How risky was the Osama bin Laden raid?
April 30th, 2012
03:30 PM ET

How risky was the Osama bin Laden raid?

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on TwitterThe following is reprinted with the permission of CFR.org.

By Micah ZenkoCFR.org

Last week, the Obama campaign released a video starring Bill Clinton, in which he extolled the president’s decision to authorize the raid that killed Osama bin Laden one year ago. In the video, Clinton hypothesized: “Suppose the Navy Seals had gone in there, and it hadn’t been bin Laden. Suppose they’d been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for [Obama].” According to the former president, Obama’s decision was “the harder and more honorable path.”

Obama’s authorization of the bin Laden raid was indeed risky: based on incomplete information (such as the lack of definitive proof that the al Qaeda leader was in the Abbotabad compound) and objections from a split cabinet. Even if the operation had failed or cost American lives, many analysts and commentators — including Clinton — exaggerate the likely political costs to the president. FULL POST

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Topics: Politics • President Obama • Terrorism • United States
Is the world more dangerous than ever?
General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thinks the world is a terribly dangerous place.
April 12th, 2012
12:02 PM ET

Is the world more dangerous than ever?

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on TwitterThe following is reprinted with the permission of CFR.org.

By Micah ZenkoCFR.org

On February 15, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee: “I can’t impress upon you that in my personal military judgment, formed over thirty-eight years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” Two weeks later, during a House Budget Committee hearing, when asked to expand upon his earlier statement, he replied:

“There are a wide variety of nonstate actors, super-empowered individuals, terrorist groups, who have acquired capabilities that heretofore were the monopoly of nation states. And so when I said that it’s the most dangerous period in my military career, thirty-eight years, I really meant it. I wake up every morning waiting for that cyber attack or waiting for that terrorist attack or waiting for that nuclear proliferation, waiting for that proliferation of technologies that makes it an increasingly competitive security environment around the globe.”

FULL POST

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Topics: Global
The Obama Administration and targeted killings: “Trust us”
Attorney General Eric Holder.
March 7th, 2012
01:15 PM ET

The Obama Administration and targeted killings: “Trust us”

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on TwitterThe following is reprinted with the permission of CFR.org.

By Micah ZenkoCFR.org

Over the past few years, I have been fortunate to speak with a number of dedicated and thoughtful officials in the executive branch about U.S. targeted killing policies. Due to the highly-classified nature of these policies and operations that involve intelligence collection and analysis, these officials are appropriately limited in what they can reveal about the rationale, process, and scope of who the U.S. government can kill.

Nevertheless, over the course of these informal discussions and interviews, two common threads emerged. First, “There are terrorists plotting to kill Americans, and those threats must be dealt with.” Second, “I can’t get into anything operational, but I can assure you that there is a careful and deliberate process by which individuals are deemed to be threats based on strict criteria.” Without a security clearance to corroborate and verify these statements, the defense of U.S. targeted killing policies boils down to “trust me.” FULL POST

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Topics: Covert Operations • Law • President Obama
February 14th, 2012
09:00 AM ET

Zenko: When America attacked Syria

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on TwitterThe following is reprinted with the permission of CFR.org.

By Micah Zenko, CFR.org

In response to the worsening civil war in Syria and the Bashar al-Assad regime’s continuous use of rockets, artillery, and sniper fire against civilian population centers, some policymakers, analysts, and members of the Syrian opposition are calling for some sort of military intervention—no-fly zones, safe zones, humanitarian corridors, close air support, and more. The various objectives of the proposed operations are to protect civilians, assure the delivery of humanitarian assistance, aid the armed opposition, encourage military defections, or oust Assad.

Ongoing debates on intervention in Syria recall an earlier era when the U.S military was used in the region with similarly muddled objectives that led to disastrous outcomes. FULL POST

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Topics: History • Military • Syria
January 12th, 2012
08:00 PM ET

Zenko: Iranian scientists and U.S. targeted killings

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on TwitterThe following is reprinted with the permission of CFR.org.

By Micah Zenko, CFR.org

Driving in rush hour traffic yesterday morning in Tehran, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, chemical engineer and department supervisor at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, was killed. Reportedly, two men on a motorcycle attached a “sticky bomb” to Ahmadi Roshan’s Peugeot, killing the scientist and his bodyguard.Although estimates vary, Ahmadi Roshan is the fifth Iranian official or scientist connected to the country’s nuclear or ballistic missile program who has been violently killed since 2007. Another scientist, Fereydoon Abbasi, narrowly escaped a similar “sticky bomb” assassination attempt in November 2010—he now leads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. FULL POST
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Topics: Covert Operations • Iran • Military
January 10th, 2012
09:22 AM ET

Iran’s nuclear program: What intelligence would suffice?

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on Twitter. The following is reprinted with the permission of CFR.org. 

By Micah Zenko, CFR.org

In August 2006, I wrote a piece for the Washington Post, “Share the Evidence on Iran,” which called on the George W. Bush administration to declassify the main findings of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. As many aspects of Iran’s progress towards nuclear capability had already been selectively leaked to the media, I argued that “declassifying the key judgments and dissents would publicly establish the intelligence community opinion” and clarify erroneous judgments.

My argument, formulated after reading several hundred declassified NIEs for a research project, was that, if President Bush authorized a preemptive attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities, his administration should put forth a compelling and qualified rationale for the necessity of such a risky endeavor. This should include the public release of the most accurate U.S. government estimates—in this case, the NIE—sanitized so as not to reveal classified sources or methods. President Bush was certainly aware of this reality when he revealed in 2006: “People will say, if we’re trying to make the case on Iran, ‘Well, the intelligence failed in Iraq, therefore how can we trust the intelligence in Iran?” FULL POST

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Topics: Iran
November 9th, 2011
11:40 AM ET

Zenko: Iran’s nuclear program and the IAEA

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on TwitterThe following is reprinted with the permission of CFR.org. 

By Micah Zenko, CFR.org

For those who regularly read the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports from the Director General to the Board of Governors on Iran’s nuclear program, the report leaked yesterday was remarkable in scope and detail of its findings. In particular, the annex, “Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Programme,” listed every step required to make a highly enriched uranium nuclear explosive device and ballistic missile delivery system. An anonymous Obama administration official correctly stated: “It’s a very telltale sign of nuclear weapons work.”

Yet, like the previous thirty-four IAEA Iran reports, this one does not answer the essential question of whether Iranian decision-makers have opted to pursue a nuclear weapons capability. That is an issue of intent, which is a judgment call that the Statute of the IAEA does not authorize the agency to attempt. The relevant statute authorizes the IAEA:

“To establish and administer safeguards designed to ensure that special fissionable and other materials, services, equipment, facilities, and information made available by the Agency or at its request or under its supervision or control are not used in such a way as to further any military purpose.” FULL POST

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Topics: Iran • Nuclear
October 11th, 2011
01:09 PM ET

Time to impose a No Fly Zone over Syria?

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on Twitter.

By Micah Zenko, CFR.org

In mid-August, talk show host Stephen Colbert asked U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice why the United States had not intervened to save the lives of Syrians as it had in Libya. Ambassador Rice replied that Syrian opposition members had told U.S. diplomats, “What they want from the United States is more leadership, political pressure, and sanctions, but very clearly no military intervention.”

Since then, opposition forces who seek the fall of the Bashar al Assad regime have increased their demands for an international military intervention in the form of a no-fly zone (NFZ) over all or parts of Syria. However, as was true in Libya, the military mission that is actually required is one of close air support. It is important for the international community to correctly assess the situation on the ground and understand the distinctions between NFZs and close air support before exploring the use of military force in Syria. FULL POST

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Topics: Syria • United Nations
Anwar al-Awlaki: What we learned from his killing
Anwar al-Awlaki
October 3rd, 2011
11:00 PM ET

Anwar al-Awlaki: What we learned from his killing

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on Twitter. You can watch Fareed Zakaria's interview with Adm. Mullen this Sunday at 10a.m. ET/PT.

By Micah Zenko

After covert military operations are revealed - in this case by text message from the Yemeni defense ministry - a number of operational details emerge soon after. U.S. government officials, usually speaking as anonymous sources, provide post-hoc justifications for why the dangerous or lethal operation was necessary, and ideally how it fits more broadly into U.S. foreign policy objectives.

For example, in the immediate aftermath of the Osama bin Laden raid, we learned that the operation was code-named Neptune Spear, the CIA operated a nearby secret facility to recruit informants and watch the bin Laden compound, and CIA analysts believed that the odds Bin Laden was there to be no better than 50-50.

Like the killing of bin Laden, the attack of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was a covert operation, defined by U.S. law (Title 50, section 413(e)) as “an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.” FULL POST

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Topics: Terrorism • United States
Admiral Michael Mullen: Farewell and thank you
Adm. Mike Mullen. (Getty Images)
September 29th, 2011
01:10 PM ET

Admiral Michael Mullen: Farewell and thank you

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on Twitter. You can watch Fareed Zakaria's interview with Adm. Mullen this Sunday at 10a.m. ET/PT.

By Micah Zenko

Tomorrow, the Pentagon will hold a ceremony celebrating the service and retirement of the seventeenth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen. While he served as chairman during two wars, combined with bi-monthly trips to twist the arms of Pakistan’s military leadership, Mullen should be remembered for his integrity as the nation’s most senior military official, relentless efforts to raise awareness of the mental health problems facing deployed service members, and courage to take positions that put him at odds with many in uniform, including the service chiefs. FULL POST

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Topics: Military • United States
September 27th, 2011
05:00 PM ET

How we die

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on Twitter.

By Micah Zenko

Although it is probably a misattribution, Joseph Stalin is reported to have said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Every year, between 55 and 60 million people die, while roughly 140 million people are born. According to the most recent estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are approximately 6.96 billion people currently living around the world.

The nearly seven billion people alive speak to the spectacular progress and advancements of modern health care, specifically in the fields of infant mortality and health of the elderly. However, the vast majority of people who die prematurely are due to causes that are entirely preventable. FULL POST

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Topics: Global
The danger of space debris
The River Nile, Red Sea and Sinai Peninsula, as seen from the space shuttle Columbia during NASA's STS-83 mission, April 1997. (Photo by Space Frontiers/Getty Images)
September 24th, 2011
08:25 AM ET

The danger of space debris

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on Twitter.

By Micah Zenko

In late June, six astronauts living on board the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits some 200 miles above the earth’s surface, received notice that a piece of space debris travelling 29,000 miles per hour would pass dangerously nearby.  NASA officials calculated that the probability of the ISS being hit at around one in 360. (One in 10,000 is NASA’s nominal threshold for which it will authorize a “collision avoidance maneuver.”)

Normally, the ISS receives ample notice so that it can maneuver out of the pathway of potential space debris. However, with less than fifteen hours’ warning, the astronauts were forced to relocate to Soyuz space capsules for only the second time in the ISS’s thirteen-year history.

While the debris missed the space station by 1,100 feet, orbital space debris is a growing threat to civil, military, and commercial satellites in space.

FULL POST

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Topics: Global • Space • Strategy
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