Drones, Computers New Weapons Of US Shadow Wars

June 17, 2012

By Robert Burns, Lolita C. Baldor and Kimberly Dozier, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — After a decade of costly conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American way of war is evolving toward less brawn, more guile.

Drone aircraft spy on and attack terrorists with no pilot in harm’s way. Small teams of special operations troops quietly train and advise foreign forces. Viruses sent from computers to foreign networks strike silently, with no American fingerprint.

It’s war in the shadows, with the U.S. public largely in the dark.

In Pakistan, armed drones, not U.S. ground troops or B-52 bombers, are hunting down al-Qaida terrorists, and a CIA-run raid of Osama bin Laden’s hide-out was executed by a stealthy team of Navy SEALs.

In Yemen, drones and several dozen U.S. military advisers are trying to help the government tip the balance against an al-Qaida offshoot that harbors hopes of one day attacking the U.S. homeland.

In Somalia, the Horn of Africa country that has not had a fully functioning government since 1991, President Barack Obama secretly has authorized two drone strikes and two commando raids against terrorists.

In Iran, surveillance drones have kept an eye on nuclear activities while a computer attack reportedly has infected its nuclear enrichment facilities with a virus, possibly delaying the day when the U.S. or Israel might feel compelled to drop real bombs on Iran and risk a wider war in the Middle East.

The high-tech warfare allows Obama to target what the administration sees as the greatest threats to U.S. security, without the cost and liabilities of sending a swarm of ground troops to capture territory; some of them almost certainly would come home maimed or dead.

But it also raises questions about accountability and the implications for international norms regarding the use of force outside of traditional armed conflict. The White House took an incremental step Friday toward greater openness about the basic dimensions of its shadowy wars by telling Congress for the first time that the U.S. military has been launching lethal attacks on terrorist targets in Somalia and Yemen. It did not mention drones, and its admission did not apply to CIA operations.

“Congressional oversight of these operations appears to be cursory and insufficient,” said Steven Aftergood, an expert on government secrecy issues for the Federation of American Scientists, a private group.

“It is Congress’ responsibility to declare war under the Constitution, but instead it appears to have adopted a largely passive role while the executive takes the initiative in war fighting,” Aftergood said in an interview.

That’s partly because lawmakers relinquished their authority by passing a law just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that essentially granted the White House open-ended authority for armed action against al-Qaida.

Secret wars are not new.

For decades, the CIA has carried out covert operations abroad at the president’s direction and with congressional notice. It armed the mujahedeen in Afghanistan who fought Soviet occupiers in the 1980s, for example. In recent years the U.S. military’s secretive commando units have operated more widely, even in countries where the U.S. is not at war, and that’s blurred the lines between the intelligence and military spheres.

In this shroud of secrecy, leaks to the news media of classified details about certain covert operations have led to charges that the White House orchestrated the revelations to bolster Obama’s national security credentials and thereby improve his re-election chances. The White House has denied the accusations.

The leaks exposed details of U.S. computer virus attacks on Iran’s nuclear program, the foiling of an al-Qaida bomb plot targeting U.S. aircraft, and other secret operations.

Two U.S. attorneys are heading separate FBI investigations into leaks of national security information, and Congress is conducting its own probe.

It’s not just the news media that has pressed the administration for information about its shadowy wars.

Some in Congress, particularly those lawmakers most skeptical of the need for U.S. foreign interventions, are objecting to the administration’s drone wars. They are demanding a fuller explanation of how, for example, drone strikes are authorized and executed in cases in which the identity of the targeted terrorist is not confirmed.

“Our drone campaigns already have virtually no transparency, accountability or oversight,” Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and 25 other mostly anti-war members of Congress wrote Obama on Tuesday.

A few dozen lawmakers are briefed on the CIA’s covert action and clandestine military activity, and some may ask to review drone strike video and be granted access to after-action reports on strikes and other clandestine actions. But until two months ago, the administration had not formally confirmed in public its use of armed drones.

In an April speech in Washington, Obama’s counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, acknowledged that despite presidential assurances of a judicious use of force against terrorists, some still question the legality of drone strikes.

“So let me say it as simply as I can: Yes, in full accordance with the law – and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives – the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones,” he said.

President George W. Bush authorized drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere, but Obama has vastly increased the numbers. According to Bill Roggio of The Long War Journal, an online publication that tracks U.S. counterterrorism operations, the U.S. under Obama has carried out an estimated 254 drone strikes in Pakistan alone. That compares with 47 strikes during the Bush administration.

In at least one case the target was an American. Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida leader, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in September.

According to a White House list released late last year, U.S. counterterrorism operations have removed more than 30 terrorist leaders around the globe. They include al-Qaida in East Africa “planner” Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who was killed in a helicopter strike in Somalia.

The drone campaign is highly unpopular overseas.

A Pew Research Center survey on the U.S. image abroad found that in 17 of 21 countries surveyed, more than half of the people disapproved of U.S. drone attacks targeting extremist leaders in such places as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. In the U.S., 62 percent approved of the drone campaign, making American public opinion the clear exception.

The U.S. use of cyberweapons, like viruses that sabotage computer networks or other high-tech tools that can invade computers and steal data, is even more closely shielded by official secrecy and, arguably, less well understood.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been a leading critic of the administration’s handling of information about using computers as a tool of war.

“I think that cyberattacks are one of the greatest threats that we face,” McCain said in a recent interview, “and we have a very divided and not very well-informed Congress addressing it.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and national security officials often talk publicly about improving U.S. defenses against cyberattack, not only on U.S. government computer systems but also against defense contractors and other private networks linked, for example, to the U.S. financial system or electrical grid. Left largely unexplained is the U.S. capacity to use computer viruses and other cyberweapons against foreign targets.

In the view of some, the White House has cut Congress out of the loop, even in the realm of overt warfare.

Sen. James Webb, D-Va., who saw combat in Vietnam as a Marine, introduced legislation last month that would require that the president seek congressional approval before committing U.S. forces in civil conflicts, such as last year’s armed intervention in Libya, in which there is no imminent security threat to the U.S.

“Year by year, skirmish by skirmish, the role of the Congress in determining where the U.S. military would operate, and when the awesome power of our weapon systems would be unleashed has diminished,” Webb said.

4 Replies to “Drones, Computers New Weapons Of US Shadow Wars”

  1. The tools of the national security trade have adapted to a new battlespace. That new battlespace is a technologically advanced battlespace that provides some interesting benefits. Aside from the obvious lack of exposure of a manned delivery platform, this new battlespace provides cover, a long reach, the ability to act relatively unimpeded, a further compressed time scale, and in some cases, a very accurate and lethal asymmetric attack capability. All very tempting… That this capability was developed should not be a surprise to anyone. As Douhet once said, “Victory smiles on those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.” That said, it appears that the adaption into the new battlespace has been had without much public discussion of the ethics and justification for use that should accompany the policy change that implements these new tools. Similarly, the implications of the use of such tools against the US by some other state, or a non-state actor, and what can be done to mitigate those effects should also be a part of the public discourse.

    Curiously, the public dialog appears focused on hardening the defense department and their major suppliers from cyber threats. While this is an important task, I am increasingly concerned that the infrastructure that supports both the public and the DoD is very vulnerable to cyber threats. By this I mean, civil infrastructure such as water works, the power grid, transportation networks etc. It is all too obvious that the tools of this new trade can be repurposed to something a bit less focused to support a ‘new’ kind of asymmetric warfare that looks much like a cyber version of a WW II strategic bombing campaign waged against the populations and industrial centers of nations. This new type of cyber war is considered as juxtaposed to a direct force on force engagement. This new type of guerrilla warfare might even be a prominent choice in the list of options that an enemy who knows they cannot survive a force on force engagement would choose from. Let’s all hope we never have to deal with that.

    1. Ben: GREAT POINTS! I am working on a piece on revolutions and how militaries are usually late in understanding the impact. Industrial revolution…think US Civil War and rifles…we still fought in line and column, WWI and the machine gun….leading to trench warfare, WWII and mass production…generating targets for bombers (and the bombers themselves), Cold War and nuclear weapons…..it took a bit to comprehend the impacts of these weapons and what they would mean in future conflicts.

      Now we see the info revolution….what will this mean for warfare in a decade? We need The Creative….we have to encourage a modern day ACTS to debate and discuss…and influence decision makers. Right now a lot of folks are talking, but few are heard. Remember Marshall fired about 300 generals prior to WWII as he felt they were trapped in WWI thinking….this gave rise to names like Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley….where would we be if not for Marshall’s audacious move?

      Not sure congress would agree as they did with Marshall….in today’s world…plus we need a catalyst to act, but we can still encourage and incentivize bold thinking…

      Thanks for the stellar comments Ben

      1. Bill, you ask about the information revolution. I will posit a few thoughts. Some say we live in an information centric age. The most forward looking folks left the notion of an information age behind and have moved on to a talent age. The thinking is that there is already way too much information to process for any leader or team to study and act on in a reasonable amount of time. (One of my bosses has adopted a term you will appreciate, “paralysis by analysis”.) The measure of success in a talent age is not what you do to analyze all the information. The measure of success is now what you do to analyze and decide with the key information that you have right now. If you get that right, you are wildly successful. The talent part is both the ability to collect and study the right information, and the ability to make good decisions on less than perfect information. To succeed here is to be creative, but also to challenge the conventional wisdom.

        You pointed out Marshall’s example. I would point out Mitchell (btw, that’s your kilt isn’t it?) as an example that shows what can happen to those that challenge the conventional wisdom. Mitchell’s example has shown that even if you are right, you may lose, so this talent age requires not only bold thinking, it requires a lot of trust and support for the emerging talent from the top leadership of the organization. Absent top cover, the talent is wasted or worse, punished.

        Certainly the past lessons about knowing the enemy, the battlespace, and getting inside the OODA loop still apply to the information and talent age. The talent age presents a new opportunity for this capability to be applied in novel ways.

        Recent history has shown that whenever the USAF is faced with a choice between technology and people to achieve an advance in capability, the tendency has been to opt for the better technology and to also opt for fewer, but better ‘quality’ people that are needed to operate and support these more advanced systems. The wisdom of that investment in people and technology has been borne out by the increasing difference in capabilities achieved for a given infrastructure and personnel investment. While some may argue the final numbers and whether they are sufficient for the need, there is no question that the newer systems are much more stealthy, lethal, adaptable, and supportable than their predecessors. Much of this new capability is leveraged on information and the ability to rapidly share both raw and decision quality processed information from the sensor to the shooter in what is essentially real time.

        While this new capability is great to have, it highlights our increasing dependence on secure, accessible, accurate, and assured information. The talent part collects, analyzes, and decides what to do quickly. So long as this remains a one-sided fight, I am happy. Recent world events have shown us that this “talent based warfare” is not just the realm of a military entity. There are reports in the press of those that don’t belong lurking in our power grid control systems, water control systems, and other places. No one really knows how long these systems were compromised, at least not publicly, but the obvious bit that whoever got in now knows all they need to know about these systems is lost on most people. If that wasn’t enough to get folks thinking, recall that RSA got pwned and suddenly the world that thought those little grey tokens would keep the boogey-man away wasn’t sleeping quite so well any more. Some very sensitive systems were compromised shortly after RSA was breached. Other relevant examples are extant.

        What does all this mean? I think it means major public infrastructure is very vulnerable, some of what we thought was a lead measured in time for someone else to do the requisite R & D to develop similar capabilities is now also gone. I also think that in a bad dream, the global economy is vulnerable to an asymmetric attack.

        Ponder for a moment a major attack that destroys information exchanges between major central banks, stock exchanges etc. Such an attack would be damaging, but it would likely be obvious. Such an attack could be done from anywhere on the planet by a suitably equipped adversary with all the advantages accruing to distance and obfuscation. When such an attack is wielded by a nation state as it was in the recent Chechen conflict, that makes dealing with it all the more difficult. A more sinister scenario would be a little bit of poison in the data well. If that poison goes undetected long enough it could do a lot of damage to the trust part of the global economy. Another scenario would be an advanced persistent effort to “work on” the main information nodes in the global economy. If you think about the intersection of Thomas Friedman’s globalization and Thomas P. M. Barnett’s concept of connectedness from a geo-political security perspective, you are staring at what I am thinking about. It’s not quite the same plot line as the 1980’s movie War Games, but I think the dependence on information in our current economic model and all the areas of our personal lives that information touches illustrates what a talent age war could do.

        I remain confident that our best will prevail should if come to a real fight, but as the measure – counter-measure – counter-counter-measure spiral winds ever tighter and faster, we must remain vigilant. As always, it is incumbent on today’s leaders to prepare the leaders of tomorrow so that our swords remain sharp and those wielding them know which way they should cut. That leadership lesson transcends the any genre of conflict.



  2. Wow! Okay, I only have my iPad right now…need the laptop to respond. But quickly, I agree Ben…talent age, creative age, I have heard it called many things…but we have yet to adapt/ponder/wrestle with what the info age has done to or for warfare. So bring that and this creative age and we are a bit behind in our thinking.

    Mitchell is a great example….and yes that is the tartan although I should have gone with Kerr (mom’s maiden name, custom weave, too expensive)…and I like your comment: “Mitchell’s example has shown that even if you are right, you may lose, so this talent age requires not only bold thinking, it requires a lot of trust and support for the emerging talent from the top leadership of the organization.  Absent top cover, the talent is wasted or worse, punished.” you know me…I believe that with all my heart.

    Let me sit and ponder this…thanks for the data, great thoughts and convo….would be nice with a nice single malt.  Thanks Ben

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