The armed drones free-for-all at the CIA

Buried in a December 2014 New York Times article was this passage that has been knocking around in my head ever since:

During the presidential campaign in 2008, Mr. Obama railed against the [Central Intelligence A]gency’s use of torture and secret prisons during the Bush administration, and shuttered the detention program during his first week in office. But he has empowered the agency in other ways — including allowing its director, not the White House, to make the final decisions about drone strikes in Pakistan.

In other words, an agency that has actively resisted Congressional oversight attempts (to the point of hacking Senate computers) now doesn’t even have Executive oversight — or oversight by any elected civilian — when blowing people away with missiles. The CIA drones program has the power the make literal life and death decisions day in and day out with nobody externally keeping track of it or authorizing individual strikes.

Worse, these strikes aren’t even targeting high-profile people most of the time. Or even any-profile people. The use of so-called “signature strikes” — where they bomb a physical or moving target that has the visual “signature” of something that might be terrorists — by the CIA has become commonplace. These strikes aren’t based on any actual intelligence suggesting someone worth targeting is there. The target just “fits a profile.” That’s how innocent wedding parties get bombed instead of terrorist convoys.

A recent op-ed in The Guardian looked at the general lawlessness and lack of rules surrounding the paramilitary use of drones by the CIA:

After the “rules” were announced in 2013, the Associated Press reported that the US was going to stop signature strikes everywhere, including in Pakistan. Then we found out, through the Wall Street Journal, that actually, no, the president issued a secret waiver for Pakistan and part of the rules didn’t apply there. Now just this week, we’ve learned from the Washington Post that Obama, at some point, issued another waiver on the “imminent” rule for Yemen, allowing the CIA to continue signature strikes there unabated. According to their report: “US officials insisted that there was never a comprehensive ban on the use of signature strikes in that country” to begin with.

In other words, a key part of the drone “rules” Obama laid out in public don’t apply in the two countries where the CIA conducts virtually all of its drone strikes. Oh, and the “imminent threat” rule doesn’t apply in Afghanistan either, the only other country where the US military is regularly conducting its strikes.

We should probably keep foreign intelligence collection and analysis in one agency and keep military activities in the military. Unaccountable paramilitaries are never a good development for any country — particularly not a democracy.

MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt via Wikimedia)

MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt via Wikimedia)

The war in Yemen has begun in earnest now

After years of slowly building chaos, The Houthi force is moving against Aden, the government-in-the-south has fled the country, and — as of tonight — the Royal Saudi Air Force has launched an operation into Yemen under the GCC (or possibly the Arab League) at the request of the fallen government.

Flag of Yemen

Flag of Yemen

10 countries are participating in the operation already: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco, and Sudan are all said to be participating, with logistical and intelligence support from the United States.

The involvements of Egypt, Pakistan, Morocco, and Sudan are very unexpected and indicate a much wider operation than anticipated. It also strongly suggests that Saudi Arabia was leaning heavily on every government in the Middle East, North Africa, East Africa, and South Asia to whom it has given a lot of money previously. Saudi Arabia is cashing in every favor for a blistering war against the quasi-Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, unlike with the rather lackadaisical coalition to support the United States against ISIS in Syria. Qatar, which sent no jets at all in the Syria campaign, sent 10 tonight.

Bahrain, which only participated minimally on the first day of the Syria raids, also sent 15 jets. Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy also “owes” Saudi Arabia for brutally suppressing their own Shia uprising in 2011 (during the Arab Spring) with GCC shock troops.

The UAE and Jordan also sent plenty of bombers over Yemen in the initial hours, in a marked contrast from their wavering in the Syria campaign.

This massive undertaking should, in my opinion, also be taken as a clear signal that Saudi Arabia firmly prioritizes the “threat” from Iran and Iranian proxies (which include the Houthis in Yemen but also 100,000 anti-ISIS fighters across Iraq and Hezbollah anti-ISIS units in western Syria) well above the threat from ISIS, despite tough talk on the latter some months ago.

Meanwhile, Iran has countless military advisers and trainers on the ground assisting the huge Iraqi campaign to re-take Tikrit from ISIS, has been providing close-air support and bombers against ISIS all over the Iraqi skies, and reportedly may even have 30,000 regular troops fighting in Iraq directly.

If I’m looking at the facts and figures, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League in general — the purported American allies — are doing far less to combat ISIS than Iran, even if you buy the theory that Iran’s support for Assad accidentally helped create ISIS in the first place.

This war in Yemen against the Houthis, which Saudi Arabia has been stirring up violently for years, seems essentially to be more of an indirect war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

And this doesn’t even begin to touch the actual al Qaeda presence in Yemen.