Bob Woodward's Not-so-Secret Weapon

Tuesday, 16 September 2008 16:40 By Steve Weissman, t r u t h o u t | Perspective | name.

Bob Woodward
Predator drone aircraft. (Photo: Chad Slattery /

    In November 2001, during the Bush administration's foreshortened war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, a US missile slammed into the broadcasting headquarters of Al Jazeera in Kabul. In March 2004, Israeli helicopters flew over a mosque in northern Gaza shortly after morning prayers and fired three missiles to kill Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. And just last week in Pakistan's unruly frontier area, a US drone fired into a guesthouse, reportedly killing 12 people, while a helicopter gunship flew several miles into the area on a "snatch and grab" operation against suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists.

    Hold these diverse military operations in mind as you listen to journalist Bob Woodward's revelation that the American military has developed "secret operational capabilities ... to locate, target and kill leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq, insurgent leaders, renegade militia leaders."

Also see:     
Steve Weissman | But What About Al Jazeera?    â€¢
Steve Weissman | The Killing of Sheik Yassin    â€¢

    "This is very sensitive and very top secret," Woodward declared on CBS's "60 Minutes" in an interview promoting his new book, "The War Within: Secret White House History 2006-2008." He said, "This is one of the true breakthroughs."

    On CNN's "Larry King Live," he enthused, "It is a wonderful example of American ingenuity solving a problem in war, as we often have."

    Woodward compared the development of these new capabilities to the multibillion-dollar Manhattan Project, the top-secret effort to create the first atomic bomb during World War II. He also gave the secret killings major credit for reducing the violence in Iraq, seeing them as more of a game-changer than the surge of 30,000 US troops, on which Senator John McCain has built so much of his campaign for president.

    Refusing to reveal details, Woodward insisted that too much talk could compromise the program and "get people killed," a bizarre turn of phrase about a program whose purpose was to get people killed. In any case, Woodward would tell only enough to hype his book, and not a single word more. Such is the discretion required of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author permanently embedded in the Washington power structure.

    Were he less enthralled, Woodward might have admitted that at least some of his sources wanted to publicize their project. As evidence, take National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley's response to the revelations. Even as he rushed to insist on the primary importance of the surge, he took pains to acknowledge the existence of the "newly developed techniques and operations."

    Even more to the point, the Pentagon has for years talked openly about the black arts that Woodward would describe only in a stage whisper. As early as the summer of 2004, the Defense Science Board called for a "Manhattan Project" to give the military 21st century technologies for identifying, locating, and tracking terrorists - both abroad and at home. More recently, the Pentagon's Special Operations Command posted online a September 2007 slide show on "Continuous Clandestine Tagging, Tracking, and Locating (CTTL)."

    Earlier targeted operations, such as the attack on Al Jazeera in Kabul, depended on electronic monitoring of cell phones and satellite uplinks, while the Israelis have found their targets with the help of both electronic intercepts and spies on the ground. The Pentagon's latest plans for CTTL go far beyond, and include everything from covertly tagging suspects with microscopic radio chips to tracking them by the way they walk and even they way they smell.

    The whole business has all the whiz-bang of science fiction, and even a hint of its possibilities could be expected to terrorize the terrorists, which might be the reason that someone in high places wanted Woodward to spread the word. But beyond CTTL's wizardry, both real and imagined, Woodward's gung-ho enthusiasm blinded him to the obvious question. No matter how brilliantly done, does targeted killing work in the long run against a popularly supported resistance to colonial rule?

    The Israelis have spent years developing many of the same technologies as the Pentagon, but so far the dramatic killings of Sheik Yassin and others have only built Palestinian support for Hamas.

    The United States tried targeted killing in Vietnam with the decidedly low-tech Phoenix Program: identifying, torturing and killing thousands of the National Liberation Front's political cadre. For all the electric shocks and bullets to the brain, the program failed, as the world saw in April 1975 when American helicopters beat a hasty retreat from the rooftop of the embassy in Saigon.

    And, now on the Pakistani frontier, the White House wants Osama's head before the end of George W. Bush's presidency. So, American drones and commandos are waging an undeclared war that could well topple the country's democratically elected government.

    These are the horrors that happen when journalists give up their role as watchdogs and become running dogs for Shock and Awe, surgical strikes, enhanced interrogation techniques, the latest counter-insurgency tactics, or whatever else the National Security State wants to sell. But the horror will be far worse if we forget that the Pentagon has explicitly committed itself to make its new tagging, targeting and locating technology available for use within the United States.

Last modified on Tuesday, 16 September 2008 18:08