Shadow Government

Tracing the path to Abbottabad

President Obama rightly gets credit for authorizing a daring and successful ground raid into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. But Obama is not a lone hero: it is instructive to trace the path U.S. policy took to get here over the last 25 years to demonstrate how presidents are always building on the groundwork laid by predecessors.

Covert action is authorized by a Presidential Finding. Findings are rare; more often, presidents sign Memoranda of Notification (MON) to further extend or modify an existing Finding. That is why to find the relevant finding behind the Abbottabad strike, we have to go all the way back to one signed in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan. The 1986 Finding describes the basic authorities for covert worldwide counterterrorism action by the military and intelligence community. The Finding was signed concurrently with the birth of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center (CTC), and finally started the slow gears of American bureaucracy churning against terrorists across the globe. Reagan was the first to make fighting terrorism official U.S. policy. (See Steve Coll's Ghost Wars).

President Bill Clinton signed a number of MONs further extending counterterrorism authorities, several specifically targeted at al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, according to the 9/11 Commission Report and Ghost Wars. The military and intelligence community designed several operations to either kill or capture bin Laden several times in the late 90s. Clinton was the first to make fighting al-Qaida U.S. policy.

President George W. Bush dramatically expanded the counterterrorism authorities with an expansive MON signed shortly after 9/11 (detailed in Woodward's Bush At War). The authorities enabled intelligence operatives and special operations forces to embed with the Afghan Northern Alliance and overthrow the Taliban in 2001 (see Gary Schroen's First In and Gary Berntsen's Jawbreaker). They also eventually gave birth to the rumored drone program (here is a fascinating website that attempts to track the rumored done strikes). But the drones are relevant for Abbottabad not because of their missiles, but because of their cameras and sensors; they've helped build up years and years of data about militants which analysts have been able to mine for the smallest detail, crucial in the hunt for bin Laden.

Perhaps most directly relevant for the road to Abbottabad, Bush made a few key changes to the counterterrorism programs in 2008. Frustrated by years of stalemate, he expanded the authorized target list, began to approve missions without prior Pakistani approval, and also authorized ground incursions into Pakistan to pursue al-Qaida. (see Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars, Chapter 1). Abbottabad was not the first widely-reported Navy SEAL incursion into Pakistan. Bush authorized a raid on the town of Angor Adda in September 2008 in pursuit of al-Qaida targets. The raid went poorly -- it was undertaken during Ramadan, when civilians were awake and feasting at night-Pakistani officials lashed out, and ground incursions were halted. But the precedent was set.

By the time Obama was faced with the compound in Abbottabad, he had the option of going in because of the large and sophisticated counterterrorism infrastructure and legal authorities built by his predecessors over a quarter-century. What Obama gets credit for is keeping these tools in place after he took office, and making full use of them. Unlike Clinton and his National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, Obama actually authorized a strike against bin Laden when given the chance. And Obama was not deterred by the scandal of Angor Adda. That previous ground incursion proves that Obama took real risks when authorizing the Abbottabad strike. If Abbottabad had failed, it may have permanently ended the U.S.'s ability to go after terrorists inside Pakistan (as well as critically weakening the Obama presidency).

Presidents usually get more blame for the bad and more credit for the good that happens on their watch. Obama rightly deserves high praise for authorizing the Abbottabad mission. But Obama was right to give credit to the unnamed military and intelligence professionals whose tireless work over a decade made this victory possible. And I appreciated that Obama called President Clinton and, especially, President Bush to tell them the news on Sunday night. They share in this victory too.


Shadow Government

Four tasks for Petraeus to fix the CIA

Appointing Gen. David Petraeus to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency might make good politics for Obama -- bottling Petraeus up in a strictly non-partisan position -- and may or may not be a good move for Petraeus, depending on his future ambitions. My interest is more prosaic: would the move be good for the CIA?

Possibly. Petraeus is not just smart: he is capable of challenging groupthink, which is exactly what the CIA needs. If Petraeus is ready to rewrite the book on intelligence the way he did, not just for counterinsurgency doctrine, but for the Army's culture as a whole, he could do wonders for the CIA. But if Petraeus lets himself go native or surrounds himself by the intelligence establishment, he'll just keep the chair warm for the next Director.

Let me say right off that I do not think the intelligence community is hopelessly broken, it does provide an irreplaceable service to policymakers and I have the highest respect for the folks I worked with during seven years at the CIA. But I do not think the taxpayers are getting the most bang for their buck. Here are a few things Petraeus  should tackle.

Get the analysts out of the shadows.

The Directorate of Intelligence (DI) has the capability of being a leading foreign affairs think tank in the world. Instead, it has largely limited itself to being a massive, overpriced, secretive magazine staff for a readership of one, pouring most of its resources in to the President's Daily Brief (PDB). Analysts live under a maze of restrictions that bar them from public activities, ostensibly to protect their objectivity and credibility. The restrictions are silly. Instead of enhancing their credibility, the restrictions just isolate them and make contact with other experts in their field difficult, awkward, and sporadic.

Analysts can and should be open and regular participants in the world of academia, think tanks, and conferences, encouraged to publish and speak on their areas of expertise. Their writing may actually have a larger impact if they focus less on the PDB and more on the broader foreign policy establishment, which is where policy is shaped in broad outline before it makes it to the President. Petraeus might even experiment with having the DI publish a regular, unclassified product. It's not like we keep our classified documents secret anyway.

Get the National Clandestine Service (NCS, or, to any self-respecting intelligence professional, the DO) to report gray information

The operations officers of the clandestine service are an invaluable tool of national security by collecting human intelligence. In non-spy lingo, that means they persuade foreigners to sell secrets. However, they focus exclusively on secrets. The service vets its reports to ensure that it is only reporting information that is sufficiently "clandestine." That is understandable: the NCS wants to ensure it is not duplicating the media or the State Department. However, the division between "open" information reported by the media and the State Department, and "secret" information reported by the NCS, is artificial. There is also gray information, stuff that is important, not strictly a secret, but also very hard to get. Tribal dynamics, for example, are not "secrets" but they are rarely reported with much detail or accuracy by anybody. In war zones and failed states, NCS officers are often the only people well-placed to observe and report this kind of information. They should be encouraged to do so, but that would require a profound cultural and institutional shift in what the NCS understands its mission to be.

Draw down the counterterrorism surge

A huge proportion of the intelligence community's assets were rightly diverted to tracking terrorists after 2001. But terrorism is unlikely to be the U.S.'s principle foreign policy challenge in coming decades. The principle challenges probably will include, at one pole, China and Russia, and, at the other pole, widespread state failure and anarchy in much of the world. Islamism, of the political, radical, extremist, or violent variety (pick your modifier), may also be a long-term challenge. But that is a broader challenge than al-Qaida's terrorist campaign and includes political, diplomatic, and economic facets to it. My sense is that we should rebalance the allocation of our resources away from CT and towards these broader challenges. Our heavy focus on counterterrorism is too narrow.

Tackle clientitis

Analysts and operatives can, on occasion, go native. They start to see the world through the perspective of the foreign country (Pakistan, to take a completely random example) on which they spend their careers. This destroys their objectivity and undermines their usefulness to U.S. policymakers. The solution is not simply to rotate personnel to different countries every few years, because that erodes their depth and expertise. We need to encourage depth without sacrificing perspective. Petraeus should form a cross-directorate task force to study the problem, develop ways to identify and track clientitis, and find ways to prevent or cure it.

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