Pop quiz. With whom is the U.S. presently at war?
At any other time in our nation’s history most Americans could have readily answered that question. Great Britain. Mexico. Spain. Germany. North Korea. North Vietnam. Iraq. Even college students who couldn’t name the vice president or their state’s governor would know who their non-college-material buddies were being sent overseas to kill or be killed by. These days the world is a bit more complicated.
There are the easy answers: the Taliban. Al Qaeda. Then the waters get a bit murky. One might justifiably ask if America is at war with Syria, or at least the Syrian government. Despite the fact that a majority of Americans oppose meddling in the Syrian civil war, Congress recently approved arming “vetted elements” of the Syrian opposition. Which vetted elements the Obama Administration intends to arm is anybody’s guess, as is how we intend to keep those arms out of the hands of non-vetted elements.
Are we at war with Iran? A cold war, certainly. What is America’s involvement in Syria’s civil war if not John McCain and Lindsey Graham’s attempt to poke a stick in the eye of Syria’s foremost ally?
What of America’s covert wars? Most experts agree that the U.S. is involved in at least three drone wars against Islamist “elements” in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia.
If you ask President Obama who the U.S. is at war with he will usually say “Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces.” So who are these associated forces? And just how broad is this war we are fighting?
It is not just the American people who are in the dark. Even the U.S. Congress is unsure who America is at war with, Pro Publica’s Cora Currier revealed last week. A clueless Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) recently asked Obama’s Defense Department to provide him with a list of those associated forces. Levin, at length, received the Authorization for Use of Military Force list, but then refused to share it with the press and the American people. Apparently who we are at war with is a state secret.
A Pentagon spokesman later said that the government didn’t want to give those associated forces credibility by naming them. “We cannot afford to inflate these organizations that rely on violent extremist ideology to strengthen their ranks,” a spokesman said. That assumes the Islamists who might be expected to join these “associated forces” haven’t heard of these groups either. Or did not find them credible until they made the DOD’s enemies’ list. Jack Goldsmith of the Hoover Institution’s Task Force on National Security and Law recently wondered why the U.S. government can acknowledge some enemy groups (al Qaeda and AQAP and elements of al Shabaab) without unduly inflating them, and not others.
IS IT POSSIBLE that the Obama Administration doesn’t even know all the groups America is at war with? Last May, Michael Sheehan, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that he was “not sure there is a list per se,” notes Currier, and added that it is best to leave who the associated forces are to the experts.
All this secrecy comes at a time when it has been learned -- thanks to Edward Snowden -- that the NSA has been secretly compiling calling records from cell phone users. The records include who called who, where they were, how long the call lasted -- for millions of people, both Americans and foreigners. According to the Atlantic, “this ‘metadata’ allows the government to track the movements of everyone during that period, and [to] build a detailed picture of who talks to whom. It's exactly the same data the Justice Department collected about AP journalists.”
Americans have accepted the obsolescence of fighting an old fashioned war on a traditional battlefield against uniformed armies. Now we are asked to go to war without even knowing who the enemy is. One would think it hard to support (or object to) a war against unknown enemies. But then perhaps that is the point. “The secrecy … deflects painful scrutiny that [the Department of Defense] would rather avoid,” writes Goldsmith. Perhaps the real question we should be asking is, if Americans are not permitted to know who we are at war with, what else aren’t we allowed to know?