Go Big or Go Home: Applying the Full Force of the U.S. National Security Apparatus


Eye in the Sky, a new movie starring Academy Award winner Helen Mirren, seeks to shed more light on the relatively new ethical dilemmas of drone warfare, notions of proportionality and sovereignty. While drone warfare and its doctrine rightly deserve to be scrutinized, and the toll collateral damage takes on civilian populations needs to be more widely discussed, the movie highlights another aspect of modern combat that ought to be looked at more closely — namely the wide range of government entities involved in these operations. As loaded as the moral questions in the film are, this menagerie of the inter-agency — military, intelligence, and civilian officials — is the gold mine of this movie lies.

The need for multi-agency, military and civilian combined efforts was well known among military leaders. When Admiral William McRaven took over Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, in the summer of 2011 the war in Afghanistan had been going on for a decade. In his confirmation hearing, Adm. McRaven noted that the operational tempo of Special Operations forces over the past decade had taken a toll on the men and women under his eventual command and their families. He also pointed out that “[m]aintaining high standards [and] challenging training environments and encouraging ingenuity develops unique and valuable operators.”  McRaven added:

Finally, continuing to break down barriers between the various agencies and departments allows for increased cooperation and synchronization, allowing the U.S. government to successfully accomplish the mission.

He likely knew in the back of his mind that eventually Congressional appropriations for the war in Afghanistan, and the broader Global War on Terror, would likely tail off in the next 3-5 years, and that his fight would have to become more of a team sport.

Indeed, the increased cooperation and synchronization McRaven called for is a key outcome of the last half-decade of the U.S. presence in a range of settings, from Afghanistan to Somalia to Yemen. This has led to a growing body of legal authorities and effective methods that have led to the prosecution of transnational criminal organizations and terrorist groups over that period of time. A key case demonstrating the effectiveness of this cooperation is the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan.

When Ambassador Richard Holbrooke announced the civilian surge in Afghanistan in the summer of 2009 the first piece of this puzzle was in place. In order to support the military surge, an influx of civilian and law enforcement trainers and advisors volunteered for long-term rotations to Afghanistan to increase the likelihood that the gains made by the military would take hold. Civilian advisors, along with their military counterparts, sought to build capacity and capabilities within the ranks of Afghan governmental institutions like the police — which are critical to maintaining safety and order — and customs forces which are critical to raise revenue for their treasury.  The importance of imparting the broad range of civilian skillsets necessary for a functioning state cannot be denied

Joint planning and operations are not new things. The National Security Act of 1947 created the Air Force and forced the secretaries of Army and the Navy to report to a secretary of defense. It also  created the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986 sought to break up the inter-service rivalries and created joint commands forcing elements of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to work together. Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) created a similar notion for law enforcement starting as early as 1980 when the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York Police Department created the first one. There are now over 100 JTTFs in the United States. But not until more recently did joint interagency task forces, or JIATFs exist. Seating soldiers and civilians next to each other breaks down institutional walls, and removes long-held stigmas and replaces them with “swivel-chair diplomacy” — where problem-solving conversations can be had in real time. These joint structures and collaborations will be a lasting legacy of our now 15 years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other military-led engagements in the region.

Until recently, there was little else to be done absent military intervention when individuals and hostile groups operated outside of the United States. When operating in or assisting friendly nations, the military and its law enforcement and civilian counterparts have similar if not identical goals, but have varied authorities and resources in terms of achieving those goals. For instance, in situations where a member of the intelligence community shares a tip with the military that a terrorist leader or shipment of weapons (or even people) will be transiting by boat through the territorial waters of a country with which we have friendly relations, it may not be feasible for the military to intervene — based either on personnel availability or through legal or policy restrictions. In the past this may have been the end of the line for this particular opportunity.

Now, however, given the vast amounts of time that the military and law enforcement have spent working side by side, the military can turn to law enforcement counterparts — sharing this intelligence and relying on other authorities to intercept and inspect suspicious cargo either alone or with host-nation partners. This scenario can obviously be played out in countless other ways with other civilian agencies including the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Coast Guard and others searching for illegal drugs, people, bulk cash, antiquities, people or weapons at or between ports of entry.

A perfect real world example of where this multi-agency effort can be exploited to greater extent is in the case of the Lebanese Canadian Bank. A chart published in The New York Times outlines the money-laundering scheme that touched five continents and involved at least one designated terrorist organization and more than two Central and South American drug cartels. While the DEA was the lead agency investigating this web of transnational crime, other agencies including the Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) played their part. And while some may not consider trade-based money laundering a garden-variety terrorism issue, this clearly displays how it benefits a group like Hizballah and why the United States needs this multifaceted approach that visionaries like Holbrooke and McRaven laid out.

The vision of Holbrooke and McRaven could scarcely be described as representative of their larger agencies. American ambassadors posted overseas would see great gains within their missions if they more fully embraced the permanent presence of staff from the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, and other civilian agencies deployed to assist in the broader national security mission. Too often, military and diplomatic officers create barriers to stymie these efforts, whether out of lack of understanding about the important contribution these individuals can make, or in order to ensure their own dominion. Addressing these issues and attitudes should start at the top. The Department of State’s headquarters elements need to more proactively fund  programs in other departments  rather than hire contractors whose expertise might be out of date or contrary to security sector agency goals and missions. The National Security Council should echo these sentiments, as they have shown in this administration that they prefer to be very hands on with a variety of foreign policy-related issues. America’s security can only be ensured if we empower the full force of our government’s national security agencies to complete their mission.


Matthew Wein is a former Policy Advisor to the DHS Assistant Secretary of Policy where he focused on International Engagement primarily in the Middle East, Africa and Europe and Law Enforcement Policy. He also served as an advisor to the DHS Director of Operations Coordination on Counterterrorism and Intelligence issues. He is a graduate of the University of Florida.

Image: DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen