The Defence Department may be preparing to end the War on Terror, but is the CIA?

Speech made at the Oxford Union by Jeh Johnson, General Counsel to the Department of Defence, 30 November 2012

Of all the places to declare the end of a war, the Oxford Union is one of the more underwhelming. Far from emphasising American power as the famous ‘Mission Accomplished’ set piece sought to do, Jeh Johnson, a top lawyer at the Defence Department, has nevertherless got up quite a stir. In remarks made earlier this afternoon, Mr Johnson suggested that:

on the present course, there will come a tipping point –a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al Qaeda and its affiliates have been killed or captured, and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that al Qaeda as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed.

Whether we have reached that point, Mr Johnson was not prepared to say.  In this, there is little to be surprised about.  The Obama Administration would love to declare an end to the War on Terror, but to do so prematurely would be more catastrophic than the converse would be politically astute.  Yet journalists are not invited to the Oxford Union for nothing, and nor do Mr Johnson’s speeches, of which by all accounts he makes a great many, make international news.  Could this be the endgame for the US in the fight against al-Qaeda?

That is now a real possibility, but reading between the lines of Mr Johnson’s speech requires delving deeper than comments fed to journalists in advance. Significantly, the end of the War on Terror does not mean perpetual peace but rather, ” a counterterrorism effort against individuals who are the scattered remnants of al Qaeda, or are parts of groups unaffiliated with al Qaeda, for which the law enforcement and intelligence resources of our government are principally responsible, in cooperation with the international community” (emphasis in the orignal).

Once the Defence Department is removed from the War on Terror, in other words, the CIA takes on the mantle.  This is hardly the revolution Mr Johnson suggests it might be.  The CIA has increasingly developed from an intelligence-gathering agency into an active instrument of assasination through its management of the drone programme.

The demilitarisation of the War on Terror suggested by Mr Johnson has no reason to include the abandonment of targeted assasination, a policy which is still subject to sketchy legal grounds. As evidence of this, Mr Johnson, when pushed on whether the legal grounds for strikes against Pakistani Taliban were (a) a resolution of the international community, (b) the consent of the Pakistani government, or (c) the inability of the Pakistani government to deal with threats to the United States’ security, could only offer an evasive ‘it’s complicated.’

If Mr Johnson does become the new Attorney General, a choice some have seen as likely, President Obama will have made a strong statement that de-escalation is the firmly preferred approach. Only the President, however, will have the authority to determine policy down the chain of command. The next few weeks may even see a bout of very public and very emotive lobbying, especially as Mr Obama tries to steer attention away from his nomination for the vacant State Department.  As we know from accounts of the exhaustive strategy meetings leading up to the Afghanistan surge, Mr Obama likes to keep close counsel.

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