On-the-Ground Intelligence Operations Backing Drone Strikes

by Kenneth Anderson

Eli Lake and John Barry at the Daily Beast sum up the Obama administration’s counterterrorism-on-offense doctrines.  Of particular interest is this paragraph stressing the largely unmentioned role of on-the-ground intelligence gathering and operations in order to make possible targeted strikes:

And while the drones are the most outward signs of the covert campaigns that rage from the Horn of Africa to Pakistan, it is the nearly invisible troops on the ground—both U.S and allied special forces—who are gathering the intelligence, making eyes-on confirmation, and directing the strikes with remarkable precision.

This evaluation goes hand-in-hand with Greg Miller’s account in today’s Washington Post on the on-going convergence of the CIA and JSOC.

[A]fter a decade of often inconclusive efforts against al-Qaeda, the Obama administration has relied on new levels of collaboration between the CIA and JSOC to push the terrorist network closer to collapse. In May, U.S. Navy SEALS who serve under JSOC killed Osama bin Laden during a raid deep into Pakistan that relied on intelligence and covert action authority from the CIA. At the same time, the administration has sought to put new pressure on al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia by surrounding those countries with a constellation of drone bases. These include a new CIA facility in the Arabian peninsula that played a key role in Friday’s operation. U.S. drones also fly from military installations in Djibouti, Ethi­o­pia and the Seychelles.

Even leadership ranks have begun to blur: Former CIA director Leon E. Panetta is now secretary of defense; David H. Petraeus, previously the military commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, is just weeks into his new assignment as head of the CIA. The attack on Aulaqi blended capabilities from both sides and was carried out under CIA authority that allowed for greater latitude in conducting lethal operations outside conventional war zones. The military aircraft came across the Gulf of Aden from Djibouti, which has been the primary base for JSOC drones patrolling Yemen for much of the past year. U.S. officials said that CIA drones involved in the strike took off from an agency base in the Arabian peninsula so new that it had become operational only in recent weeks.

The opening of that base was part of a two-pronged strategy by the administration to exploit JSOC’s ability to work closely with Yemen’s counterterrorism units on the ground while pushing the CIA to replicate aspects of its lethally efficient drone campaign in Pakistan.

“Aspects” of that lethally efficient campaign that include, as I understand it, on-the-ground intelligence activities that allow for highly focused selection of targets.  The merger of functions between the two actors raises many questions about how Title 10 and Title 50 are supposed to interact (Bobby Chesney has been developing a draft article on those legal questions).  Many of those issues are intra-executive, meaning that they run to executive branch internal legal authorities that can be at least partly re-worked within the executive branch itself.  Some of the larger changes that I myself would like to see considered (such as the recognition of a new category of action under Title 50 besides “covert” that I’d call “deniable” rather than truly covert or clandestine) might require more than simply executive branch changes.

Update: Let’s add Scott Shane and Thom Shanker’s outstanding front page NYT article today on the increasing role of drones in US strategic thinking.  It’s a very good piece – noting importantly that drones sometimes seem like the latest in strategic air power, but in fact are widely recognized as being useful overwhelmingly in counterterrorism and, more generally, intelligence-driven and discrete uses of force – but not conventional interstate war with, for example, China.

This is a great piece, and one that everyone seeking to understand where the US is trying to go with regards to counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism needs to read.  It’s crucial.  The one thing I’d add to their discussion is that drones are the final kinetic step from the air of what is mostly an intelligence operation that requires extensive assets on the ground, as Lake and Barry point out.

Shane and Shanker do observe, however, that the image of drones as a global weapon, merely because the operator might be around the world, is profoundly misleading.  They emphasize an often misunderstood aspect of drones – closely related to the local ground-level intelligence point. Drones require bases, refuelling, maintenance, and lots of human care and feeding – all of which makes them much more akin to aircraft flown from an aircraft carrier, not strategic bombers flown from Omaha:

The apparent simplicity of a drone aloft, with its pilot operating from the United States, can be misleading. Behind each aircraft is a team of 150 or more personnel, repairing and maintaining the plane and the heap of ground technology that keeps it in the air, poring over the hours of videos and radio signals it collects, and gathering the voluminous intelligence necessary to prompt a single strike.

Finally, perhaps for lawyers the most interesting observation in the New York Times piece, however, is the recognition – very wide recognition in the US across most political lines – that in fact drones are more discriminating and precise:

[W]hile experts argue over the extent of the deaths of innocents when missiles fall on suspected terrorist compounds, there is broad agreement that the drones cause far fewer unintended deaths and produce far fewer refugees than either ground combat or traditional airstrikes.


4 Responses

  1. Doesn’t this make you think that it was within reason to use people to at least attempt to capture Awlaki and Khan? Yemen approves of capturing Awlaki, he is currently wanted by them. Nearby Saudi Arabia is a staunch ally. Warships are available at any time. It worked in Somali, an ungoverned state. Compared to the bin Laden op, getting next to Awlaki would be a cakewalk.

  2. “aircraft flown from an aircraft carrier” You know we have aircraft carriers all around the world, right? That seems pretty global to me.
    “in fact drones are more discriminating and precise” More, yes – enough, not so sure. Also notice that the comparisons, “either ground combat or traditional airstrikes” only take place in theaters of war. You know, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. One would expect far more discrimination and precision in non-war zones. Oh, and did the article mention proportionality? Or necessity? Or imminence?

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