Journalism in the Public Interest

Who Are We at War With? That’s Classified

President Obama has repeatedly said the U.S. is targeting Al Qaeda and “associated forces.” But the government won’t say who those forces are.

President Obama has repeatedly said the U.S. is targeting Al Qaeda and “associated forces.” But the government won’t say who those forces are. (STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)

In a major national security speech this spring, President Obama said again and again that the U.S. is at war with “Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces.”

So who exactly are those associated forces? It’s a secret.

At a hearing in May, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked the Defense Department to provide him with a current list of Al Qaeda affiliates.

The Pentagon responded – but Levin’s office told ProPublica they aren’t allowed to share it. Kathleen Long, a spokeswoman for Levin, would say only that the department’s “answer included the information requested.”

A Pentagon spokesman told ProPublica that revealing such a list could cause “serious damage to national security.”

“Because elements that might be considered ‘associated forces’ can build credibility by being listed as such by the United States, we have classified the list,” said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Jim Gregory. “We cannot afford to inflate these organizations that rely on violent extremist ideology to strengthen their ranks.”

It’s not an abstract question: U.S. drone strikes and other actions frequently target “associated forces,” as has been the case with dozens of strikes against an Al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen.

During the May hearing, Michael Sheehan, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, said he was “not sure there is a list per se.” Describing terrorist groups as “murky” and “shifting,” he said, “it would be difficult for the Congress to get involved in trying to track the designation of which are the affiliate forces” of Al Qaeda.

Sheehan said that by the Pentagon’s standard, “sympathy is not enough…. it has to be an organized group and that group has to be in co-belligerent status with Al Qaeda operating against the United States.”

The White House tied Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and “elements” of Al Shabaab in Somalia to Al Qaeda in a recent report to Congress on military actions. But the report also included a classified annex.

Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law who served as a legal counsel during the Bush administration and has written on this question at length, told ProPublica that the Pentagon’s reasoning for keeping the affiliates secret seems weak. “If the organizations are ‘inflated’ enough to be targeted with military force, why cannot they be mentioned publicly?” Goldsmith said. He added that there is “a countervailing very important interest in the public knowing who the government is fighting against in its name."

The law underpinning the U.S. war against Al Qaeda is known as the Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, and it was passed one week after the 9/11 attacks. It doesn’t actually include the words “associated forces,” though courts and Congress have endorsed the phrase.

As we explained earlier this year, the emergence of new or more loosely-aligned terrorist groups has legal scholars wondering how effectively the U.S. will be able to “shoehorn” them into the AUMF. During the May hearing, many lawmakers expressed concern about the Pentagon’s capacious reading of the law. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., described it as a “carte blanche.”

Obama, in his May speech, said he looked forward “to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate.” But he didn’t give a timeframe. On Wednesday, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., introduced an amendment that would sunset the law at the end of 2014, to coincide with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was voted down the same day, 185 to 236.

The AUMF isn’t the only thing the government relies on to take military action. In speeches and interviews Obama administration officials also bring up the president’s constitutional power to defend the country, even without congressional authorization. 

So…not only are organizations secretly spying on us (with our tax dollars), using secret interpretations of secret laws at secret courts, but it’s all being done to fight a secret war.

I can’t help but think that if I tried that argument, I’d be in a straightjacket by dinnertime.  Yet when you own missiles, suddenly it’s not paranoid delusion…

And given how wonderfully-well the terror no-fly watch lists have worked out, with various six-year-olds banned from planes while underwear bombers got on, I can’t imagine this going much better.

However, it does allow the White House to remove the possibility of ending the war, by claiming to amend the secret list of enemies.

Hm.  White House.  Enemies List.  That sounds really familiar.

Henry J. Miller

July 28, 2013, 7:07 a.m.

Perhaps one of the “sharper pencils” at ProPublica could simply use that thing known as the internet….hmmm?

And maybe learn to write a headline that actually reflects the content of the article.

Google search results for Al Qaeda affiliates—-> ... &gws_rd=cr

Here PP…let me help you poor dears….
(Last updated July 17, 2013)

Hope that helps.

There is no issue here; when the enemy is a guerrilla/terrorist/insurgent under asymmetric warfare conditions, you simply do not tell the world - them, that is - that you have them on your radar (if not in your gun sights).

To do so makes you their early warning radar with many potentially deadly consequences.  They may begin launching attacks sooner/faster/before you have the forces in place to counter them.  Worse, they will want to know how they got on your radar; that search for answers on their part may compromise your informants or agents - and in the war against terrorism that has been forced upon us, an agent “compromised” winds up dead, best case.

And of course there is the great possibility that a targeted terrorist entity/cell - once warned by the media - will splinter apart, melding with other terrorist groups and/or the populations of other countries…and you’ve not just thrown away all the effort, money, war materiel, and even lives that you risked to identify them in the first place, you’ve placed other populations/nations at risk.

I am crossing my fingers, tightly, that the left will wake up from their slumber and realize that our gov’t has gone rogue.

Henry, how many are we at war with?  All?  Some?  Most?

Remember, we armed some of the splinter groups in Libya and are trying to find an excuse to do so in Syria.  Are we at war with them?  If so, why aren’t we prosecuting everybody involved in arming our enemies?

I give you points for trying, but I think you might be oversimplifying a bit.

It’s been 12 years since 9/11 (2001).

Giving the Pentagon (or the Executive) the power to “get the guys who did this NOW ‘cause Congress isn’t suitable for micromanaging this” isn’t an excuse anymore. (It wasn’t an excuse 6 months after 9/11 either.)

The Pentagon doesn’t have the Constitutional right to declare war.  The executive doesn’t have the Constitutional right to declare war.  That power lies with Congress (and maybe being faced with that responsibility will turn Congress away from the masturbatory exercises it’s been entertaining itself with - or maybe we shouldn’t be so scared of “Islamic Terrorism” after all and let Congress be what it is.)

If the list is secret, we’re not at war.  We’re just an oversized street gang bullying the rest of the world.

Make the list public or get the War Department/Pentagon out of this activity.

Henry J. Miller,

Perhaps the quotes by Lt. Colonel Gregory and Assistant Secretary Sheehan in this story are a more accurate description of current Administration policy than your condescending offers of assistance.

Wars conducted in our name must have our informed consent. Attempting workarounds of this sort are very dangerous to the health of our nation.

Date: Aug 13, 2013
We are actually at war with a faceless party designed / sponsored / arranged by some of 2000 Super-wealthy thugs in disguise or their paid religious type belief-blind servants who contemplate wars, global chaos everywhere and whose main purposes are creating public confusion against honest individuals in collective Western government powers or against the impression of public reliability on digitally manageable technology of time that could at expense of eliminating ‘out of date’: (unnecessary) Privacy laws, easily monitor in most transparent ways all the affairs of our good North-American Government personnel including too highly paid judicial, royal flavored position holders in Corporations as well as ethical, economical, financial activities of everyone regardless that be just a pimp of a real beautiful, poor stripper or a privileged agent of a too wealthy royal-queen or king etc..
We, unlike the old, jungle (junglish) -era of brutal thugs or kings, do not need guns for fighting wars but a digital method of controlling “the abuse and misuse of wealth by hands of brutal minded plotters in palaces or so called ministries of now non-sense kingdoms” or the flow of fruits of human’s hard labor.

In this electronic age, it’s easier to learn how the creator of Cosmos works through humans for humans.

Sincerely yours,

Mr. Shahislam.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
The Drone War

The Drone War

ProPublica is covering the U.S.' expanding – and often secret – targeted killing program.

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