Covert Ops & Terrorist Assassinations
Saturday, March 11, 2006
Two excellent writers are having a discussion at Winds of Change regarding the viability of using special and covert operations to take out terrorists around the globe. I spent some time on the dark side during the drug war, so I have a dog in this fight. The standings so far have Joe Katzman on the pro and Marc “Armed Liberal” Danziger on the con. Joe sends:
“In "Democrats, Netroots, And Fantasy Policies," Marc said:
"Let me repeat; we're talking about taking unilateral (or semi-unilateral, with a "Band of brothers" type alliance) military action that results in killing or capturing people on foreign soil, using the people and resources of our military. And we're not going to do this as the exception, but as the root policy? Are they kidding?"
He backed up his argument that this is a Bad Idea in "Hit Squads and Pacifists," so definitely go read that. He's correct in noting that this is NOT a risk-free policy, on a number of levels. Having said that, I disagree with Marc that we cannot or should not do exactly this.”
I join Joe on the pro for several reasons, the simplest being that we should use any method available to ensure these barbaric killers don't achieve their goals. A well-aimed round ventilating the cranium-housing unit of a terrorist is near 100% effective at stopping him from doing much of anything but claiming his 72 goats .
Beyond that it forms another vital part of our overall strategy from more than just a military perspective. We lack a serious human intelligence gathering and exploitation capability and even efforts to help that are met with amazing opposition . The exploitation end includes using actionable intel to act on bad actors. But this intel is also what gives us insight that can be leveraged diplomatically to avoid open conflict. It can’t do this unless the credible threat of violence exists to cover the diplomat’s play. It is much easier to negotiate for access and assistance with countries where terrorists operate if they know we will go after the bad guys with or without their help. The mighty Von Clausewitz stated "War is the continuation of diplomacy by other means" well, covert ops are the continuation of secret back-room diplomacy by similar means.
Much of Marc's resistance to the idea rests in the unsavoriness of covert ops overall, with unaccountable good guys consorting with criminals and scum to further their efforts to scarf up terrorists or immanentize their eschaton ballistically. I agree that this necessarily involves dealing with some lesser bad guys to gain info on and access to the bigger bads. Marc assumes that we are incapable of doing this while maintaining our moral compass, and also that we will incur too much negative reaction globally.
The first concern is legitimate and I simply disagree with Marc and believe we can construct the moral and legal framework necessary to operate right on the edge. The alternative is to willfully forego the chance to stop a terrorist act by removing the actor. There is no reason to think this would be a 007 license to kill, with bands of roving operators build networks and becoming rogue powers unto themselves. The more this is run through the military special ops community rather than the CIA the safer I feel it will be done ethically and effectively.
The reaction to such actions is another vital concern, but one where I believe we gain by setting a precedent. Most of the areas we anticipate conducting intel gathering and actioning are developing countries. We should leave no doubt in the minds of the petty tyrants running most of these, that we reserve the right to take care of business if they are unknowing, unable or unwilling. As far as the developed world, we have good agreements with many allies about intel sharing and counter-terror operations, but I don't believe any treaty we have signed with anyone trumps our inherent right to self defense.
We receive information that an Al Qaeda leader is in Germany, but the last time we ran a joint op with the Germans the subject was tipped. We believe the leak came from German intel, do we bring them in again? Or do we scarf the bad guy up and then tell the Germans?
Sentiment around much of the world assumes we are already doing just these things, so from a PR standpoint,we really gain nothing by not doing them. From a practical one it would force bad guys everywhere to spend a little more time wondering what we might do if they start screwing around. My neighbor is a lot less likely to beat his wife, if he knows I kicked another neighbor's ass for beating his. Covert operations allow us to make a major impact with a minimal footprint and act as a military and diplomatic force multiplier. Terrorist groups are not very robust and the removal of important leaders can severely hamper their ability to project violence. A well thought out covert ops program with legitimate oversight is a necessary and effective tool in our war against the Islamists or any other vermin attempting to infest.
- Uncle J