The Essential Spy Guide

War isn’t what it used to be. Today’s covert warriors face a new set of threats. Here, a guide to gauging the risks and payoffs of kill-or-capture operations. By Henry A. Crumpton.

Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty

While our nation closes the chapters on larger wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our intel-warriors remain engaged there and in other hostile areas throughout the world. U.S. Special Operations Forces are deployed in more than 75 countries. Intelligence officers are posted worldwide. Many of our leaders and pundits complain about the weariness and wariness of war, but the nature of conflict has changed. We face persistent, resilient, diffused, networked nonstate enemies with growing asymmetric power who operate across the globe and challenge our security—and our reference points for combat.

Some leaders wonder if we are at war beyond the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. We are, but in a different way. Our conflicts are similar to managing deadly outbreaks of disease, with clear, conclusive victories seldom known or celebrated. They are also marked by repeated, specific, micro-interventions. Such missions are characterized by small, speedy, stealthy, and specialized operations that require extraordinary judgment and include decisions about lethal force.

A critical aspect of this new way of war is the U.S. government’s policy of capturing or killing our nation’s nonstate enemies, particularly al Qaeda and affiliated groups. In a debate generating a sharp divergence of views, complicated by Westphalian nation-state paradigms of power and Cold War bureaucratic structures, our leaders struggle to chart a path that our intel-warriors and all our citizens can understand and follow.

These capture-or-kill operations, often covert, span a dynamic, complex global landscape far away from traditional concepts of a battlefield. In such irregular and uncertain domains, when are these missions just, lawful, smart, and necessary? When should we kill instead of capture? And who among our leaders are responsible and accountable?

Each operation poses unique challenges. Each decision demands a blend and balance of many variables. Here are 10 recommendations that may advance our public discourse and inform the leaders who must protect both our nation and our brave intel-warriors, who fight not only the enemy but also face the acute risks of shifting foreign policies, variable interpretations of the law, and randomly capricious politics.

1. Know your enemy. This knowledge should not be limited to the correct identification of the target, although that is obviously essential. The U.S. government has sometimes detained or killed the wrong people. We must also understand the target’s strengths and weakness—in the tactical and strategic sense—so we can gauge the threat. The operation against bin Laden was correct on both counts: a brilliant tactical action with a profound, positive strategic impact. Knowing an enemy’s strategy is essential in developing our own. Leaders, as consumers of intelligence, must demand this.

2. Know the operational environment. Geography—a dense, urban, vertical landscape or a sparse desert environment—matters. Just as important is demography, or human terrain. Ethnicity, norms, values, language, politics, and socioeconomic conditions are critical factors. Today’s conflicts are usually less about nation-states and more about the people who inhabit areas either within or across nation-state borders. The locals are allies, enemies, bystanders, and/or adherents to a variable mix of attitudes and interests.

3. Know the strategic environment and the geopolitical consequences of our actions. A successful strike against an enemy could have both anticipated and counterintuitive repercussions. A lethal operation, even an accurate and justified one, could undermine larger diplomatic or humanitarian initiatives. Alternatively, passing up a shot could allow an enemy to escape, kill U.S. citizens, and erode U.S. power.

4. Assess the potential value of intelligence of both the target and the site. With far more al Qaeda operatives killed than captured in the last several years, we have lost valuable intelligence, not only essential in thwarting the enemy but also in securing more leads for more sources. Good, sustained intelligence builds larger, deeper collection networks that can drive operational momentum and thereby help secure U.S. interests.

5. Assess the variables of unilateral U.S. action or bilateral/multilateral action. The 2012 unilateral operation against bin Laden was the right call given the unreliability of our Pakistani ally. A multilateral approach (Turkey, Jordan, U.S., and possibly others) led to the recent capture of bin Laden’s son-in-law and al Qaeda propagandist Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. He is now in a U.S. prison awaiting trial.

6. Know and select the right instruments of statecraft and orchestrate them to maximum effect. When and where the U.S. can rely on effective local rule of law, use it. If this is not possible, the U.S. must project power within the bounds of our law. This may include presidential authorized covert action—that should reinforce a broader foreign policy. At the same time, our citizens and Congress must recognize that conflict is evolving and our laws must reflect this change.

7. Ensure that U.S. persons, both citizens and lawful immigrants, are protected by the Constitution. The president alone should not be able to designate a U.S. person as an enemy combatant and then order operatives to kill him. U.S. persons have rights, especially judicial process related to life and death. Our leaders should also factor in the rights for citizens of key allies.

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8. Consider how we kill, because it matters. A hellfire missile fired from a drone provides a precise lethal response, reduces operational risk, and offers a psychological buffer—but at a cost. We may lose the benefits of site exploitation for intelligence, the intimate knowledge of the human terrain, and the opportunity to demonstrate our valor and garner local respect. These are not small things, especially when we think of just war, including proportionality of force, and the perceptions of others.

9. Assess the consequences for precedents that we set. The U.S. is a global leader; other nations will follow.

10. Examine how our actions define our nation, define who we are, and influence our future generations—while embracing the imperative to protect our citizens today.