America’s Reign of Terror?

Victims of drone attacks readied for burial in Miranshah, North Waziristan.

Victims of the January 23, 2009 American drone strike in Miranshah, Pakistan readied for burial. A recent Amnesty International/Human Rights Watch report criticizes President Obama’s drone policy for killing innocent civilians and under-reporting collateral damage. (Creative Commons/Mohammad Mujitaba)

Between September 1793 and July 1794, the National Convention of France operated a “Reign of Terror” defined by the mass execution of potential counterrevolutionaries in the name of national peace. One of the proponents of governing through terror, Maximilien Robespierre, argued: “terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible [and that] the government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” In other words, the government may suspend the inalienable rights of its citizens in times of crisis. The ends (peace) justify the means (terror).

On September 14, 2001, the United States Congress expanded the constitutional powers of the executive branch to include the legal authority “to retaliate against any person, organization, or State suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks on the United States, but also against foreign States suspected of harboring or supporting such organizations. Finally, the President may deploy military force preemptively against terrorist organizations or the States that harbor or support them, whether or not they can be linked to the specific terrorist incidents of September 11.” Post-9/11 national security laws have allowed for a permanent retaliatory war with unclear operational and legal boundaries.

The “Global War on Terror” certainly requires an extraordinary military response; the list of “legal” military responses has grown to include drone strikes and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) missions on potential terrorists in foreign states, states which Congress has not declared war on. The president may suspend the constitutional rights of citizens (by Amendments V and VI of the US Constitution ) and non-citizens (by Articles 3 and 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), in the name of peace. Once again, the ends justify the means.

Criticism of this “paramilitary arm of the administration” is well publicized. However, a new report released last week by Amnesty International in conjunction with Human Rights Watch has brought the Obama administration’s policy on global terrorism into the spotlight. The organizations claim that several drone strikes have been a “clear violation of international humanitarian law,” citing the failure to apply due process before applying the “capital punishment” administered by a Hellfire missile. Further, “Amnesty International has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions,” and that those responsible for ordering the aforementioned attacks (presumably President Obama and his military-intelligence team) should stand trial. (Note: The White House has challenged Amnesty International’s latest report, reiterating that all counterterrorism operations are “precise, lawful, and effective.”)

Drone strikes and JSOC missions are both morally and legally questionable as evidenced by the intentional killing of American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year old civilian living in Yemen, who was killed as punishment for his father’s (Anwar al-Awlaki) crimes and for who he might become—a terrorist made in his father’s image. Furthermore, these missions have a negative impact on America’s ability to effectively engage in diplomacy because of the anti-American distrust and resentment that grows in targeted regions.

I anticipate three defenses of President Obama’s drone policy and subsequent internal law and human right’s violations: (1) drone and JSOC strikes are effective in eliminating terrorist threats; (2) “terror” implies a murderous policy; and (3) war is ugly and why should the US government be indicted for trying to suppress terrorism? I would respond as follows:

(1) Yes, US drones possess deadly accuracy on selected targets and spare the endangerment of US troops in volatile regions such as the Afghani-Pakistani border. However, despite their precision, drone strikes, night raids, constant aerial surveillance—and most dramatically, the killing of innocent civilians—only fuel greater anti-American sentiment. Terrorism is as rampant and threatening as ever. Al-Qaeda and its global affiliates are expanding in spite of successful US operations to kill top commanders. America needs to “win hearts and minds”—drone strikes do not accomplish this goal.

(2) True, President Obama has never advocated the killing of civilians. In fact, he has publicly expressed regret about civilian causalities in war zones. But as in every conflict, civilians have died and the constant threat of a bellicose America is terrorizing people around the world. Exploded missile fragments can be found near kill sites in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan; to those finding these ordinances, the “Made in America” message is clear. Children in Pakistan have grown accustom to drone flyovers and are left wondering “am I next?” The CIA’s East African kill list has been contracted to Somali warlords. Perhaps the mother of all surprises has stemmed from Obama’s willingness to detain foreign journalists who speak out about errant American strikes. This is not a covert “Global War on Terror.” Citizens of Mali, Thailand, Panama, Yemen, and more than 70 other countries know all too well that they may become the next in a long line of unsuspecting victims, and from their perspective, America is to blame.

(3) Yes, war is ugly. Soldiers and civilians die at the hands of Allied and insurgent forces. Millions have been displaced. However, murdering—via drone strikes—over 400 innocent civilians in Pakistan is unacceptable, as is the murdering of American citizens abroad. And committing murder in the name of ending murder is nonsensical. But killing without oversight is undermining the very moral and legal fiber of the United States (not to mention bilateral relations with countries in which drone strikes have occurred) and international institutions such as the United Nations—the very institution established to end unchecked killing.

Civilians in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border refer to American JSOC forces as the “American Taliban.” In their eyes, America has become the very monster they promised to destroy. America has scarred and radicalized an entire generation, and as a result the number of “terrorists” will only grow. America’s “despotism of liberty against tyranny” must end, but how does a war like this end? Perhaps Yemeni political activist Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani’s advice is best: “In the fight against al-Qaeda and the extremism it represents, we can do it the easy way, by killing, and thus have to do it again and again, or the hard way and really solve the problem. To truly fight al-Qaeda and similar groups, we must deal with the root causes of its growth—poverty, injustice, lack of rule of law…and drone strikes.”

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

Update 11/4/13: correction made to the caption for accompanying photograph.

Why U.S. Russia-Centric Nuclear Policy is Obsolete

This past month, President Obama put forth America’s new global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament strategy in Berlin. In his remarks, the President included proposals for various initiatives including a new bilateral nuclear stockpile reduction plan with Russia, a pledge to initiate new treaties banning fissile material production, support of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the usual commitments to contain Iran and North Korea (Obama 2013). While these initiatives are productive for moving towards a nuclear-free world and containing short-term threats, the Administration’s new nuclear strategy fails to sufficiently address two pressing issues that represent great threats to long-term U.S. national and global security interests: the nuclear standoff between Pakistan and India, and the tactful development of China’s nuclear arsenal. It appears the U.S. is still operating in an immediate post-Cold War mindset where bilateral reductions between Russia and the U.S. remain the central theme of U.S. nuclear policy. However, if the U.S. is to ensure long-term global security, it should stop focusing on Russia and instead make Pakistan, India, and China top long-term priorities of global nonproliferation and disarmament efforts.

Negotiated bilateral reductions with Russia should no longer be the core of U.S. disarmament efforts. While the U.S. and Russia still maintain the greatest number of nuclear warheads- 7,700 and 8,500 total inventory, respectively- both sides have established command and control structures including advanced warning systems, vastly improved safeguards to prevent theft by transnational actors, and an established communication hotline to ameliorate any potential misunderstandings (Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation 2013). The former nemeses have learned valuable lessons from the Cold War and no longer represent a great threat to global security, especially as each state continues on a successful 20-year reduction in nuclear arms. The U.S. should instead direct its attention towards two countries that are engaged in a situation that may be much more dangerous than that of the Cold War: Pakistan and India.

Unlike the U.S. and Russia, both Pakistan and India are increasing the number of tactical nuclear weapons and lack the aforementioned communication and warning measures (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute 2013). Pair these alarming developments with Pakistan and India’s tumultuous history and a shared border, and the world has a serious threat of nuclear conflict. Indeed, a border skirmish or misinterpreted military training exercise could very well escalate to a nuclear conflict. In addition to the more traditional threat of nuclear war, Pakistan represents a dire nuclear proliferation threat. Some experts have asserted that Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world due to the possibility of transnational actors gaining access to its nuclear material (Cirincione 2012). Indeed, the Nuclear Threat Initiative ranks Pakistan 31/32 out of countries that possess weapons-usable nuclear material in terms of nuclear materials security (Nuclear Threat Initiative 2012). India lacks sufficient safeguards as well and therefore has received a poor rating of 28/32 (Nuclear Threat Initiative 2012). The U.S. should be making this potential hot zone a top priority of its nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament policy, not the Kremlin’s more secure, declining nuclear arsenal.

As Russia and the U.S. work towards decreasing their nuclear stockpiles, China is the only one of the five original nuclear weapons states that is increasing its nuclear arsenal (Kristensen and Norris 2011). Expert assessments of the number of Chinese nuclear warheads vary dramatically due to the opaque nature of China’s nuclear program. While the majority of experts agree that China maintains at least 250-300 nuclear warheads (Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation 2013), other reports indicates China maintains as many as 3,000 nuclear warheads (Wan 2011). China is also estimated to have produced enough plutonium and highly-enriched uranium for up to 1,660 warheads (Kristensen 2011). These estimates should be very alarming, but China’s growing arsenal is often under-addressed in public U.S. nuclear policy circles. Why? Certainly the entrenched economic relationship is a deterring factor from addressing China directly, but this should not prevent the U.S. from engaging China bilaterally and multilaterally on this issue. China is a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and can be easily brought into the disarmament conversation. Pakistan and India represent a greater challenge since they are not part of the NPT, but both countries could be included in the international nonproliferation regime through other less restrictive bodies, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group, for further engagement aimed at encouraging peaceful development of their respective civilian nuclear programs in exchange for reductions in nuclear warheads.

Current U.S. nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament efforts are ineffective at addressing long-term nuclear concerns. The U.S. Government is taking positive steps by hosting international forums such as the Nuclear Summit every 5 years, but these chat shops are not enough. The situation between Pakistan and India demands immediate attention and China needs to be called out on its growing nuclear weapons arsenal. As part of its overall nuclear strategy, the U.S. needs to make a central shift away from Russia in order to bilaterally and multilaterally engage China, India, and Pakistan. This pivot will be tricky because of competing U.S. strategic interests in Asia, and because India and Pakistan are not members of many established nonproliferation treaties and agreements. However, the U.S. should recognize that its long-term security interests necessitate inoculating these problems in their early stages rather than waiting for a nuclear disaster in South Asia or the emergence of an even more heavily-armed China.

The author would like to thank Bradlee McAuliffe and Matthew Woo for their contributions to this piece.

The Emerging Threat of Cyber Espionage Against US Economic Interests

Major Issues and Recommendations for a Stronger US Cyber Defense Capability

A comprehensive report recently released by Mandiant, a private information security firm, has confirmed China’s expansive cyber espionage operations against US private industry. This report has aroused debate in the public sphere regarding US cyber vulnerabilities. However, state-sponsored cyber espionage has been well documented as early as 2006 and has resulted in at least hundreds of terabytes of data theft (Mandiant 2013, 20). The main perpetrators have been identified as China, Russia, France, Israel, and most recently, countries in the Middle East such as Iran (Booz Allen Hamilton 2012, 8). Due to the increasing number of monthly cyber attacks on US economic interests, information security professionals in the private and public sectors have criticized the US Government’s inability to effectively address this growing concern. While the threat of catastrophic cyber warfare is often overhyped, the threat of economic espionage through cyber attacks is not, and public criticism of US cyber security vulnerabilities is valid.

Cyber espionage endangers America’s global economic prowess and national security. China, Russia, and other states continuously steal many years worth of R&D from private US companies to expedite their economic development. It is estimated that these efforts to increase political and military power via cyber espionage have resulted in the loss of tens of billions of dollars from US firms (Nakashima 2013). If left unaddressed, this growing threat could result in the theft of sensitive trade secrets that would severely impact national security, especially if the companies and data involved contain sensitive military secrets such as classified aircraft designs.

One of the greatest challenges in addressing cyber espionage is the current lack of effective attribution methods. This critical absence of sufficient detection techniques allows both state and non-state actors to conceal their roles in cyber espionage and therefore avoid public reprimands from the US Government and the international community (Economist 2012). In Russia, for example, the unique nexus between government, organized crime, and business makes Russian cyber attacks very difficult to track, especially since the government purportedly employs underground youth hacking networks to achieve its cyber espionage objectives (Smith 2012, 3). The US Government needs to increase its coordination efforts with private industry to develop more sophisticated cyber attack attribution techniques in order deter state actors from committing further economic espionage.

Efforts at collaboration between US Government entities and the private sector are hampered by a secretive and inconsistent US cyber policy. The Obama Administration has apparently begun drafting internal cyber security policy and has directed certain agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, to allocate more funding for cyber security initiatives (Sanger and Shanker 2013). However, many outside experts have indicated that the US Government and the private sector are not sufficiently collaborating to ameliorate the cyber threat (Wolf 2012, 11). The US Government cannot expect private businesses to defend themselves against the penetration efforts of foreign intelligence services. Therefore, policymakers and private industry leaders need to forge closer relations, develop a more coherent cyber defense policy, and share information regarding current threats and trends to provide for a stronger US cyber defense capability.