In a letter to three U.S. senators that recently came to light, CIA director John Brennan outlined how his intelligence agency deals with abusive partners, referring – it would appear – primarily to foreign security forces. But even more striking than the approach he outlines is his brutally honest admission that the CIA sometimes partners with human rights abusers.
The agency’s covert nature leaves its laws, rules and regulations opaque. However, it has long been known that the CIA is not subject to human rights vetting requirements when it comes to partnering with foreign security forces, as the State and Defense departments are, under what is commonly known as the Leahy Law, named for Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy. Congress first approved the law in 1997, when it was revealed that Colombian army units were receiving U.S. funds while massacring civilians. The Leahy Law restricts the State Department and Pentagon from using U.S. taxpayer dollars to assist, train or equip any foreign military or police unit that is credibly believed to have engaged in gross violations of human rights – such as extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and forced disappearances.
On moral grounds alone there can be little objection to this restriction. But it also makes sense for national security. While Brennan may not acknowledge it, abusive security forces combatting domestic insurgencies typically exacerbate long-standing grievances and provide armed opposition and terrorist groups with a very powerful recruiting tool.
Over the years, and particularly in countries where the U.S. has major counterterrorism concerns, Human Rights Watch has found widespread abuses by many of the governments allied with the U.S. – and often by their proxy militias as well.
In Iraq, where the U.S. has spent billions of dollars to build a domestic counterterrorism capacity, we have documented pervasive corruption and abuse – both at the core of the institutions and within specific units. As Iraqis have increasingly taken over their country’s security, military units and allied militias have indiscriminately attacked civilians and intentionally destroyed civilian property that has polarized communities. As the last 18 months have shown this has made it much easier for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, to gain ground.
In Afghanistan, more than 13 years after the fall of the Taliban government, those responsible for mass killings, murder, rape, torture and enforced disappearances enjoy impunity because of their senior government positions. That leaves the central government, if it’s even willing, unable to make significant headway on legitimate reform issues to meet the needs of ordinary citizens.
In Nigeria, the intensification of Boko Haram attacks after the 2009 death of its leader was believed to have been fueled by the abusive tactics of government forces in collaboration with a self-appointed civilian force. Similarly, in Kenya, in a country struggling to address growing threats, counterterrorism operations have been marred by patterns of serious abuse by security forces, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and torture.
In all of these cases the propensity for national governments – and their international allies – to prioritize short-term military fixes over long-term reforms that foster the rule of law and accountability is a major contribution to ongoing instability. Heavy-handed tactics by security forces – whether government or proxy – risk further undermining confidence in the authorities, making security operations considerably less effective, and lending momentum to terrorist efforts instead of countering them.
The shadowy nature of the CIA’s intelligence operations means that partnerships are often established with entities that have weak governance and undisciplined security forces – if they’re even official governments at all. Some may depend on irregular security entities whose members tend toward excessive use of force and deeply abusive tactics. Difficult, fluid environments often demand choosing one bad option over another. The United States shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but past partnerships with abusive security forces have shown over time to be disastrous for U.S. national security.
The Leahy Law is no panacea – it cannot address every human rights concern that hobbles government effectiveness. But it does present a path for dealing with the worst of the worst – and helps to establish a consistent framework by which the State Department and the Pentagon can – and will – do business. In February, President Obama basically agreed when he noted that “[w]hen people are oppressed, and human rights are denied – particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines – when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit.”
If one of the cornerstones of the administration’s global counterterrorism policy is to retain support for partner security forces and indigenous counterterrorism capacity, U.S. policy should not be marked by CIA partnerships with abusive warlords, militia leaders, or military commanders because it seems to be the quickest path to a short-term gain. Brennan’s public letter presents an important opportunity to take a look at how to address this challenge – anything less would be dangerous, ineffective, and contrary to American national security interests.