How News Media Can Get Misled by Tough Talk on Killing Terrorists


Image: US airstrike with 2,000lb bombs on ISIS bank in Mosul, Jan. 11, 2016 – CENTCOM

Less than a half hour after Donald Trump took the oath of office on Friday, ABC News ran a report by James Gordon Meek and Brian Ross headlined “Trump May Have Early Chance to Target ISIS Leader al-Baghdadi.”  A reader could be forgiven for assuming that the story was about an intelligence breakthrough in the hunt for the notoriously elusive chief of America’s top terrorist adversary.  But no, the crux of the story is that Trump could have a chance to kill Baghdadi in a way that Obama did not because he will be less focused on preventing civilian casualties or less committed to bureaucratic process than his predecessor.  This idea – that Obama failed to use force in critical cases because of an undue sensitivity for civilian casualties is of course a trope (rarely substantiated by any on-the-record statements or supported by any specific examples) that nagged the Obama team throughout its time in office but particularly as Obama moved to rein in parts of the U.S. counterterrorism campaign during his final years in office.

Certainly Obama’s policies for targeting terrorists are worthy of continued debate.  And when the Obama Administration released its playbook on drone strikes (the “Presidential Policy Guidance”) over the summer and its comprehensive counterterrorism legal and policy framework this past December, various commentators (myself included) rightfully offered differing views on the process and how to improve it.  The problem is that, by citing anonymous officials discussing a range of operations conducted in very different contexts, any real critique of the Obama policies, any real suggestions for how Trump could improve upon them, or any real dialogue on the tradeoffs surrounding the use of force is effectively squelched in favor of a simplistic telling of Obama’s supposed deference to high-minded ideals over effectiveness and Trump’s willingness to get tough on terrorism.

Meek and Ross offer the latest addition to this vague set of criticisms, citing a series of anonymous quotes from sources speaking about a range of operations to substantiate the latest narrative.  Let’s consider ABC’s claims in turn.  Citing their first unnamed senior national security official, the ABC report notes that “President Obama often hesitated to authorize air strikes when there was a chance of significant ‘collateral damage’ – or civilians being killed.”  First, it is true that Obama’s policy called for careful prevention of civilian casualties.  The policy was not simply born out of ethical and moral considerations regarding the use of force, but also a strategic calculation that killing civilians would undermine our larger efforts by turning the local population and government against us, and often result in less robust cooperation and consent from allies and partners.  As I recently argued, many of our most seasoned operational commanders, including the new Secretary of Defense, share Obama’s view on civilian casualties and have seen firsthand how counterproductive civilian casualties can be to our larger effort to defeat terrorist groups.

But what is particularly misleading about this passage is that it offers no precision about where Obama hesitated and under what circumstances the new President ought to allow greater risk of civilian harm.  Should the U.S. military be authorized to accept a greater level of risk in all of its strikes (which number several thousand per year) or only if it has Baghdadi or a similar senior leader in its sights?  If the latter, it would be helpful to know if the anonymous sources are aware of specific instances where the military passed on a shot at Baghdadi or his lieutenants out of a concern over civilian casualties.  This is particularly important to articulate, because although the Government has not specified its policy standard for civilian casualties in targeting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, it has said that the Presidential Policy Guidance and its “near certainty of no civilian casualties” standard for preventing civilian casualties simply does not apply there.  Plus news reports from last April suggested that the White House and the Pentagon had further loosened targeting rules, with the military authorized to conduct strikes with different numbers of likely civilian casualties in the pursuit of certain targets.  It would be helpful to understand why the presumably looser standard in place in Iraq and Syria and in engaging high value targets like Baghdadi is deficient, but the ABC story offers little help here.

The story further suggests that the real problem has been Obama’s unwillingness to conduct strikes in heavily populated Mosul: “Trump may be less hesitant than Obama to launch a strike in Mosul if intelligence operatives pinpoint al-Baghdadi’s lair, in the view of many hopeful counterterrorism officials.”  At least in this case, the piece cites multiple anonymous sources, though in a context where it is difficult to tell whether they are criticizing Obama or just saying that we ought to take bolder action to remove Baghdadi, even if that involves conducting strikes in Mosul.  But setting that aside, there is little publicly available evidence to support a claim that Obama was unwilling to exercise force in Mosul or other urban areas.  Indeed, before the beginning of the Mosul offensive, news outlets reported that the United States had killed more than a dozen ISIS leaders in Mosul. The Pentagon has released video of 2,000-pound bombs dropped on a bank in Mosul in early 2016. The Pentagon has also announced the targeting of senior ISIS leaders in heavily populated Raqqa.  Further, the U.S. military has been criticized by outside organizations for allegedly causing greater numbers of civilian casualties in its battle for Mosul.  Either way, the suggestion that Obama didn’t have the fortitude to do what it takes to target senior terrorist leaders in places like Mosul certainly doesn’t appear to be consistent with the body of information out there. Nor, and this is important, will a successful strike against Baghdadi in a Trump administration necessarily have anything to do with a supposed change in approaches to acceptance of civilian casualties. (But reports like the ABC one may leave the public with the opposite impression.)

Meek and Ross also cite comments by a noted counterterrorism expert on the Obama Administration’s use of a “complex process for approving strikes against terrorist commanders” and then refer obliquely to a scattershot of reported direct action and hostage rescue missions in which lower level officials allege that slow approval processes run out of the White House resulted in missing the target.  Here, the ABC report at least notes the White House’s denials.  But it’s hard to discern what ABC’s specific point is and how it connects to Baghdadi since they cite so many disparate examples reflecting different operating environments and policy objectives.  The White House-driven complex process for approving strikes is almost certainly a reference to the Presidential Policy Guidance, which explicitly does not apply to Iraq and Syria, where decisions on lethal targeting are delegated to operational commanders.  The hostage rescue operations alluded to in the piece could refer to unsuccessful operations conducted in Syria and Yemen, each of which were different cases with distinct sets of considerations regarding the risks to U.S. forces, the hostages, and diplomatic relations with the host nation government.  Although there were anonymously-sourced reports that bureaucratic process had prevented the successful execution of these missions, Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice offered a very specific, timeline-based rebuttal of these claims.  As to proposed missions to kill terrorist leaders, this might refer to the successful operation against ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf or the mission in Somalia that failed due to operational challenges, neither of which would support the claim that Obama’s bureaucratic process was problematic.  Perhaps it refers to other operations that never made it into the news, but scenarios or planned operations are a suboptimal basis for assessing Obama’s policy and how Trump’s will compare.

The story concludes with a reference to the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has reportedly survived some close calls.  Oddly, ABC makes no claims about President Trump’s ability to target him.  We can only assume that there were fewer anonymous sources to cite here.

At one point, about two-thirds of the way through the report, Meek and Ross actually insert a helpful point that undermines the idea that Obama’s counterterrorism policy is the only thing standing in the way of a successful operation.  They note that even if Trump disdains Obama’s policy constraints, he might still be stymied by legal obligations.  ABC again goes to its anonymous sources: “Still, a currently serving career intelligence official suggested Trump may be constrained by long-held legal restrictions on armed conflict, which limit foreseeable civilian deaths. “Lawyers are lawyers,” the official said.”  I take some solace in knowing that ABC is reporting what anybody who has served in the counterterrorism community already knows — that career professionals hold themselves to high standards and vigorously abide by the laws of war.  What I don’t understand is why it comes so late in the piece or why it requires another anonymous quote.  There are any number of experienced national security lawyers (many of whom write for this blog) who could offer on the record quotes about the legal obligations of air strikes and opine at length on concepts of discrimination and proportionality and how they apply to today’s counterterrorism fight.  I also don’t understand why ABC feels the need to use a quote that pins the blame on lawyers, as if they are the cold water poured on a chance to kill Baghdadi, instead of longstanding legal requirements, shared by the United States and all civilized nations, regarding the norms for waging war.

The Trump Administration certainly will — and should — review U.S. policy on ISIS and the use of force against terrorist groups.  And there are real questions to consider about process, standards for protection of civilians, and the threshold for using force.  But to frame this policy and legal space as an issue of Trump being unbound by Obama’s supposedly high-minded ideals and therefore more effective in removing top terrorist leaders is not a particularly precise approach to this analysis, nor will it likely prove very prescient. In the final analysis, the key to eliminating terrorist leaders like Baghdadi and Zawahiri from the battlefield will not be through loosening targeting rules but through careful, long-term intelligence analysis 

About the Author(s)

Luke Hartig

Fellow - International Security Program at New America, Executive Director of National Journal's Network Science Initiative, Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, Former Deputy Director for Counterterrorism Operations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense Follow him on Twitter (@LukeHartig).