Man Hunters.

Before the Second World War the United States possessed intelligence-gathering organizations that were derisory in comparison to those of the great powers. The War Department gathered information on the military capabilities of foreign states from military attaches; the State Department reported on political and economic developments; both War and State maintained signals intelligence (code-breaking) offices. However, the US possessed no “secret intelligence service” equivalent to the British MI-6 or the action services of other countries. During the Second World War, the US sought to make good this deficiency with the temporary Office of Strategic Services (OSS). After the Second World War, America’s new global role and the Cold War demanded an enhanced intelligence-gathering capability. In 1947, Congress created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to fill this role. Filled with wartime OSS veterans, the new agency had a predisposition to clandestine action, not just to intelligence gathering. Confronting the brutal Soviet KGB around the globe, CIA played a rough game. Eventually, CIA fell afoul of changed national values. The Church Committee hearings led to restrictions on CIA action like assassinations. From the mid-Seventies onward, CIA concentrated conventional intelligence-gathering and analysis.

Then came 9/11.[1] The scales fell from their eyes, or they had a Road to Damascus experience, or whatever other Biblical reference occurs to you. An executive order from President George W. Bush overturned the limits on action. CIA agents lashed out at Al Qaeda operatives wherever they came within reach. Some were killed, either by a rapidly-expanded paramilitary arm of CIA or by drone strikes. Some were captured and subjected to “enhanced interrogation.” In 2003, the US attacked Iraq, only to see early triumph turn into a gory insurgency that seemed to have no end. Soon, there came a backlash against both big wars and the use of torture.[2] A new consensus emerged: killing terrorists is acceptable, but torturing them is not. Certainly, it is less likely to get people keel-hauled by a Congressional committee. According to Mark Mazzetti, CIA “went on a killing spree.” Drones and commandos struck Islamists[3] in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. While banning the use of torture, President Barack Obama has continued all the other programs begun by the Bush administration.

Arguably, the results have been as disastrous, if not quite so dramatic, for American intelligence as for the Islamists hit by Hellfire missiles launched from Predator drones. In an Econ 101 analysis, multiple needs compete for finite resources. Resources (money, manpower, attention) spent “man-hunting” can’t be devoted to other needs. Yet the US faces multiple current, latent, and potential threats.

The CIA already suffered from maladaptation between the end of the Cold War and 9/11. Its budget fell as part of the “peace dividend”; spending on new technologies further reduced the resources for human intelligence-gathering and analysis; and its former strengths in Soviet and East European issues could not easily be shifted to new areas. (Pashto and Polish both begin with a P, but there the similarity ends.)

America’s political culture is having a hard time discussing the choice between long-term trends and immediate action. The recent murder of five servicemen by what looks like an Islamist “lone wolf” will only make “man-hunting” seem more vital than ever.

[1] Mark Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth (New York: Penguin, 2013).

[2] In 2004, CIA’s Inspector General condemned some of the practices as “unauthorized” and “inhumane.”

[3] Including the occasional American renegade who declined to surrender himself to more formal American justice.


Week End Update I.

In Western Civilization there is a deeply ingrained dread of human inventiveness. Witness the stories of Prometheus (fire) and Icarus (flight). Former reporter and novelist Dan Fesperman applies this lesson to contemporary drone warfare in a novel grounded in facts. The plot centers on a drone attack gone-awry in Afghanistan. A dozen civilians are killed and others are gravely wounded. Darwin Cole, the controller who fired the “Hellfire” missile on orders from some mysterious above, comes apart at the seams after the attack. Booted from the Air Force, abandoned by his wife and children, and seeking solace in the proverbial bottle, Cole is approached by a team of journalists. They’re snuffling after a war-crimes story wrapped in a war-profiteering story hidden inside a corporations-own-America story. Having escaped the proverbial bottle, Darwin Cole soon encounters the proverbial scientist-tortured-by-guilt. This scientist, Nelson Sharpe, provides the means to voice Fesperson’s research into drone technology: it isn’t that complicated, it’s readily available to whoever wants to use it, and governments can’t control it any better than they control firearms or drugs. Islamist fanatics, Mexican drug lords, Montana militias, and private military companies all can—and will–seize this terrible technology. Then they’ll hire a bunch of pimply gamers to fly the things—probably from Arkansas trailer parks converted from meth labs, instead of from “secret” command posts in Nevada.[1]

Well, probably. However, the next story to consider is that of likely counter-measures. On the one hand, one can envision hordes of little fighter-drones circling in constant Combat Air Patrol over sensitive sites, unnoticed by the people below until there is a sudden flash of light in the sky as some approaching danger—or flock of seagulls—is eliminated. On the other hand, one can envision a further expansion of the “requirements” lists submitted to the NSA. Anyone who expresses an interest in unmanned aerial vehicles on-line should expect to have his or her name added to a watch list. So, you might look at Dan Fesperman, Unmanned (Knopf, 2014).


For good and ill, the United States military isn’t what it once was. The end of the Cold War led to big cuts in forces. Contractors took over many support functions, then spread into providing security services. For budget reasons, they’re here to stay. However, their mis-steps attract a lot of bad press. So the question becomes how to harness the contractors for the benefits they provide while limiting the damage they can do. One approach has been to try to create international norms for the use and behavior of private military contractors. In September 2008 the United States and sixteen other countries signed a pledge to require companies to “comply with international humanitarian or human rights law.” A 2010 document asked private military contractors to follow well-defined standards of behavior, to maintain transparency, and to be held accountable for their actions. The number of companies that have “taken the pledge”—as my Welsh grandmother used to say of temperance oaths—is a good measure of the spread of private military contractors as a form of business. Seven hundred as of 2013. Most are small companies that sub-contract work from the big boys: Xe (the re-labeled Blackwater), DynCorp, and Aegis.

If private military contractors are a business, will “regulation” prove successful? In any event, Ann Hagedorn, The Invisible Soldiers (Simon and Schuster, 2014), provides a lot of interesting information on the private contractors.

[1] This is probably bad news for any out-of-work airlines pilots who sign on the fly drug shipments into the United States. One more career avenue closed off.

Eye in the Sky.

Some time ago the courts decided that no one has a right to privacy when they are on the streets or in public places. Initially, this applied, in part, to the many surveillance cameras installed by banks and stores and apartment buildings. Then the development of digital cameras made surveillance video available to watchers in real time and it made it simple to transfer the images between widely separated computers. Then computer geeks developed face-recognition software and programs that detected “anomalous behavior.” All of these were great crime-fighting tools, at least according to the police who sing the non-specific praises of the cameras as deterrents and crime-solving aids.

With this doorway open, since 9-11 the Department of Homeland Security has been making grants to cities to fund the installation of security cameras targeting public places. These cameras supplement the already existing security cameras installed by banks, stores, and office buildings. Madison, Wisconsin—a bastion of Mid-Western liberalism–is putting in 32 cameras; Chicago and Baltimore—hotbeds of urban crime which actually don’t give a rip about Islamic terrorism—are installing thousands of cameras and are linking them to the existing systems of private cameras. The most elaborate system is that of the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative: by 2010, 3,000 cameras will be in place throughout Wall Street and the World Trade Center area. In addition, the system includes license plate readers connected to computers that cross reference the numbers of suspect vehicles and which share images with the Department of Homeland Security and the EffaBeeEye.

Now there is a new layer of observation: police, government, and private drones. The police are hot to use drones. In the 1980s the Supreme Court held that the police don’t need a warrant to observe private property from public airspace. [NB: What is “public airspace”? So far as I can tell, anything at a height of 500 feet or above is clearly public airspace; anything 83 feet or below is private airspace; and what is in-between is a little murky. Are you allowed to shoot drones under 83 feet like skeet?] Drones can be fitted with high-resolution cameras, infra-red sensors, license plate-readers, and directional microphones. They are quieter and smaller than helicopters, reducing the chance that people will know that they are being observed without a warrant. If you keep your shades pulled down, can they “assume” you’re running a grow house?

Are there problems with this program? In the eyes of individual rights advocates on the left and right, the answer is definitely yes. While government agencies will watch millions of people in public places in hopes of catching a few terrorists before an attack, it is more likely that they only will be able to figure out what happened after the attack. Will people just become habituated to being watched in public places? In a generation, will they accept the possibility of being watched in semi-public places? What happens when surveillance images leak from the government agency to the public sphere? See: The clip is fun to watch, except that it is a public traffic camera with the film leaked to provide private entertainment. What if a mini-drone lands on your bathroom window sill one morning and catches you in the shower? Some Peeping Tom at home or cops finding a fun use for the technology paid for by the DEA or property seizures from teen-age druggies driving their Dad’s BMW? In the eyes of most Americans, however, more surveillance cameras are just fine. (“The drone over your backyard,” The Week, 15 June 2012, p. 11.)