from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

You Might Have Missed: Drones, Blowback, and Intelligence Briefings

December 5, 2014

Blog Post

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Rear Adm. Kirby in the Pentagon Briefing Room, U.S. Department of Defense, December 2, 2014.

Q: Will the 9,800 remaining troops have a combat role or not?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: The 9,800 American troops that will be contributing to the missions going forward in Afghanistan will be dedicated to two things and not of equal number. But one is to contribute to Resolute Support, which is a train, advise and assist mission inside Afghanistan. And two, to assist with some counterterrorism work that still needs to be done in concert with Afghan forces. But the combat mission ends. The ISAF mission ends at the end of the month. And we will transition to a mission of advise and assist the Afghan national security forces.

(3PA: As part of the Obama administration’s consistent efforts to define down the concept of war, “some counterterrorism work” is not considered “combat.”  This also contradicts the scope of President Obama’s order for what missions the remaining U.S. forces may conduct.)


Daniel Byman, “The Foreign Policy Essay: Thoughts on Counterterrorism and ‘Blowback’,”Lawfare Blog, November 30, 2014.

In today’s context, blowback is most commonly used to refer to the nasty consequences that result from the use of certain counterterrorism tools: angering masses of people and thus creating more sympathy for the terrorists and, presumably, increasing their fundraising and recruitment capabilities and making it easier for them to operate.

More subtly, attacking Al Qaeda or its estranged relatives like the Islamic State might lead to an increase in attacks on the United States...On the one hand, counterterrorism officials don’t want to stand idly by as these groups grow stronger and then suddenly find themselves confronted with a major threat. On the other hand, although these groups share Al Qaeda’s hatred of the United States, their energies are focused locally and regionally.

To the extent that U.S. leverage on human rights issues comes from perceptions that the United States adheres to international standards of behavior in its foreign policy, many counterterrorism programs undermine U.S. status.

Although blowback is difficult to determine and measure, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist—and some things like torture are inherently wrong even if blowback is minimal. The United States and its allies should be on the lookout for signs of blowback, watching the discourse among jihadists from their testimonials as well as social media sites like Twitter to see which actions are particularly hated. Particularly important is judging how counterterrorism will affect the actions of different terrorist groups…Such care is at the heart of thinking strategically about counterterrorism: the United States needs to ensure that the terrorist narrative is discredited as well as defeat individual terrorists.


Howard Altman, “Experience briefing president leads new agency chief to raise bar,” Tampa Tribune, November 14, 2014.

“I’ve never seen or felt a more thoughtful, directing, meaningful customer of intelligence” than Obama, says [Robert Cardillo, former deputy director for intelligence integration in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence], speaking with the Tribune in his first one-on-one newspaper interview since taking over the agency in October.

Obama, says Cardillo, “tended to be very strategic. I didn’t get a whole lot of overnight development questions. The questions I got, and this is generally about the West Wing, tended to be, OK, I get it Cardillo, that such and such happened in the past three days, Expand the optic for me, OK. What’s that mean for the region? What’s that mean for the next two or three years? And you keep bringing me challenges. You keep bringing me problems. Where’s the opportunity in that? Where do you see an opening?”

Cardillo, the NGA’s [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency] sixth director, says those exchanges, which he describes as “very thoughtful and provocative,” helped him realize that intelligence analysts need to look at the bigger picture sometimes, and that the agency as a whole had to be more able to anticipate what customers need.

(3PA: What is notable about Cardillo’s description of Obama’s questioning is that it appears the president is asking his intelligence briefer for policy options, which is frowned upon by intelligence analysts.)


James Risen, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2014).

In an interview, one source involved with Alarbus and Jerash said that he attended meetings with others who had ties to Jerash Air Cargo to discuss a complex smuggling operation with a plan to purchase advanced American-built drones, supposedly for sale and shipment to Jordan. Since Jordan is such a strong ally—Jordanian intelligence is the CIA’s favorite and most reliable Arab partner—it might have been possible to obtain the necessary U.S. export licenses authorizing the drones’ sale and shipment. But in addition to drone sales to Jordan, the group was also seeking to find a way to sell to Lebanon and Syria, according to the source. The source said that they discussed a scheme through which drones would be shipped to a company based in Cyprus, where documents would be forged to make it appear as if the unmanned vehicles were from China rather than the United States. They would then be shipped from Cyprus to Damascus as if they had just been transshipped from China, leaving no official record of any shipments of American-made drones to Syria. The unmanned vehicles could then be easily moved from Syria to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, or even to Iran. (pp. 132-133)


David C. Gompert, Hans Binnendijk, and Bonny Lin, “Blinders, Blunders, and Wars,” RAND Corporation, 2014.

Factors that are significant in at least three cases or most important in at least one case are:

  • Information is ignored, filtered, misconstrued, or manipulated to fit predispositions.
  • Excessive reliance is placed on intuition and experience.
  • Arrogance, egotism, or hubris causes unwarranted confidence.
  • A rigid but wrong strategic concept or vision prevails.
  • Contingencies are not considered.
  • Enemy will or capabilities are underestimated.
  • Operational difficulty or duration is underestimated.
  • Dissent and debate are stifled.

There are cause-and-effect relationships among these factors. In particular, decisionmakers who have unwarranted faith in their intuition, indulge in hubris or arrogance, or are seized with a powerful but faulty strategic concept are consequently more likely to misuse information, to underestimate their enemies and ignore the difficulties they face, to think through what could go wrong, and to suppress disagreement


David Rothkopf, National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2014).

John Brennan offers a somewhat contradictory view from his perspective as a specialist in counterterrorism. “It’s not just going to be the Predators. It’s going to be miniaturized drones….You can do a fair amount of damage by loading up several kilos of explosives onto an aerial platform that you can direct into someone’s office. And the technology is there.” He concludes, somewhat ominously, “you know, looking out over the next five years, technology can be our best friend—but it’s also our worst enemy, because the terrorists are taking advantage of it.” (p. 327)

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