Text, Context, Subtext of a Washington Post Scoop

Greg Miller, the Washington Post's ace intelligence and national security reporter, poured a bucket of ice down the backs of American officials with his publication last night of a story about how U.S. special operations forces are hamstrung from pursuing high value targets in Afghanistan, even as they're quietly drawing up plans for direct military retaliation against entities who plan terrorist attacks in the United States.  The Post chose to headline the story with what I thought to be of secondary importance -- the drawing of contingency plans for retaliatory attacks: "Options studied for a possible Pakistan strike."

That's not old news, per se, as no one has confirmed that people paid by the U.S. government to think about these things are starting to put plans on paper. But that's what the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) generally does. There's the added complication of the U.S. presence in Pakistan, and the ramifications of striking somewhere in the country with Pakistan's permission. Miller provides a good bit of detail on U.S.-Pakistani fusion intelligence centers, and reveals that the Pakistanis generally have direct access to the live video feeds used by Predator drones. The article doesn't make it terribly clear whether the CIA and the U.S. military are thrilled by this arrangement, given the complicated relationship that the Pakistani intelligence services have with the Taliban. But it certainly provides the U.S. cover when and if strikes go wrong and civilians are killed; they, the Pakistanis, are in the room, too.

But the real interesting part of this story is subtextual. Miller is a fantastic journalist, and he has sources almost no one else has. But even the most voluble of sources chose to speak at moments when disclosing information would best advance their equities in a particular debate. So why are Miller's sources talking right now, and what message are they trying to communicate?

The context for this article, I think, cannot be extricated from a jumble of other stories: the search for a new Director of National Intelligence and the debate about the militarization of intelligence oversight; news that the United Nations is complaining formally about the CIA's predator drone program in Pakistan. The release of an internal investigation into the death of innocent Afghans as the result of a failed military strike. The muscle-flexing of the U.S. Central Command, which has broad authority to create special operations task forces for just about any purpose in just about country under its purview. And then there's the's ongoing tension between the CIA and SOCOM itself about operations in Pakistan. Putting aside the legal question -- shouldn't the military be conducting a war? -- SOCOM's operators are very much on the periphery of the shooting in Pakistan. They have much freer reign in Afghanistan. But even there, they're being constrained by the intelligence they receive, and most of the human tips come from the CIA, or are laundered through the CIA's relationships with foreign intelligence organizations.

SOCOM is not questioning the effectiveness of the drone program. What they want is encapsulated in these paragraphs:

U.S. Special Operations teams in Afghanistan have pushed for years to have wider latitude to carry out raids across the border, arguing that CIA drone strikes do not yield prisoners or other opportunities to gather intelligence. But a 2008 U.S. helicopter raid against a target in Pakistan prompted protests from officials in Islamabad who oppose allowing U.S. soldiers to operate within their country. The CIA has the authority to designate and strike targets in Pakistan without case-by-case approval from the White House. U.S. military forces are currently authorized to carry out unilateral strikes in Pakistan only if solid intelligence were to surface on any of three high-value targets: al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, or Taliban chief Mohammad Omar. But even in those cases, the military would need higher-level approval.

Read that carefully. The regular special operations forces have less authority to target ... targets than the CIA, a strategic intelligence gathering agency, ... IN A WAR. That's the embedded news in the piece. SOCOM is trying to send a message to policy-makers and the public: they've got the capacity to help a lot more then they are helping, and they're being hamstrung by legal authorities that don't make sense to them. One point of the joint task force concept embraced by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and SOCOM is to crowd out the CIA's paramilitary operations in the Af-Pak war theater.

Note well that I think this message is coming from SOCOM, not CENTCOM, which agrees, in part, with some of SOCOM's concerns about intel in Afghanistan and the utility of task forces and the CIA, and disagrees, in part, about what SOCOM's operational role ought to be. There is no one consensus view in the military. There are at least three.

"The bottom line is you have to have information about targets to do something [and] we have a process that remains cumbersome," said one of the senior military officials. "If something happens, we have to confirm who did it and where it came from. People want to be as precise as possible to be punitive."

By the way, note how two of the quotations in the piece use the word "punitive." If you've got some time today, run the word "punitive" and the names of the senior officers associated with the special operations command and see if you can figure out who likes to use that phrase a lot.  (Do the same thing, incidentally, for the words "pulse" and "kinetic" and "senior administration official." That has nothing to do with this article, but it's going to be revealing, nonetheless.)