Bob Woodward, in “The War Within,” has a mysterious passage about the supersecret, high-tech assassination efforts aimed at Iraqi militants. It’s all hush-hush, but there is other testimony and reporting (see below) about what, exactly, it might be. Personally, I’m not too sure. Counterinsurgency can’t be done from the sky, or from remote locations, at least not without massive collateral damage, civilian casualties, mistaken identities, and the like. Still, there’s no doubt that the US forces in Iraq are killing a lot of people, innocent and not-so-innocent. Here’s what Woodward writes:
Beginning in about May 2006, the U.S. military and the U.S. intelligence agencies launched a series of TOP SECRET operations that enabled them to locate, target, and kill key individuals in extremist groups such as al Qaeda, the Sunni insurgency, and renegade Shia militias, or so-called special groups. The operations, which were either Special Access Programs (SAP) or part of Special Compartmented Information (SCI), incorporated some of the most highly classified techniques and information in the U.S. government.
Officials at the White House have asked me not to publish the details or the code word names associated with these groundbreaking programs. [They use] every tool available simultaneously, from signals intercepts to human intelligence and other methods, that allowed lightning-quick and sometimes concurrent operations.
There has been speculation about some sort of “secret weapon.” An unclassified military briefing by the US Special Operations Command suggests something: a classified program that allows “continuous clandestine tagging, tracking, and locating (CTTL).” It enables counterinsurgency teams the “ability to locate, track and identify human beings” from remote locations, but according to the briefing it’s not up and running yet.
So far, Woodward — in interviews — hasn’t said much more. But there are some hints. The Post itself provided a detailed account of the so-called “fusion cells” of counterinsurgency experts who’ve conducted deadly operations against suspected militants. It’s all run by the Joint Task Force, whose headquarters in Iraq bustles with “long-haired computer experts working alongside wizened intelligence agents and crisply clad military officers.” It adds:
Huge computer screens hang from the ceiling, displaying aerial surveillance images relayed from Predator, Schweizer and tiny Gnat spycraft.
For the Joint Task Force, the CIA provides intelligence analysts and spycraft with sensors and cameras that can track targets, vehicles or equipment for up to 14 hours. FBI forensic experts dissect data, from cellphone information to the “pocket litter” found on extremists. Treasury officials track funds flowing among extremists and from governments. National Security Agency staffers intercept conversations or computer data, and members of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency use high-tech equipment to pinpoint where suspected extremists are using phones or computers.
“The capabilities for high-end special joint operations that exist now only existed in Hollywood in 2001,” said David Kilcullen, a terrorism expert and adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Speaking the other day at the Middle East Institute, Bing West — a counterinsurgency expert who served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs under President Ronald Reagan and who was a Marine in Vietnam — provided a colorful glimpse into part of how this operation works:
What the Sadrists made the huge mistake of was, the last thing you ever do in combat with Americans is to take weapons and fight during the daytime, because that is just suicide. Because with the overhead surveillance we now have, I can see anybody, anywhere, and I can see what kind of weapon he has in his hands. And some of you who’ve been out there know, every single battalion has a video screen about this size, and they can say, ‘Oh, he has an AK-47, he has an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade]. Kill the guy with the RPG first.’ You cannot survive in you go out in the daytime on the battlefield against Americans, and sometimes you have a more difficult time at night, because the targets are better at night.
So as a result, the amount of damage that was done to the Sadrists down in Basra, and then in Baghdad, was never really reported to the extent that it should have been. A thousand were killed very quickly in Sadr City. American fire teams are just sitting back there saying, ‘Look at all these targets!’ and taking them out.
It’s easy, if you’re a military counterinsurgency type, to get all excited about such capabilities. But it’s also easy to see how such techniques can be lead to overconfidence — and how they can be overused, to deadly effect, against mistaken targets. The gee-whiz factor might be high, but in the end, it doesn’t win the “war” on terror.