Secret CIA report provided by WikiLeaks to Al-Akhbar admits to failure of ‘targeted killings’

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Screenshot of the cover page of the 'CIA Review of High-Value Target Assassination Programs' report, released on December 18, 2014. Image credit: WikiLeaks

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Thursday, December 18, 2014

A secret CIA review by the Office of Transnational Issues on the use of High-Value Targeting (HVT) – in other words, capture and killing of important enemy military targets for the United States – as part of an overall counterinsurgency strategy has been released by WikiLeaks. It is the first in a series of leaks regarding the CIA, and was obtained by Al-Akhbar English. The review is a small peak into the rationale and planning of the US’ counter-insurgency tactics, and reveals that these policies persist despite their failure.

The 18-page study titled, “Making High-Value Targeting Operations an Effective Counterinsurgency Tool,” and distributed on June 7, 2009, is labeled as Secret//NOFORN, meaning that it has the second-highest classified categorization – considered a serious threat to US national security if leaked – and is strictly off limits to foreign nationals.

The study provides an overall assessment of the use of HVT, relying “on clandestine and defense attache reporting, discussions with HVT practitioners, a CIA-sponsored study on HVT operations in counterinsurgencies, and our review of current and historical case studies.” [pg. iii]

Essentially, it is a tiny glimpse into the logic and reasoning within the American intelligence organization of programs involving assassination, kidnapping, and other tactics to eliminate military opponents.

According to the study, HVT is defined as:

[F]ocused operations against specific individuals or networks whose removal or marginalization should disproportionately degrade an insurgent group’s effectiveness. The criteria for designating high value targets will vary according to factors such as the insurgent group’s capabilities, structure, and leadership dynamics and the government’s desired outcome. [pg. 1]

At first glance, the photo used on the front page of the report portraying military images with a dash of Orientalism cannot be ignored. It is a collage of bearded men with guns, a white man riding a camel, military men in full gear, and an army man facing a tank.

The study's language and format are akin to those generally used in corporate documents. There is great care not to use the words “assassination,” or “killing,” and other similar terms to denote the practice. Moreover, there is no in-depth account of the historical, political, and social contexts that are at play in the conflicts referred to in the study. The latter is firmly from a state-military perspective, and it builds its review from that standpoint.

In terms of case studies, the review relies on the experiences of eight countries: the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (2001 – present), France's war against Algerian independence (1954 –62), Colombia's war against the ultra-left wing militia the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the US and Iraqi government's military campaigns against the Iraqi resistance (2004 – present), Israel's war on different Palestinian resistance organizations (1972 – present), Peru's war with the communist Shinning Path (1980-99), the UK's war with Northern Ireland's Irish Republican Army (1969-98), and Sri Lanka's war against the Tamil Tigers (1983-2009). The review also notes that it relied on additional examples from Russia's war with Chechnya, US strikes on armed groups in Libya and Pakistan, and Thailand's fight against southern secessionists.

What is notable in terms of the CIA's own assessment of these case studies is the admission by the authors that the least successful HVT operations involve countries that the US and its close ally Israel have occupied or are currently at war with. Israel, in particular, scored the lowest, with its HVT program labeled as “limited” in its contribution of a “counter-insurgency success.”

The review does not go into the details of the program’s failures, but for anyone well-versed in the more than half a century of incremental genocide of the Palestinians by Israel, the answer is starkly clear.

What is telling is that other case studies that include US involvement, like Iraq and Afghanistan, and France's attempt to maintain hold of Algeria in the 1950s are also deemed less successful. The lesson, one that seems to have not been part of the authors' calculations, is that these specific cases involve issues of self-determination, decolonization, and struggles for liberation from foreign control. It is not simply a matter of failed HVT practices, but is linked to issues that are far deeper, and more essential.

’Potential Strategic Effects of HVT Operations’

In discussing the use of HVT, the study states that: “Civilian and military leaders of governments fighting insurgencies have often turned to high-value targeting (HVT) operations to achieve objectives such as damaging an insurgent group by depriving it of effective direction and experience, deterring future guerrilla actions by demonstrating the consequences, demoralizing rank-and-file members, promoting perceptions of regime viability in providing security, and imposing punishments for past acts.”

Both potential “positives” and “negatives” of the practice were highlighted by the review. In terms of positives, the authors of the review notes, “Potential positive effects of HVT operations include eroding insurgent effectiveness, weakening insurgent will, reducing the level of insurgent support, fragmenting or splitting the insurgent group, altering insurgent strategy or organization in ways that favor the government, and strengthening government morale and support.” [pg. 1]

On the other hand, the negatives include “increasing insurgent support, causing a government to neglect other aspects of its counterinsurgency strategy, provoking insurgents to alter strategy or organization in ways that favor the insurgents, strengthening an armed group’s popular support with the population, radicalizing an insurgent group’s remaining leaders, and creating a vacuum into which more radical groups can enter.” [pg. 1]

Most glaringly, not once throughout the whole assessment is there any consideration of how HVT impacts or violates international law, or domestic US law, or the laws of war. Not once is the death of civilians, dubbed “collateral damage,” emphasized as a major matter of concern in this practice.

The effectiveness and consequences of these capture or killing programs, according to the authors of the study, are based on a number of variables within both government and non-state organizations.

In terms of non-state organizations, or in the words of the study, “insurgent” or “terrorist” groups, factors that affect the viability of surviving assassinations or capture that is usual of HVT programs include:

  • the groups' structure, whether it is centralized or decentralized,or if it is led by leaders who “possess a rare combination of initiative, charisma, strategic vision, and communications skills” [pg. 4]

  • the groups' “succession planning, breadth and depth of military and political competence, and ability to elevate promising commanders through their ranks” [pg. 4]

  • the level of visibility, in which “[t]he loss of visible public figures” that could create “wider psychological repercussions than the loss of underground leaders” [pg. 4]

  • the “life cycle” of a group, where its initial or declining stages makes it more vulnerable to HVT

  • the groups' “unifying cause, deep ties to its constituency, or a broad support base can lessen the impact of leadership losses by ensuring a steady flow of replacement recruits” [pg.4]

  • or whether a non-state military group has access to internal or external sanctuaries.

For states, the factors that impact HVT programs, according to the CIA review, is predicated on:

  • the “duration and intensity of HVT operations,” where in “extensive and protracted” operations are deemed more effective than “short or inconsistent” ones [pg.5]

  • the “choice of HVT method” based off of “culture and the likelihood of collateral damage” to shape strategies that include “using psychological operations to marginalize them, or conducting kinetic strikes,” and are then adapted to fit a “functional approach” – ie “targeting aimed at logistics or financial” – or “pruning approach” that could “stunt an organization’s growth, interrupt sources of supply, or isolate portions of an insurgent network” or could “remove effective midlevel leaders, protect incompetent leaders or restore them to positions of authority, separate insurgent personalities from potential sources of government sponsorship, or protect human sources that are collecting intelligence on the networks” [pg. 5]

The use of the term “pruning” garners a moment's pause by the reader. It is an example of the dehumanizing terms and expressions used against targets that are common in these reports. In this case, the term “pruning” for a process of gradually killing off 'targets' is almost presented as a light-hearted form of gardening. It is a terrifying notion that lives of human beings, even if they are armed, is compared to the selective removal of parts of a plant.

’Best [killing] practices’

The end of the review provide a “best practices” guideline on how to conduct HVT operations.

It states that since “HVT operations can have unforeseen effects, such as empowering radical leaders” therefore success is most likely “when governments are clear about the desired impact on the insurgent group’s trajectory.” [pg. 6]

It further states that success also relies on a government's ability to have “a deep understanding of the targeted group’s internal workings and specific vulnerabilities, which is usually gained by penetrating the group or debriefing defectors.” [pg.6]

“Social, ethnic, or ideological differences among leaders and members and within leadership groups offer vulnerabilities to exploit,” it adds.

Moreover, the review cautions that “best practices” in terms of assassinations or capture of highly-valued targets is based on “how well a government conducts the other military and nonmilitary elements of its counterinsurgency campaign … that shapes the HVT programs’ contributions to overall counterinsurgency success,” as well as “[d]irecting HVT operations against the most violent and extremist leaders may increase the likelihood of an eventual political settlement,” and by “[e]xacerbating or exploiting leadership fissures, for example by co-opting disaffected insurgent leaders, can be as effective as targeting a group’s leadership militarily.” [pg. 7]

What is remarkable about the problematic “best practices” guidelines presented here in July 2009, is that a mere few months later the US decided to expand its drone policy, especially in Pakistan, in December 2009. The result of that policy since is the deaths of nearly 900 civilians, of which almost 200 are children, in Pakistan – according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – immense anti-American sentiment in the region, and the growth of armed groups like the Pakistan Taliban and others in Afghanistan. From 2009 to 2010 alone, drone strikes on Pakistan doubled in number, from 52 CIA drone strikes to 128.

The outcome of such “counterinsurgency strategies” is grim when taking into account Yemen, Somalia, and other places in which US death squads and drone strikes are in use.

Similarly, the American policies in Iraq, which seemed to have ignored much of the guidelines, have facilitated the growth of more radical militant organizations like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and have allowed sectarianism and governmental abuses in the country to flourish. In light of the report's clear recommendation to have goals to ensure HVT's success, and considering the US' current campaign against ISIS in Iraq and in Syria, which is murky and lacks specific aims, the outcome can be predicted to be as disastrous as its other campaigns against militant groups.

Even if we were to assume the US has the legitimacy to carry out such operations, and that its targets do indeed pose a threat to the security of the US and its allies, the question remains: why do US political and military authorities continue to use tactics that its own agents admit are failing their intended purpose?

The current scandal over the US Senate report on the continued brutal use of torture by the CIA, despite the fact that numerous experts and military and intelligence personnel have stated that torture does not work, presents an obvious symbol of the inherent problems of US policy-making. Incompetence, personal and commercial interests, politics, and xenophobia within US political, intelligence, and military sectors, among other factors, seem to be the main drivers behind these failed tactics. US policy makers’ inability and lack of will to reverse these policies ensure that they will fail in the future and continue to pose a threat to the security of civilians in targeted states.

Yazan is a senior writer for Al-Akhbar English. Follow him on Twitter: @WhySadeye

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