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The Follies of a Target-Obsessed Government

The nomination of David Cohen, currently Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, to be deputy director of the CIA means more more than just the appointment of a seasoned apparatchik, popular on Capitol Hill, to high intelligence rank.  It represents the fusion in one agency of the two principal strands of American power projection.

The CIA has become notorious around the world in recent years for its leading role in incinerating high value targets with drone-fired missiles. This campaign, enthusiastically endorsed by President Obama, has been based on the presumption that the removal of individuals identified as enemy leaders is to the benefit of the United States.

Meanwhile, over at the U.S. Treasury, officials with a high degree of shared continuity in the job – Cohen has been intimately involved in this strategy for ten years — have worked to perfect the use of economic sanctions to target selected individuals.  Whereas once upon a time entire nations would be collectively sanctioned, as in the case of Cuba in the Kennedy Administration, recently developed techniques permit the economic incineration of a specific target.  Just as drones killchain2commanded from Nevada can strike across the globe, so economic missiles launched from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, housed across the street from the main building, are directed at distant targets regardless of whether the U.S. has jurisdiction- the mere threat to freeze a bank, or a bank with which the target does business, out of the New York money market is almost invariably enough to do the job.  Thus the French bank BNP Paribas was fined last June for dealing with Sudan, and obediently paid up, while shipments of food and medicine to Iran, supposedly exempt from sanctions, are held up because banks are fearful of possibly attracting condign punishment for financing the trade.

Interestingly, these two modes of offensive warfare employ similar language.  Laser-guided Hellfire missiles are “smart” weapons, while economic warriors like to talk about “smart” sanctions.  CIA drone targeteers selecting victims on the basis of their behavior – so-called “signature strikes” – talk about “conduct-based targeting”, while David Cohen has used the identical phrase to me in discussing his office’s approach to selecting targets.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, these precision weapons are deployed using similar tactics.  In the 1999 Kosovo war, for example, when our government was already enamored with precision targeting, friends and associates of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic were the subjects of “crony targeting,” their homes and businesses struck on the presumption that they would pressure the leader into surrender.

Today, selective friends and associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin are being sanctioned, banned from travelling, their overseas assets frozen, their businesses cut off from lines of credit, again on the presumption that pain and fear will cause them to pressure Putin to abandon his national security policy and surrender to western demands.

In theory, this may seem a sure-fire approach. In practice, not so successful.  There is not evidence that Milosevic’s cronies importuned him to surrender, and in any case his eventual agreement to withdraw from Kosovo was prompted by his abandonment by his Russian ally, thanks to a diplomatic deal with Washington. The progressive elimination of various Al Qaeda leaders seems to have had little effect on the group’s survival.  Meanwhile, there is no sign whatsoever that the targeting of Kremlin cronies is having the slightest effect on Putin’s policy.

This is not to say that neither lethal nor economic targeting have any effect.  They most certainly do.  Revulsion at drone strikes has contributed much to anti-American feeling in Pakistan and Yemen.  Sanctions against Saddam Hussein ruined the Iraqi middle class, fuelled Islamic fundamentalism and provided the dictator with a convenient excuse for the miseries of his countrymen.  Similarly, sanctions against Putin have enabled him to escape domestic blame for what was a deteriorating economic situation in Russia, pushing his poll ratings to heights that must be the envy of western leaders.

There is little indication that such apparently obvious facts have impinged on our target-obsessed government.  But now that David Cohen and John Brennan will have adjoining offices on the CIA’s seventh floor they can compare notes and arrive at some sensible conclusions.

Andrew Cockburn is the Washington Editor of Harper’s and author of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High Tech Assassins, to be published by Henry Holt in March, 2015.

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Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.  An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years.  In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino.  His latest book is Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (Henry Holt).

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