The Complex

Obama Says U.S. Will No Longer Be the World's Policeman

President Obama told a crowd of cadets at West Point that the United States remains an "indispensable nation" that will face down terrorism threats around the world and work to bolster key allies while avoiding costly, open-ended wars. But amid Republican criticism that Obama has diminished America's standing globally, the high-profile address likely handed his opponents new support for their claim that he's more interested in a domestic agenda than one in which he'd be willing to intervene in a place like Syria, now in the third year of a bloody civil war.

Obama, speaking at the U.S. Military Academy's commencement ceremony today, said terrorism remains "the most direct threat to America at home and abroad" and stressed that the United States won't refrain from taking direct action against militants if it has actionable intelligence. He also announced a new $5 billion counterterrorism fund conceived to help the United States train allies in the Middle East and North Africa so they could battle their own homegrown extremists with little to no U.S. help. Administration officials pointed to Africa, where the military has ramped up its efforts to help the militaries of countries like Mali, Chad, and Niger.

Obama, considered by many of his critics to be a reluctant wartime president, also took pains to lower any expectation that the U.S. military should or would be America's primary tool for fixing whatever ails the world.

"The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership," Obama told the graduating cadets at West Point. "But U.S. military action cannot be the only -- or even primary -- component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."

The president's remarks came just one day after he announced a new plan for Afghanistan in which some 9,800 troops would remain in that country after 2014 to train the Afghan security forces and mount counterterror operations, but with all but a handful of security forces supporting the embassy withdrawing by the end of 2015.

Although there has been speculation for weeks that the White House would expand its program to train and arm the Syrian opposition, and perhaps Obama would use Wednesday's speech to outline it, Obama was decidedly noncommittal. The administration has long stressed that the U.S. military wouldn't intervene in the conflict and that it was committed to a diplomatic solution to the brutal civil war. Those efforts have collapsed in recent weeks, but Obama didn't acknowledge that diplomacy was no longer making any progress and offered only broad brushstrokes about what the United States would do to help.

"As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers -- no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon," Obama said of Syria. "As president, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war, and I believe that is the right decision."

A senior administration official briefing reporters after the speech had few other details, putting the responsibility for authorizing such assistance on Congress' doorstep and hinting that it could be several more months before Syrian rebels see any new assistance. Asked if the White House had settled on a plan to assist Syrian rebels, the official hinted that it had not. 

"This is something we'll be discussing with Congress in the coming weeks and months," the official said.

Some of the details that did emerge during the speech also undercut some of the president's own arguments. Some of the money in the proposed new counterterrorism fund would help pay for humanitarian assistance in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan, all of which have seen the spillover effects of the Syrian war in the form of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. That could reduce, perhaps substantially, the amount of money that would go towards training and equipping allied armed forces.

Typical of Obama's vision of the use of military forces to "build capacity" among partner nations is a plan underway since last year in which U.S. Special Operations troops are creating elite counterterrorism units in North and West Africa, including Libya, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania. The program, first reported by the New York Times this week, uses the Army's Green Berets and the secretive Delta Force to help create indigenous forces capable of fighting militants in those countries such as those from Boko Haram, an Islamist group that kidnapped about 275 schoolgirls in a remote region of northern Nigeria.

"I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy -- drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan -- to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold," Obama said, noting how such moves are a reflection of today's "principal threat," which comes from a decentralized al Qaeda in which the group's affiliates and other extremists pose the biggest threats in those countries.

"We need a strategy that matches this diffuse threat; one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin, or stir up local resentments."

Obama also committed, once again, to providing more transparency about the military operations he oversees, echoing comments he made more than a year ago at National Defense University in which he argued for more openness in terms of America's targeted killings of militants abroad. But little of that effort has come to pass.  

As Foreign Policy first reported in November, the expected migration of most drone operations from the CIA to the Defense Department has been on hold for months and is still not expected to happen anytime soon. CIA operations fall under what's known as "Title 50" operations and are therefore covert; Defense Department drone operations are, for the most part, overt and therefore subject to more Congressional oversight.

Obama's reinvigorated efforts to have more operations overseas out in the open come as Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky, threatened to hold up the judicial nomination of David Barron, who wrote a legal opinion in support of the Obama White House's killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011. Barron was ultimately confirmed on a party-line 53-45.

Obama has also failed thus far to make significant headway in closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, an objective from his first days in office and reiterated during that speech last year.

Still, as criticism mounts of his foreign policy approach, Obama said he has every intention of shining as much sunlight on those operations as possible.

"I also believe we be more transparent about both the basis for our actions, and the manner in which they are carried out -- whether it is drone strikes, or training partners," he said Wednesday. "I will increasingly turn to our military to take the lead and provide information to the public about our efforts."

 

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The Complex

Obama Administration Goof Reveals Name of Top U.S. Spy in Afghanistan

The Obama administration inadvertently revealed the name of the top CIA officer in Afghanistan to members of the press on Sunday, a rare and embarrassing breach of security procedures meant to shield the identities of U.S. spies working on dangerous missions overseas.

The name appeared next to the designation "chief of station," the term for the top CIA officer in a particular country, on a list of 15 officials who participated in a military briefing with President Obama during a surprise visit to Afghanistan over the Memorial Day weekend. The White House gave the list to a Washington Post reporter traveling with the president, who then disseminated it in a standard press pool report to 6,000 journalists, including foreign media organizations, not traveling with Obama.

Foreign Policy received the pool report and isn't revealing the CIA officer's name. Obama administration officials said revealing the officer's identity could jeopardize the security of the officer and the officer's family. Personal information about the individual is available through Google searches, but it appears that the individual's CIA connections have never been publicly reported or revealed. No other news organizations have reported the name.

The CIA, the White House, and the Pentagon declined to comment. In the past intelligence officials have warned that identifying an officer could put them or their families at risk. A CIA official as senior as the Kabul station chief, however, would rarely leave the secure compound and would usually only interact with Afghan officials who already knew his identity.

It was unclear how the officer's name was included on a list of other officials meeting with Obama, including prominent ones such as National Security Adviser Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham, and the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Gen. Joseph Dunford. The Post reported than when its journalist noticed the CIA officer's name on the list, he inquired with administration officials, since it's not common practice to reveal the identity of CIA officers. The Post reported that White House officials initially raised no concerns, because the names had been supplied by military officials, and presumably vetted for release. But when the White House realized the mistake, officials scrambled to issue a new release without the officer's name.

The last time government officials revealed the name of a CIA officer was the case of Valerie Plame, who was exposed by members of the George W. Bush administration after her husband, Joseph Wilson, wrote an op-ed criticizing the White House's march to war in Iraq in 2003. In January of this year, former CIA officer John Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison after he admitted to revealing the name of an undercover CIA officer to a reporter. Both of those incidents involved the intentional release of the officers' names for political or ideological purposes. Kiriakou, who maintains that he is a whistleblower and didn't leak the name of a CIA officer in order to harm him or his reputation, had criticized the CIA's use of harsh interrogation techniques against suspected terrorists; he disclosed the name of a CIA officer involved in the agency's detainee program in an email to a reporter writing a book about the program. This time, by contrast, revealing the name of the Kabul station chief appears to have been a startling case of carelessness.

It remained unclear on Monday whether an investigation had been opened into the security breach. Intentionally disclosing the name of a CIA officer is a criminal offense. Searches of Web sites and social media indicated that the name and affiliation of the officer don't appear to have been exposed.

The names of three chiefs of station in Pakistan have been exposed over the years, after they were named in lawsuits or revealed by critics of U.S. drone strikes in the country. At least one of them was recalled from Pakistan and given a new assignment at the CIA.

UPDATE: On Tuesday afternoon, White House spokesperson Caitlin Hayden issued the following statement: "The Chief of Staff has asked the White House Counsel, Neil Eggleston, to look into what happened and report back to him with recommendations on how the Administration can improve processes and make sure something like this does not happen again."

Gordon Lubold contributed reporting.

Saul Loeb / AFP