A Demonstration Of How The Director Of National Intelligence’s New Policy on Media Contacts With Intelligence Community Employees Would Work

“How We Read a NYTimes Story on Drone Strikes in Yemen” by Ryan Goodman & Sarah Knuckey, originally published on Just Security.

As usual, much of the work of the devil is in the details, pointed out here:

How We Read a NYTimes Story on Drone Strikes in Yemen

By Ryan Goodman and Sarah Knuckey
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 at 8:03 AM
110Print
In this post, we’re trying something new. Below, we present an almost line-by-line annotation of yesterday’s New York Times story on US and Yemeni military operations in Yemen. Among other things, the following is intended to identify legal implications of the news being reported, the significance of some of the revelations, and paths for further investigative reporting.

U.S. Drones and Yemeni Forces Kill Qaeda-Linked Fighters, Officials Say
By Eric Schmitt. Saeed Al Batati contributed reporting from Sana, Yemen, and Mark Mazzetti from Washington.
New York Times

WASHINGTON — American drones and Yemeni counterterrorism forces killed more than three dozen militants[1] linked to Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen over the weekend in one of the largest such attacks there in months[2], officials[3] from both countries said Monday.

[1] Note that the story leads with “militants” instead of “alleged militants.” Technically this difference is solved by the reference to “officials … said” at the end of the sentence. Still, the lede creates an initial impression that the individuals killed were indeed militants, rather than signalling to the reader that the issue might be contested. This kind of formulation — asserting militancy as fact, and later attributing those claims to officials — occurs frequently throughout this story. Given the anonymity of the official claims, repeated cases in which official claims have subsequently proven unreliable, the difficulty of determining “militancy,” and what is at stake in the categorization, the NYT could assist its readers by including more nuance in such coverage. In addition to signals such as “alleged,” some stories could place an initial reference to “militants” in scare quotes.

[2] It is a significant understatement to call this one of the largest attacks in “months.” If the reported casualties are accurate, the weekend strikes were one of the largest attacks in the history of US strikes in Yemen. Prior attacks resulting in such large numbers of deaths in a short amount of time include the July-August 2013 cluster of strikes (9 strikes, 31-49 estimated deaths), March 2012 strikes, and the December 2009 al-Majala strike.

[3] As is often the case in news pieces on US “targeted killings,” the bulk of the information in this story is sourced to unnamed “officials” from both Yemen and the United States. In this story, anonymous officials are cited frequently throughout; yet CIA, Pentagon, and White House spokespersons refused to comment or to comment specifically on these strikes.
At least three airstrikes were carried out against Qaeda fighters[4] in a convoy and in remote training camps in southern Yemen. They were militants who were planning to attack civilian and military facilities[5][6], government officials said in a statement.

[4] Note that the reference to “officials said” drops from sentences such as this one, and now terms like “Qaeda fighters” have neither that qualification nor a qualification like “alleged.”

[5] According to other news outlets — such as Reuters and Agence France-Presse – Yemeni official statements included the fact that these facilities were in Bayda province. This is important because it would suggest the militants were not directly threatening US persons. (And President Obama’s new rules of May 23, 2013 limit US lethal actions to threats only to US persons.) Are you curious as to whether Reuters/AFP got this right, and the NYT missed its relevance? The official statement on the Yemeni Defense Ministry’s website identifies Bayda as the target.

[6] It is striking that in light of such a “massive and unprecedented” operation, there has not been more reporting on what exactly the militants were allegedly up to.
Yemen’s Interior Ministry said Monday that as many as 55 militants had been killed, but a senior Yemeni official put the figure in the 40s.[7][8] The government’s statement also acknowledged that three civilians had been killed and five wounded in one of the airstrikes on Saturday.

[7] It would be helpful to inform the reader that Yemeni official statements like these have in the past proven wrong after time passes following a strike.

[8] Such widely varying numbers should raise questions about the quality of the intelligence before (as well as after) the strikes. The poor quality of these numbers also raises questions about whether the US and Yemeni authorities were able to know — in advance — that no civilians were at risk of being killed. (This is important because President Obama’s new rules of May 23 permit lethal force only if there is “near certainty” that civilians “will not be injured or killed.”)
Yemeni officials said they were working to identify those killed[9] in the attacks. As part of a campaign using armed drones in Yemen, the United States has been trying to kill Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, and Ibrahim al-Asiri, the group’s master bomb maker. But American officials said Monday that those men were not the intended targets in these strikes.[10]

[9] This phrase may mean the officials are certain that all the individuals killed were militants, and the government is simply working to determine their specific roles and identities. That said, the phrase also raises questions about the quality of intelligence before the strike. If the intelligence was lacking, how certain were the US and Yemeni governments that the targets were only militants and not also civilians? How certain were they that the militants were “leading elements” of AQAP, as Yemen’s government alleged?

[10] This is a major revelation. It contradicts rumors and speculation that Asiri was a target of the operations, and notably it contradicts an earlier report by the Long War Journal which concluded that he was a target.
The precise role of the United States in the airstrikes and ground operations was not immediately clear. American officials said the airstrikes had been carried out by drones operated by the Central Intelligence Agency, but an agency spokesman declined to comment. Other officials said American Special Operations military personnel had supported the Yemeni operations on the ground with intelligence and possibly logistical assistance.[11] The Pentagon declined to discuss the operations.

[11] This is also a major revelation. It also raises specific concerns about whether the US is now fighting a domestic insurgency alongside the Yemeni government. As with reports that the US military may pilot CIA drones, these operations in Yemen also show the need for a more nuanced understanding of the CIA’s vs. Pentagon’s roles in targeted strikes–more nuanced than common accounts otherwise suggest. This would be a fruitful area for investigation.
The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, referred all questions about the operations, which started on Saturday and continued past midnight on Sunday, to the Yemeni government,[12] and he spoke only in broad terms about the counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries.

[12] Might Carney’s statement involve an implicit form of endorsement of the Yemeni government’s representation of the facts?
“We have a strong collaborative relationship, as you know, with the Yemeni government and worked together on various initiatives to counter the shared threat we face from A.Q.A.P.,” said Mr. Carney, referring to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

American officials sought to play down the United States’ role and to allow Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s president, to bolster his domestic credibility and claim credit for the operations.[13] They had a troubled relationship with the longtime president who preceded him, Ali Abdullah Saleh, but they have voiced confidence in Mr. Hadi and increased aid to the country.

[13] This statement is potentially more nefarious than first meets the eye. Recall the Wikileaks cable from General Petraeus’s meeting with Yemen’s then-President Saleh:

“‘We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,’ Saleh said, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke that he had just ‘lied’ by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the ROYG [Republic of Yemen Government].’”
The drone attacks were the largest barrage of airstrikes carried out in Yemen this year — 11 in all so far, according to The Long War Journal, a website that tracks drone strikes — and one of the largest strikes carried out since President Obama outlined a new strategy last May for targeting Qaeda militants in battlefields outside Afghanistan.

In his speech in May, Mr. Obama said targeted killing operations were carried out only against militants who posed a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people.” He also said no strike could be authorized without “near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” a bar he described as “the highest standard we can set.”[14]

[14] Hallelujah! It is terrific to see a news report squarely raise these two questions. Despite significant media coverage of these strikes, to our knowledge, Schmitt’s piece was the first to do this so explicitly. The strike standards are set forth in a government document, “U.S. Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities.” Only a summarized version of the document is publicly available. When the standards were released on May 23, 2013, we raised initial questions about their content and we expressed concerns about the continuing lack of transparency. It is important to raise those same questions and concerns in light of the events in Yemen and elsewhere.
Given that the administration would not even confirm that American drones carried out the strikes over the weekend, it was unclear how the people targeted in the strike posed a threat to Americans.[15] The Qaeda affiliate has in the past targeted the United States Embassy in Sana, the Yemeni capital.

[15] This is a very important assessment, and again raises a key question about the strikes. Given that it remains completely unanswered, it is precisely the kind of questioning that should appear in news reports. When the last significant series of strikes occurred in Yemen in July-August 2013, news reports routinely quoted from officials who claimed that al Qaeda was planning to attack US embassies. We are surprised that there has been so little reporting now about what specific threat these alleged militants posed to “US persons.” There may be sound reasons that justify the US assisting Yemen with attacks against threats to Yemeni installations or persons, but the US has been very clear that it will strike only if there is a threat to US persons.
The raid by Yemen’s Counterterrorism Unit late Sunday, which occurred on the main road connecting the southern province of Shabwa with the adjacent province of Marib, culminated nearly 48 hours of intensive airstrikes.

“The operation delivers a strong message to the criminal and terror operatives that the armed forces and security personnel are ready to foil and thwart terrorist acts in any time and place,” Mr. Hadi said in the government’s statement.

The statement said three airstrikes had destroyed al Qaeda training camp in a remote mountainous area in Abyan, a southern province, killing two dozen militants, including foreign fighters.

The government said several other airstrikes had targeted vehicles and militants in Abyan, Shabwa and Bayda Provinces.

Mohsen Labhas, a resident of Al Lahab, a village near a highway that connects the cities of Ataq and Bayhan in Shabwa Province, said that after hearing gunfire on Sunday night, he and other residents jumped in their cars and raced to the scene. They were met by American drones and helicopters.[16] “We abandoned our car since we thought that the aircraft might target us, but it turned out that it warned us from approaching the area,[17]” he said.

[16] The use of helicopters — manned, low-flying aircraft — is important in considering whether the US is now a party to an internal armed conflict in Yemen. Unlike drones, helicopters expose US forces to risk of casualties, which may implicate whether congressional authorization is required. (See also the reference above to the US providing support “on the ground with intelligence and possibly logistical assistance.”)

[17] Assuming the witness accurately understood these events, it is very positive to see reporting — in the context of targeted killings and drone strikes — on efforts taken by the US and Yemen to warn civilians, and to keep civilians away from areas of active fighting. We do not recall such efforts being reported in relation to previous strikes.
“Nearly half an hour later, the aircraft fired a missile at a target on the ground,” Mr. Labhas said.

A strike on Saturday morning targeted a vehicle in Bayda Province, killing 10 militants and wounding one, according to the Yemeni government. It said intelligence had indicated that the fighters were planning to attack important installations.

“Regrettably, three civilians were also killed during the attack and five were injured when their pickup truck unexpectedly appeared[18][19] next to the targeted vehicle,” the statement said.

[18] Given the central role that allegations of civilian deaths and injuries have played in targeted killing debates, we were surprised to see the details about this aspect of the operations so far down in the article. Nevertheless, it is important to note that it has been rare for officials to acknowledge so quickly that civilians were killed. This is a positive step, and we hope it signals a new approach to responding to civilian harm. Finally here, one news story can’t do everything, but it would be good to see some journalists now follow up this story to investigate whether the governments pay compensation to these victims and families, and whether there is any form of public acknowledgement to the families of these mistakes and an explanation of their family members’ deaths.

[19] The civilian vehicle “unexpectedly appeared”? This suggests an answer to earlier questions raised by some commentators about whether the civilians were killed simply by accident, or whether they were targeted on the mistaken assumption that they were al Qaeda. Yet the claim that the civilian vehicle unexpectedly appeared raises its own questions, particularly about what precautions are taken before attacks, how a “near certainty” standard is applied in practice, and whether the technical capacities drones have to enable precision targeting match the capabilities often claimed by officials.

Perverse–These are the people making the day to day decisions about defending the country…

Heated as I am over WikiLeaks and our government’s response to it, I have tried to resist taking up this blog with my ire but to read:

“The Air Force is barring its personnel from using work computers to view the Web sites of The New York Times and more than 25 other news organizations and blogs that have posted secret cables obtained by WikiLeaks, Air Force officials said Tuesday.”  Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/15/us/15wiki.html

is more than I can take.  The Department of Defense is pointing out that this did not come from it, distancing itself  from the Air Force leaders who did  it.  The  article concludes as follows:

“Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, a secrecy specialist, said dozens of agencies, as well as branches of the military and government contractors, had issued their own policy instructions based on the Office of Management and Budget memo.

“It’s a self-defeating policy that will leave government employees less informed than they ought to be,” Mr. Aftergood said.”

That Office of Management and Budget memo instructed government employees not to read these documents on websites of newspapers, on either office or home computers.

This means effectively, as Mr. Aftergood says, that government employees will be less informed than they ought to be or than the public.  There is something extraordinarily twisted in the thinking behind such decisions.  The WikiLeaks news stories are interesting and revelatory to me but I am completely outside any context in which the information is useful to me or  to the national defense.  Unless the government calls to active service 67 year-old one time first lieutenants, that is.  Presumably some significant fraction of government employees might actually see the day when something remembered from these stories “clicked” for them and the remainder of government employees should be put at no disadvantage just for being interested in what their government is doing, as I am.

WikiLeaks telling the truth, DOD lying…Didn’t we have an election for “change” in 2008?

The following are to tease you into reading the full Glenn Greenwald piece in Salon which seems to show that the Department of Defense isn’t as worried about Taliban retribution against Afghans who help us as it is in “getting” WikiLeaks:

“UPDATE II:  Sean-Paul Kelley, who very harshly criticized WikiLeaks for the lack of redactions in the released documents, today, to his immense credit, re-considers and retracts that criticism in light of the evidence presented here.

UPDATE III:  Newsweek‘s Mark Hosenball follows up on the issues raised here in a new article today, with more evidence proving that WikiLeaks has been attempting to secure the Pentagon’s cooperation in redacting names — exactly as Assange has been explaining — while the Pentagon has been issuing multiple false denials of these facts.  Shouldn’t anyone who criticized WikiLeaks for its lack of redactions also be criticizing the DoD for refusing WikiLeaks’ requests for redaction assistance (and then falsely denying it happened)?”

Please read the following from Greenwald:  http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/08/20/wikileaks

EFF, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Once More Serves the Public Interest

What follows is an excerpt from the story, chosen to provide necessary background and then a clinching argument against the earlier ruling (note the indented paragraph).  It is amazing that executive branch can get away with these intrusions into our lives without having to justify itself to a court.  Don’t hesitate to read the entire story.

August 13th, 2010

EFF Files Appeal of Warrantless Wiretapping Case Jewel v. NSA

News Update by Cindy Cohn

EFF today asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate its landmark case against the federal government for warrantlessly wiretapping millions of ordinary Americans. The case, called Jewel v. NSA is part of EFF’s ongoing efforts to Stop the Spying.

In January, the District Court dismissed the case on the incorrect argument that, because so many Americans have had their communications and communications records illegally obtained by the government, no single person has legal “standing” to challenge the ongoing program of government surveillance. This is incorrect because the number of people harmed — here the number of people whose personal communications and communications records were improperly obtained by the government — simply has nothing to do with whether the case can or should be adjudicated.

EFF’s brief says:

Unless corrected, the District Court’s ruling risks creating a perverse incentive for the government to violate the privacy rights of as many citizens as possible in order to avoid judicial review of its actions. Neither the Constitution nor the settled statutory structure protecting the privacy of Americans’ communications allows such a result. The District Court’s dismissal of Plaintiffs’ claims must be reversed.

I’m not the the only one…What It’s Like Inside the Head of a Reactant Person–HBR Research Blog

What It’s Like Inside the Head of a Reactant Person

9:58 AM Tuesday June 1, 2010
by Andrew O’Connell  | Comments (7View)

“When I was younger, I used to go to cocktail parties and listen to what people were talking about and deliberately insert myself into conversations to argue positions that I didn’t believe in but that seemed entertaining to advocate. Sometimes to the detriment of my friendships.”

This is Gavan Fitzsimons of Duke’s Fuqua school, speaking about trait reactance, an issue that’s central to his current research, vitally important to businesses — and personally important to him.

“The reason I got into studying reactance years ago as a doctoral student is that it’s an issue I struggle with — my family would say ‘suffer from,'” he says.

Reactance, a burgeoning field of social-psych study, refers to the backlash response to a perceived threat to freedom. You can provoke reactance a million ways: By limiting people’s choices, as Wal-Mart did when it wiped more than 300 familiar products off its shelves last year; by telling people that they have to pay a tax on tea, as the British Parliament did in 1773; and even by doling out expert advice, as countless climate-change activists have been doing (thus the recent finding that numerous people are rejecting the concept of global warming).

But not everyone responds to freedom threats with the same level of vehemence. The biggest backlash comes from people with high trait reactance, which is more or less a very sensitive you’re-trying-to-control-me internal meter. Highly reactant people do the opposite of what authority figures expect of them.

“One of the agreement-or-disagreement items in our kit for measuring trait reactance in research subjects is the statement ‘I find contradicting others stimulating,'” Fitzsimons says. “That’s classic trait reactance. And that’s me.”

People with high trait reactance boycott stores that annoy them. They dump tea in Boston Harbor. They stop believing climate-change experts. They also have a tendency to get themselves into trouble in organizations.

“Reactance can be costly for the individual, there’s no question,” Fitzsimons says. “But there are some real positives in an organization to having someone bristle against the path that everybody is following. If everyone is yea-saying, you really want a reactant person around to say ‘Hold on a second, this is ridiculous’ and push for considering alternatives.”

He adds: “Of course, if you have too many people saying that, it becomes problematic.”

One of the issues he’s planning to study is the impact of reactant people on teams. “Our speculation is that a mix of high-reactance and low-reactance people leads to better team outcomes. We hypothesize that an all-low-reactance team will converge too quickly on a consensus opinion, and an all-high team will battle too much. In fact, it’s quite possible that from a societal perspective, it’s good for populations to be a mixture of high- and low-reactance individuals.”

And it’s probably good for high-reactance people to marry low-reactance people. “Having two people who are both highly reactant seems like a recipe for disaster,” Fitzsimons says. He speaks from experience: His wife, he says, “has mastered the art of managing me.”

Andrew O’Connell is an editor with the Harvard Business Review Group.

Online contact says he turned in analyst who wanted to leak information

The Washington Post (link below) carries this story of a Defense Department investigation of an intelligence analyst who may have leaked classified information to the whistle-blower website wikileaks.

It is certainly understandable why intelligence organizations would regard wikileaks as a serious threat to classified information as well as covert activities and operatives.  What seems absent or understated in the piece and the comments is that the threat from wikileaks and any other sources of this material would be greatly mitigated for the government, if leaks originating from politicians who leak for political advantage were stopped or prosecuted and agencies that hide incriminating or ambiguous information from public evaluation were to stop classifying so much that is worthless or only valuable for a short time and accelerate declassification of information.  It would take a while to have any favorable effect but trust would likely increase, immediately there would be less to leak and the public would be better informed.

One of the items leaked was a video of a helicopter assault on innocents.  Surely by this time the leadership of our governments, past, present and future, recognizes the futility of classifying this kind of material.  I just intuitively know that I am not that much more intelligent than Obama, Gates and Holder.  So why keep doing it and then complaining when it leaks?

One explanation is that the intelligence agencies don’t like President Obama and opening up would destroy morale.  That’s not just nonsense, its silly.  Intelligence agencies are populated by people who know that killing innocents is wrong.  They also know that it has a punitive cost and should.  They didn’t just get taught that in training, they learned it as children and it has been a part of their moral upbringing as it has for the rest of us.  By that logic, BP should not be criticized over the spill because its hard-working employees will become depressed.  I suspect many of them are already depressed by the spill and regret it as deeply as any.  I also suspect that the depressed ones who are involved in the clean-up are not less motivated to straighten things out because of their depression.

I am convinced that a government that plays by the rules it has set for itself and others will regain trust and diminish, in this case, leaks.  I am also convinced that a government that pursues leakers who are not part of the political élite and insiders to the items unnecessarily classified, will have more leaks to deal with, not fewer, and one of these days a leak will damage our national security irreparably.  There are examples of leaks having done so before now and before wikileaks.

Online contact says he turned in analyst who wanted to leak information.

The Important Difference Between “Whistle-blowers” and “Leakers”

In an excellent LA Times Opinion piece by Jesselyn Radack concerning the indictment of Thomas Drake for providing information to a then Baltimore Sun reporter, Siobhan Gorman, now with the Wall Street Journal (and my favorite reporter on national security issues), there is a short explanation of the difference between whistle-blowers and leakers as well as a point we should notice about how the government tends to treat them equally despite laws distinguishing them.  See:  http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-radack-20100427,0,754088.story

“Unfortunately, the terms “leaking” and “whistle-blowing” are often used synonymously to describe the public disclosure of information that is otherwise secret. Both acts have the effect of damaging the subject of the revelation. But leaking is quite different from blowing the whistle. The difference turns on the substance of the information disclosed. The Whistleblower Protection Act protects the disclosure of information that a government employee reasonably believes evidences fraud, waste, abuse or a danger to public health or safety. But far too often, whistle-blowers are retaliated against, with criminal prosecution being one of the sharpest weapons in the government’s arsenal.”

Telling a reporter about the waste of billions by the NSA is not revealing anything that negatively effects national security; it is the waste itself, a good subject for investigation, not the whistle-blower.