White House, Citing Public’s Right to Know, Stonewalls on Yemen War
President Obama backstage at a May speech in Albany, New York. Photo: Pete Souza/ White House
The center of the US drone war has shifted to Yemen, where 23 American strikes have killed an estimated 155 people so far this year. But you wouldn’t know about it — or about the cruise missile attacks, or about the US commando teams in Yemen — by reading the report the White House sent to Congress about US military activities around the globe. Instead, there’s only the blandest acknowledgement of “direct action” in Yemen, “against a limited number of [al-Qaida] operatives and senior leaders.”
The report, issued late Friday, is the first time the United States has publicly, officially acknowledged the operations in Yemen and in nearby Somalia that anyone with internet access could’ve told you about years ago. But the report doesn’t just fail to admit the extent of the shadow war that America is waging in the region. It’s borderline legal — at best. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 requires the president to inform Congress about any armed conflicts America is engaged in. Friday’s report isn’t just uninformative about Yemen. It doesn’t even mention the US campaign in Pakistan, even though the Defense Secretary says America is “at war” there.
[Editor's Note: We Told you so, Obama is behaving as a complete Dictator, Bypassing Congress for WAR]
“The American people are well aware of the threat that al-Qaida poses, and in a democratic society, they have a right to know what actions their government is taking in an effort to protect them. A well-informed public is critical to maintaining the legitimacy of, and in turn our ability to sustain, our ongoing counterterrorism efforts.” These are the words not of some good government crusader or some critic of the president, but of an administration official, explaining the White House’s recent report in an email to Danger Room.
“The report, if you can call it such, is a waste of paper and computer space,” writes intelligence historian Matthew Aid. ”You literally learn nothing about the nature and extent of U.S. military combat operations overseas…. Even Adam Sandler movies have more substantive and meaningful content than this letter to Congress.”
Since it was passed in the 1970s, White Houses have routinely ignored the War Powers resolution, which requires the president to get Congress’ authorization if he keeps troops in a hot zone longer than 60 days. President Clinton never got that permission when he sent US forces in Kosovo in the 1990s; Obama did the same sidestep last year when he dispatched American jets and ships to help take out the Gadhafi regime in Libya.
The Obama administration argues that the operations in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and countless other locations are kosher, because Congress authorized military force against al-Qaida 11 years ago, right after 9/11. But many of the groups that US forces are now fighting didn’t exist in their current form back then. And the White House won’t say when we’ll know how this war against al-Qaida is won.
In the meantime, the administration keeps filing these twice-a-year reports to Congress, as if they complied with the Resolution’s requirement for periodic updates “on the status of such hostilities … as well as on the scope and duration of such hostilities.” As if a two-sentence paragraph could adequately capture a campaign that has killed more than 300 people — among them at least one American teenager and dozens of civilians. As if you could take seriously the administration’s contention that it has only targeted a “limited number” of Yemenis “who posed a terrorist threat to the United States and our interests.” As if all 155 people killed by US drones were planning to blow up Times Square or something. As if the United States weren’t targeting people there based on their perceived actions, rather than their positions in the al-Qaida hierarchy. As if Yemen weren’t in an active civil war, with the United States taking up the government’s side.
In an email to Danger Room, an administration official admits that US operations are being directed at more than just a few people. “Our CT [counter terrorism] efforts in Yemen are embedded in a broader effort to stabilize the country,” the official writes, “and they balance the need to address near-term threats against US interests with longer-term initiatives to build Yemeni capacity, strengthen its judicial system, empower local communities to reject violent extremism, and address the upstream factors that al-Qaida exploits for recruitment. Overcoming Yemen’s challenges requires a comprehensive strategy that emphasizes governance and economic development as much as security issues.”
In other words, this isn’t a targeted operation to take out a small band of terrorists plotting against America. It’s a full-blown campaign to build Yemen up from the ground.
“Let’s be honest here. This is hardly what was intended when the War Powers resolution was passed,” says Peter Singer, who oversees my work at the Brookings Institution’s 21 Century Defense Initiative. (And, it should be noted, was an early supporter of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.) “It’s not merely the belated and thin nature of disclosing what has already been widely known. It’s the selectivity. You aren’t supposed to shop when and where you choose to follow a law on war powers.”
But as ridiculous as the Yemen admission is, it’s an improvement over the report’s treatment of Pakistan: none at all. The president may openly discuss the CIA-directed drone campaign in Pakistan, and the Secretary of Defense may proclaim that “we are fighting a war against terrorism” there. The report, however, gives absolutely no indication of any fighting going on in Pakistan whatsoever. The likely excuse is that Pakistan shouldn’t be part of the report, since the CIA is technically in charge of the Pakistan war. Of course, that ignores the military troops that’ve conducted raids and trained local soldiers in Pakistan, as well as the fact that many of the drones over Pakistan actually belong to the US Air Force.
In perhaps the report’s grandest irony, the administration gives greater attention to the war that officially ended last year — the one in Iraq — than the ones currently fought today in Pakistan and Yemen. Of course, these shadow wars will never have a moment like the one in December 2011, when the last US soldier departed. And even if they ever do, the White House won’t tell you about it, anyway.