are apt to demand policy attention during 2013. One of the speakers, David Gordon of the Eurasia Group, mentioned in passing that an issue he was not worried about this year was radicalism in developed countries. He did not specify what variety of radicalism; probably most in the room simply assumed he was referring to the Islamist variety. That variety, after all, as it manifests itself both at home and abroad, has now been for some time almost the sole preoccupation in the United States as far as violent radicalism is concerned. When Peter King, as chairman in the previous Congress of the House Committee on Homeland Security, conducted a series of hearings on terrorist threats in the United States, the subject was all Islamist, all the time.

One hazard of such a narrow focus on one type of radicalism is to reduce the likelihood we will notice the rise of other types. Different types of radicalism, and the subsets of it that involve terrorist violence, come and go in waves, as they have over the past several decades. The rise of any one wave is generally related to the broader political environment in two somewhat antipodal ways. The radicalism usually is embedded in a larger mood, movement or ethos. But it also usually is a reaction against some political trend or development.

While keeping these patterns in mind, it would be useful to look again at a report that was prepared four years ago in the Department of Homeland Security. The report was titled Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment. Its release led to an uproar among those on the Right who were uncomfortable with any government report acknowledging that there is American extremism on the Right. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, evidently anxious to reduce her vulnerability to charges of politically-inspired analysis, responded by withdrawing the report, saying it had not been properly vetted within the department. DHS's analytical work on right-wing extremism has reportedly been reduced to a single employee.

The report, which nonetheless made it into the hands of news agencies, may be one of the more worthwhile reads among government documents having such a short official shelf life. The report stated that although there were at the time no known plans among right-wing extremists to commit specific acts of terrorism, such extremists “may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues.” One of those bits of grist for the fear-mongering was “the election of the first African-American president.” Another was the prospect of gun control:

Proposed imposition of firearms restrictions and weapons bans likely would attract new members into the ranks of right-wing extremist groups, as well as potentially spur some of them to begin planning and training for violence against the government. The high volume of purchases and stockpiling of weapons and ammunition by right-wing extremists in anticipation of restrictions and bans in some parts of the country continue to be a primary concern to law enforcement.

The report-writers likened what they were seeing to what was happening with this extremist fringe in the 1990s. Although we have not witnessed in the subsequent four years anything like a repetition of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, other indications suggest the report was on to something. Charles Blow in the New York Times alludes to some of this when he notes, using data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, that the anti-government “Patriot” movement has burgeoned since 2008, having grown to more than 1,200 groups nationwide by 2011. More than a fourth of these are militias that perform paramilitary training.

Now in 2013, we are about to have the second inauguration of that same African-American president, the one with the foreign-sounding name. Gun control is also again prominently on the national agenda, owing mainly to more mass shootings in schools. And some of the rhetoric that melds resistance to gun control with a broader anti-government agenda is nothing short of frightening. Here's what Fox News commentator and—believe it or not—former judge Andrew Napolitano (no relation to Janet) wrote last week:

The historical reality of the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to keep and bear arms is not that it protects the right to shoot deer. It protects the right to shoot tyrants, and it protects the right to shoot at them effectively, with the same instruments they would use upon us.

If shooting, or bombing, growing out of this type of attitude starts, we should already have a fairly good idea of what the perpetrators are opposed to. We ought to reflect as well on the other part of how a wave of extremism fits into the larger political environment—i.e., how it is the extreme tail of some more broadly shared way of thinking. The roots of current anti-government sentiments are diverse, of course. And as for the gun control part of this, we know that the lobby opposing controls is as rich and potent as ever. We also should acknowledge the growth of a form of political intolerance in which some people believe that having their particular preferences prevail is so important that it is worth inflicting, or threatening, harm to the country. It looks as though we are about to see a non-kinetic form of this again in Congress in a few weeks.  We should not be surprised if extremists use the kinetic form.

TopicsCongressK StreetIdeologyThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Static Saudi Arabia

The Buzz

In a wide-ranging review of three recent books on Saudi Arabia, The New York Review of Books’ Hugh Eakin paints a picture of the massive question mark hanging over the Kingdom and its future. Its unusual succession model, which puts brothers ahead of sons, helped hold the kingdom’s many competing princes together—and ensured that the buffoonish King Saud was succeeded by his highly effective brother Faisal instead of one of his young sons.

Now, however, it means that the kingdom is still ruled by the children of a man whose birth was closer in history to the War of the Austrian Succession than to the present. The structure of the state and its economy is just as clogged—many bureaucracies have become so bloated that there is a small industry devoted to helping businesses find a path through it. The cleric-dominated education system combines with the promise of work in government-funded nonjobs to leave many young people with few practical skills yet a sense that blue-collar work is beneath them. Oil money made all this possible; the growth of the population means it's becoming harder and harder to sustain.

Unlike many who comment on Saudi Arabia, Eakin does not succumb to the Western tendency to view all societies through the lens of democratization. Instead of darkly warning that a more participatory system must be implemented quickly to avoid total breakdown, or taking every idle hint of reform seriously (Foreign Affairs suggested Faisal might implement a constitution back in 1966; there still isn’t one in the strictest sense). Eakin notes that in spite of growing criticism of the government, 

the few dedicated oppositionists one encounters in Jeddah and Riyadh have until now seemed less like the vanguard of a broader movement than as outliers, rejectionists who have fallen through the cracks of an all-encompassing system. . . . Indeed, far more young Saudis appear to be concerned about violent upheavals in neighboring countries than about the repressive order at home. . . . If this is the case, then the continued viability of the Saudi regime will depend little on the particular strengths or weaknesses of the current ruler and his immediate successors.

Saudi Arabia's unusual government, society and economy might change. They might even change rapidly and suddenly. There's just very little evidence to suggest it'll happen soon.

TopicsAutocracy RegionsSaudi Arabia