On Terror, Obama Draws Lines, Bright and Fuzzy
The White House is denying reports, picked up by prominent blogs, that secret U.S. Defense Department assets were used to help pinpoint the location of terrorism suspect Faisal Shahbaz.
Benjamin C. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said last night that "the actions described simply did not take place." He had been provided, by me, with a detailed scenario about how, having lost Shahbaz's trail, the National Security Staff turned to the Department of Defense's secret counterterrorism units for help in tracking him down.
Using Pentagon resources and equipment to assist law enforcement on terrorism investigations would not be unprecedented. RC-12Q aircraft -- sophisticated military signals intelligence jets -- were tasked to help the F.B.I. intercept cell phone communications of the Beltway sniper suspects in 2002. Just who operated those airplanes has never been identified, because their sensor platforms require special expertise. RC-12s were also in the air over Salt Lake City during the Olympics.
The Obama White House has drawn a bright line between domestic and international intelligence operations, even as the secret authorities under which these one-off missions are tasked, codenamed Power Geyser, remains operational. (The name has probably been changed since it was first revealed in 2006.)
According to The Washington Post, the FISA court recently ordered the Justice Department and the NSA to immediately stop using a sensitive collection technique -- something unthinkable in the period before the law was changed.
Overseas, the rules are looser. The Los Angeles Times reported today that the C.I.A. targets militants whose names it does not know, based on a secret presidential order reaffirmed by President Obama. The CIA's drone program has been so ubiquitous, even though its existence remains classified Top Secret, that the president felt comfortable enough to joke about how he might deploy the program to prevent a Jonas Brother from getting too close to his daughters. The fact of the open secret -- and the fact that successful strikes on militants are almost always leaked to the press -- a theoretical contravention of laws against disclosing classified information -- suggests that the administration wants domestic audiences to know that it takes the threat of terrorism extremely seriously, that it is capable of using the Dark Arts to kill bad people, and that it is not to be messed with.
Presidents tend to want to isolate themselves from covert action. Not Obama. As Anne Kornblut reports, Obama participates in a weekly briefing on ongoing and planned covert activities, putting him in the loop and making him directly responsible for the actions of his associates. This is the meeting that Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair argued that one of his deputies had to be present for, believing that the CIA's notifications to the DNI about its operations were too tardy, perhaps by design. Blair is wary of the drone strike program but is said to recognize that it's been effective in the short term.
When it comes to the perception of domestic counterterrorism activities, the administration goes out of its way to prioritize the role of law enforcement, always backgrounding -- but not de-looping -- intelligence and military assets. The Joint Terrorism Task Forces often include liaisons to intelligence agencies and the military's terrorism task forces.