Escalation of Shadow Wars and Black Ops under Panetta

At his Thursday confirmation hearing to become secretary of defense, CIA Director Panetta made a broad case for expanding the U.S.’ already extensive shadow wars. Now that bin Laden is dead, “we’ve got to keep the pressure up,” Panetta urged senators. Expect a lot of drone strikes and a lot of special ops raids — some conducted by future CIA Director David Petraeus. In a lot of places.

Panetta said he wants to hit al-Qaida’s “nodes” from Pakistan to North Africa, “develop[ing] operations in each of those areas,” so terrorists have “no place to escape.” That means working with the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the elite commandos that executed the raid on bin Laden’s Abbotabad compound.

In his written responses to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Panetta endorsed a command scheme that would place select U.S. military personnel temporarily under the authority of the CIA director for the most sensitive counterterrorism operations. Panetta told the committee that it’s “appropriate for the head of such department or agency [read: CIA] to direct the operations of the element providing that military support while working with the Secretary of Defense.” A “significant advantage of doing so,” he continued, “is that it permits the robust operational capability of the U.S. Armed Forces to be applied when needed.”

That’s contentious: it would put the military in the territory of performing operations that the government can legally deny all knowledge of ordering, something obviously problematic for uniformed military personnel.

The U.S. reportedly employed that command structure in the highly exceptional case of the bin Laden raid, putting Navy SEALs under CIA Director Panetta’s command. Panetta is essentially talking about lowering the standards for which JSOC gets loaned out to CIA missions, in order to finish al-Qaida off in the post-bin Laden era.

That fits his pattern at the CIA: Panetta expanded the list of targets that Predator drones could hit far beyond the seniormost al-Qaida operatives. Already, the skies above Yemen are filled with armed planes hunting terrorists — a JSOC mission “closely coordinated” with the CIA, according to the New York Times.

With the U.S. growing weary of big land wars, that looks more like the counterterrorism model to expect in the coming years, with Panetta atop the Pentagon and his old CIA chair filled by Gen. David Petraeus.


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