national security issues, examined at a granular level

Time-Sensitive Targeting, The Crush on Drones and the Fallacy of ‘Transparency’ in Covert Operations

Over a year and a half ago, Brookings’ P.W. Singer neatly encapsulated the underlying problem with our global effort to combat violent extremism. His argument? Too many people are fighting it:

Over the years, a dense code of laws has risen to divvy out the various authorities of who can do what in our government. At the heart of these in national security are Title 10, which doles out the roles of manning, training and equipping the uniformed military, and Title 50, which defines various other roles, including the intelligence community. But what happens when we start to ignore those codes?


…news stories have popped up that center on national security roles being “double-hatted” in some form or another.

This double-hatting is extending down into the service components that will support the new command such that we have a variety of serving military officers describing themselves as carrying out Title 10 and 50 roles, dependent on the exact task at that moment.

And then there is the continual spate of private contractors popping up in unexpected (and traditionally governmental) national security roles. At the CIA, for instance, officials were upset to learn about a Defense Department official who retasked a strategic communication contract (originally meant to understand local tribal politics in Afghanistan) into a network of clandestine contractors who were working as spies on both side of the Afghan-Pakistan border. 

The most egregious abuse of the T10/T50 divide are the drone program(s) plastered all over your favorite news medium. So let’s address that leviathan, that veritable platoon of 1600 pound gorillas in the room. That would be the drone program(s). Quirky beasts, that. They are insinuated, yet unacknowledged. They are properly classified, yet fodder for jokes. It’s all very confusing.

With all the confusion about what does and does not constitute covert action, or CA, one would assume commentators had referred to the US Code. Sadly, they were remiss in doing so. Let’s take a look:

(e) “Covert action” defined
As used in this subchapter, the term “covert action” means an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly, but does not include—
(1) activities the primary purpose of which is to acquire intelligence, traditional counterintelligence activities, traditional activities to improve or maintain the operational security of United States Government programs, or administrative activities;
(2) traditional diplomatic or military activities or routine support to such activities;
(3) traditional law enforcement activities conducted by United States Government law enforcement agencies or routine support to such activities; or
(4) activities to provide routine support to the overt activities (other than activities described in paragraph (1), (2), or (3)) of other United States Government agencies abroad.

Now, some people — namely, Katherine Tiedemann and Peter Bergen, among others — are under the mistaken and somewhat fantastical impression that merely transferring control of the drone program(s) to Department of Defense ‘control’ will result in equal measures of transparency and accountability.

This is sophomoric, at best. 

To understand the hypocrisy of all this, you have to understand compartmentalization. And wouldn’t you know, the only way to fathom  compartmentalization is to understand the rather arcane way compartmented programs are administered in practice.

The Agency’s controlled access programs, or CAPs, are controlled in name only and afford a great deal of transparency to both members of Congress and people even tangentially involved with their execution. They are not ad hoc, enjoy the legal concurrence of the Agency’s general counsel and more often than not have visibility at the highest levels of government. They are not true secrets, and the few things that should remain secret — the genesis of the Agency’s Counter-terrorism Pursuit Teams, for example — quickly make their way into the hands of journalists. They are anything but a clandestine organization. 

Conversely, the Department of Defense has a very different take on compartmentalization and how it is implemented — not in theory, but in practice. All Special Access Programs, or SAPs, within the Department of Defense are governed by 'the bible' — the 5205 series. Perusing the document for even a few moments would likely have given Bergen and his scribe pause.

Within the special access programs themselves, the ‘umbrellas’, there can be and often are sub-compartments — that is, smaller, even more tightly controlled compartmented programs. And we’re just getting started.

In a stratosphere above that, you have USAPs, or unacknowledged special access programs. It is not appropriate to delineate what goes on at that echelon in an unclassified medium. Suffice it to say, it does anything but provide even a modicum of transparency into the compartmented ecosystem subsisting within it. Of course, this is the exact opposite of what transparency proponents want to achieve. That is unfortunate. 

"But, Rob,"  you may ask, "Isn’t this prohibitively expensive? Wouldn’t the costs of instituting a SAP that will ultimately be notified to Congress negate the very secrecy you’re attempting to sheathe it in?" 

Why, yes it is. And that is why we have ACCMs. More transparency! 

Alternative Compensatory Control Measures, or ACCMs, are conceived of and given legal top-cover at the absolute lowest level necessary. Commodores, Commanders, Commanding Generals…even lower-echelon officers-in-charge can choose to stand up ACCMs if they feel the scope of their mandate warrants that. No prior written or verbal approval from the Office of the Secretary Defense’s Office of General Counsel, nor the Department of Justice. ACCMs — essentially pared down special access programs that are even more expensive to run, because  the physical and static site security requirements are discarded in favor of administrative and physical obscurity — can be established at the behest of a young lieutenant. They can even — egads! — be established by senior non-commissioned officers.

Not for frivolous reasons, mind you; that has punitive repercussions we cannot delve into in an unclassified medium. But if he or she deems existing special security mechanisms insufficient, they can and do have the authority to stand up an ACCM.

The SAPCO, or special access program control office, administers each services’ programs and the euphemistic ‘special activities’ within each. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has the CAPCO, or controlled access program control office, that it absorbed from the Agency and is supposed to coordinate with the Pentagon. In reality, it does not and the Pentagon, the services and service-like commands — can you say, USSOCOM? — have a relatively free reign to compartmentalize whatever they choose. Say, heavily modified Fire Scouts.

Armed with these boring facts and DoD instructions and policy memoranda, sensible observers can only reach one conclusion, however uncomfortable: moving the program would be an exceedingly stupid idea. The Department of Defense is notoriously secretive, already controls the very platforms used to carry out the Agency’s program in addition to its own compartmented time-sensitive targeting programs, and fosters a culture of often unnecessary compartmentalization that is, at best, ad-hoc

So, yes. Let’s move the drone program there! So they can be together! Transparency! 

The crush on drones is further exacerbated by the fact that we don’t even need to use them. Whenever basing rights for drones become a topic of political contention or public debate, I shake my head in disbelief. Then I laugh.

Submarines. Manned and unmanned platforms in support of TASK FORCE ODIN and other classified standing joint task forces. DRAGON SPEAR and HARVEST HAWK. All of these assets can put warheads on foreheads and provide persistent ISR. 

We don’t need more drones, and we don’t need to move compartmented programs to set someone up for a easy thesis topic. We need to utilize the assets we already operate and maintain. Hell, if we need anything, it’s a so-called “Title 60”.

But that is another post, for another time.


Follow Robert Caruso on Twitter at @robertcaruso

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