Today, the CIA and U.S. military managed to kill Anwar al-Awlaki with a missile strike from an unmanned drone. His death, and those of the terrorists/bodyguards with him in his convoy is another victory in the war against those who use a peaceful faith as an excuse to foment violence in pursuit of a political cause.
I noticed an article in the New York Times today that discussed the debate continuing in political, legal, and public forums about what the ‘proper’ course of action is in dealing with people like al-Awlaki.
The options for dealing with terrorists like al-Awlaki are pretty straightforward. Kill or capture them. The instance of al-Awlaki presents a different issue in the minds of some – he was an American citizen.
As an American citizen, some people offer the opinion that al-Awlaki should have been treated differently. He should perhaps have been captured by local law enforcement.
The Obama Administration obviously thought differently, and as it has done since the beginning of President Obama’s Presidency, it has continued (and argued for in court) most of the Bush Administration’s policies in what is now called the War on Al-Qaeda.
Let’s consider the premise of capturing al-Awlaki or another U.S. citizen operating overseas to further the aims of a terrorist organization carrying on a war against America. If this terrorist is living and conducting his operations in the United Kingdom, then capturing him becomes a relatively simple thing, conducted within the rule of law. The UK has an excellent police force, not to mention MI-5 (the domestic security service, a well established court system, and a system of government from the local to the national level that is largely uncorrupted and supported by the people. All of this presents a permissive environment within the UK that would enable the arrest, interrogation, and trial of such a person, under the rule of law. Nice and comparatively neat, isn’t it?
Now we need to consider the more realistic scenario. Most of these terrorists, be they Americans, Yemenis, Afghanistanis, or Iraqis, usually work in countries like Somalia, Yemen, the uncontrolled border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, etc. In many of these cases, there is no rule of law as we understand and experience it here in the West. No strong system of courts. No well trained and professional modern police or internal security force with well trained forensic scientists to back them up. Even worse, no supportive population of citizens to set the conditions to allow those kinds of institutions to flourish, and thus create a more supportive population of citizens.
Terrorists operate in these areas precisely because the conditions in these nations make it easier for them to operate and in some cases enable or aid them. It cannot be reasonably argued that the U.S. could approach the government or internal security services (assuming they exist at all) for assistance and permission to arrest, and then deport a terrorist. It is likely the target of such an arrest would be tipped off by members of the government or internal security services (either for money or because of some ideological sympathy). Further, attempting to make a case in a U.S. court room against such people, where the rules of evidence are very strict, would be impossible for a couple of reasons. It would require the compromise of U.S. intelligence sources and methods, which would endanger American security; and collecting evidence on a battlefield or in a non-permissive environment in any country would never be able to meet the standards of evidence required in a U.S. courtroom.
This issue will undoubtedly continue to be debated, but we are left with the only practical option, one the Bush Administration started, and the Obama Administration has expanded upon – send in the drones or the Special Forces and kill them.
It seems that every couple of months or so, some professional news outlet, or the on-line site WikiLeaks, releases or reports what is described as classified material. Once an organization or entity reports it, other professional journalists tend to jump on the story quickly, hitting up their sources and reporting on the story in whatever unique way or angle they believe they can.
Today’s case in point is the Washington Post’s initial reporting (based initially on a WikiLeaks release of classified State Department cables between the U.S. and the host governments), on the locations of the bases used to purportedly launch and recover unmanned drones like the MQ-9 REAPER. These drones are used, in part, to carry the U.S. war against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates directly to the leaders in those organizations. REAPER drones have launched missiles and bombs directly at identified Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda affiliate leaders to kill them with pinpoint strikes, giving the U.S. an unmatched capability to strike and limit collateral damage, while reducing risk to U.S. forces.
The Post reporting picked up and expanded upon by Fox News today, is obviously something that would be judged a ‘newsworthy’ item by an editor. There is just one problem. The revelation of even the general location of these bases has placed the lives of American military personnel in extreme danger.
Did the Washington Post or Fox News provide specific geographic coordinates for these bases? No. Did the classified cables posted on the WikiLeaks site? I’m not going to look and find out (I have no interest in making WikiLeaks think they are providing a useful service.) It doesn’t matter if they did or not. Anyone with any reasonable amount of deductive reasoning and an Internet connection can look at the publicly available information on the MQ-9’s performance characteristics, check Google Earth for the overhead imagery of the airfields capable of allowing a REAPER to land in country X, and then send people to stay in nearby towns for a day or two and wait to see a REAPER takes off from, or lands at the airfield nearby to confirm the presence of the drones. And Al-Qaeda has more than proven itself to have people capable of deductive reasoning and Internet access and usage.
What comes next is obvious. Al-Qaeda conducts a little more reconnaissance of the security at the airfield, some planning, obtains some weapons and explosives, and conducts a little more planning. Suddenly there is an attack on the airfield, killing the American military members who act as the REAPER’s ground crew and maintenance team, and damaging or destroying one or more of the drones at the base. Al-Qaeda gains a propaganda windfall within the Arab world and the Jihadist community, while a few more American soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines are shipped home in coffins to grieving family members.
So where is the problem? The problem is the person or persons who leaked the State Department cables to WikiLeaks that kicked off the journalistic process of ‘they reported the news worthy item, why don’t we?’ inside the editorial offices and journalist’s minds.
The U.S. news outlets can’t be faulted for anything other than what I view as being in ‘rush to publish’ mode and what I view as less than ideal judgement. The Constitution of the United States explicitly allows the freedom of the press, but I will argue that in my personal opinion, the editors at the Post and Fox News should have recognized the potential danger and elected not do a story on the leaked cables. However, they are journalists first, and I’m sure they did not see (or likely consider) the potential repercussions beyond the immediate gratification of trumpeting this previously unknown facet of U.S. drone operations before more of their colleagues did, and the perceived ‘luster’ of the story faded.
What can be done is that the people who leaked the cables need to be identified by the appropriate law enforcement agencies, investigated, and prosecuted within the fullest extent of all applicable laws. They have compromised the security of the United States and its allies in a time of war, imperiled U.S. confidential diplomatic discourse with other nations, and potentially endangered the lives of U.S. and Allied military personnel. If any U.S. or Allied service member or person is harmed or killed by the leak of this information, the individuals who leaked the cables should also be charged as accomplices to assault or murder.