Another Undeclared War
Spencer Ackerman’s latest piece for Wired is pretty chilling. Especially this part:
White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan didn’t say it on the Sunday chat shows, but there’s a plan gaining momentum within the Obama administration to expand the CIA’s “operational control” over “U.S. hunter-killer teams” from the Joint Special Operations Command tracking al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate. The Wall Street Journal reports that the proposal would let the U.S. “unilaterally” attack al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — the presumed (but not directly accused)culprits of the plot – while the Yemeni government retained “deniability” for counterterrorism raids. Most likely, that means official public denunciation of commando assaults and drone strikes from President Ali Abdullah Saleh while he privately winks at the operations and takes U.S. cash.
There are a few good reasons to get queasy about the possibility of another undeclared war (a “Pakistan 2.0, as Spencer puts it), but one of the things that really sticks with me is what this could do for an already severely engorged national security state. The Washington Post’s Top Secret America exposé faded from public consciousness far to quickly, but the essential problem it highlighted remains. Our defense/intelligence apparatus has a bigger budget than the total GDPs of more than a few countries, and yet its size and complexity means that no one is capable of grasping the extent of its activities or evaluating its effectiveness. Another undeclared war could mean more money for defense contractors, manufacturers, and consultants.
Of course, as Spencer is careful to stress, this would be the CIA’s baby. That should make everyone a little queasy; I’m with Matthew Yglesias in preferring to not have a CIA in the first place, but if we must have one, I’d prefer it not to be an instrument for prosecuting undeclared wars. At present we’re looking at an agency that seeks to fulfill many of the same functions as a military, but without even the pretense of public accountability. Greater involvement in Yemen would likely mean the solidification and expansion of that role.
And then what? Spencer writes that “bombarding al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan has led to the group’s reliance on its Yemen branch, which operates with relative impunity.” That’s the problem with a network of cells. If we put military (well, CIA and military contractor) pressure on the Yemen branch, what other cell is going to pick up the slack? Perhaps someone with greater knowledge of these things could assure me that in two years I won’t be reading an article about how, say, Somalia is to become Pakistan 3.0.
How much longer can the United States sustain this approach? And is there actually any way to reverse it?