The wrong man for the C.I.A.
With the resignation of David H. Petraeus, President Obama now has a chance to appoint a new C.I.A. director. Unfortunately, one of the leading candidates for the job is John O. Brennan, who is largely responsible for America’s current flawed counterterrorism strategy, which relies too heavily on drone strikes that frequently kill civilians and provide Al-Qaeda with countless new recruits. Rather than keeping us safe, this strategy is putting the United States at greater risk.
For all of the Obama administration’s foreign policy successes — from ending the war in Iraq to killing Osama Bin Laden — the most enduring policy legacy of the past four years may well turn out to be an approach to counterterrorism that American officials call the “Yemen model,” a mixture of drone strikes and Special Forces raids targeting Al-Qaeda leaders.
Mr. Brennan is the president’s chief counterterrorism adviser and the architect of this model. In a recent speech, he claimed that there was “little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for A.Q.A.P.,” referring to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Mr. Brennan’s assertion was either shockingly naïve or deliberately misleading. Testimonies from Qaeda fighters and interviews I and local journalists have conducted across Yemen attest to the centrality of civilian casualties in explaining Al- Qaeda’s rapid growth there. The United States is killing women, children and members of key tribes. “Each time they kill a tribesman, they create more fighters for Al-Qaeda,” one Yemeni explained to me over tea in Sana’a, the capital, last month. Another told CNN, after a failed strike, “I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined Al-Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake.”
Rather than promote the author of a failing strategy, we need a C.I.A. director who will halt the agency’s creeping militarization and restore it to what it does best: collecting human intelligence. It is an intelligence agency, not a lightweight version of Joint Special Operations Command. And until America wins the intelligence war, missiles will continue to hit the wrong targets, kill too many civilians and drive young men into the waiting arms of our enemies.
Without accurate on-the-ground intelligence, our policies will fail. George W. Bush launched two major ground invasions, and Mr. Obama has tried several smaller wars. Neither strategy has worked. In Yemen, which has been the laboratory for Mr. Obama’s shadow wars, A.Q.A.P. has more than tripled in size after three years of drone strikes. When the United States started bombing Yemen in 2009, A.Q.A.P. had just 200 to 300 fighters. Today, the State Department estimates it has a few thousand. Since 2009, the group has attempted to attack America on three occasions, coming closest on Dec. 25, 2009, when a would-be suicide bomber narrowly failed to bring down an airliner over Detroit. When it tries again — and it will — the organization will be able to draw upon much deeper ranks.
Not surprisingly, American officials reject the claim that current policy is exacerbating the problem. In June 2011, Mr. Brennan declared that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.” This came almost exactly a year after a botched drone attack in Yemen killed a deputy governor and four of his bodyguards instead of the intended target.
Under Mr. Brennan’s guidance, the United States has also adopted a controversial method for determining how many civilians it has killed, counting all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants. This means that Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old American citizen killed by a drone in October, was classified as a militant despite evidence that he was simply a shy teenager whose father happened to be Anwar Al-Awlaki, who had been killed by American missiles two weeks earlier.
The strikes Mr. Brennan asks the president to approve frequently lead to civilian casualties. Indeed, the first strike Mr. Obama ordered on Yemen, in December 2009, destroyed a Bedouin village that was mistaken for a terrorist training camp. American missiles killed more than 50 people, including 35 women and children. Watching that strike live on a grainy feed the military calls Kill TV, Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s top lawyer, later admitted, “if I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.”
Mr. Petraeus’s departure presents Mr. Obama with an opportunity to halt the C.I.A.’s drift toward becoming a paramilitary organization and put it back on course. For all of the technological advances America has made in a decade of fighting Al-Qaeda, it still needs all the old tricks it learned in the days before spy satellites and drones.
More and better human intelligence from sources on the ground would result in more accurate targeting and many fewer civilian casualties. That would be a Yemen model that actually worked and a lasting and more effective counterterrorism legacy for Mr. Obama’s second term.
Gregory D. Johnsen is the author of “The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia.”