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Who Are We At War With? That’s Classified

Memo Pad National News

Who Are We At War With? That’s Classified


by Cora Currier, ProPublica, July 26, 2013.

In a major national security speech this spring, President Obama said again and again that the U.S. is at war with “al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces.”

So who exactly are those associated forces? It’s a secret.

At a hearing in May, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) asked the defense department to provide him with a current list of al Qaeda affiliates.

The Pentagon responded — but Levin’s office told ProPublica they aren’t allowed to share it. Kathleen Long, a spokeswoman for Levin, would say only that the department’s “answer included the information requested.”

A Pentagon spokesman told ProPublica that revealing such a list could cause “serious damage to national security.”

“Because elements that might be considered ‘associated forces’ can build credibility by being listed as such by the United States, we have classified the list,” said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Jim Gregory. “We cannot afford to inflate these organizations that rely on violent extremist ideology to strengthen their ranks.”

It’s not an abstract question: U.S. drone strikes and other actions frequently target “associated forces,” as has been the case with dozens of strikes against an al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen.

During the May hearing, Michael Sheehan, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, said he was “not sure there is a list per se.” Describing terrorist groups as “murky” and “shifting,” he said, “it would be difficult for the Congress to get involved in trying to track the designation of which are the affiliate forces” of al Qaeda.

Sheehan said that by the Pentagon’s standard, “sympathy is not enough… it has to be an organized group and that group has to be in co-belligerent status with al Qaeda operating against the United States.”

The White House tied al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and “elements” of Al Shabaab in Somalia to al Qaeda in a recent report to Congress on military actions. But the report also included a classified annex.

Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law who served as a legal counsel during the Bush administration and has written on this question at length, told ProPublica that the Pentagon’s reasoning for keeping the affiliates secret seems weak. “If the organizations are ‘inflated’ enough to be targeted with military force, why cannot they be mentioned publicly?” Goldsmith said. He added that there is “a countervailing very important interest in the public knowing who the government is fighting against in its name.”

The law underpinning the U.S. war against al Qaeda is known as the Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, and it was passed one week after the 9/11 attacks. It doesn’t actually include the words “associated forces,” though courts and Congress have endorsed the phrase.

As we explained earlier this year, the emergence of new or more loosely aligned terrorist groups has legal scholars wondering how effectively the U.S. will be able to “shoehorn” them into the AUMF. During the May hearing, many lawmakers expressed concern about the Pentagon’s capacious reading of the law. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) described it as a “carte blanche.”

Obama, in his May speech, said he looked forward “to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate.” But he didn’t give a timeframe. On Wednesday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) introduced an amendment that would sunset the law at the end of 2014, to coincide with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was voted down the same day, 185 to 236.

The AUMF isn’t the only thing the government relies on to take military action. In speeches and interviews Obama administration officials also bring up the president’s constitutional power to defend the country, even without congressional authorization.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons


  1. FredAppell July 26, 2013

    I’m pretty sure that the so called “associated forces” know we are targeting them as well. To my knowledge, America has always been clear about whom we are at war with and we have never kept our intentions secret. Keeping this information being classified is ridiculous and troubling.

    1. Independent1 July 27, 2013

      Fred, I generally agree with your comments but this time must disagree. Just why would it be important to you or really anyone else to know the names of the “associated forces” that it’s necessary for our security people to be fighting to protect us? Can you give me a reason for that? Why does everything we’re doing have to be transparent?? Especially when making that information available may in some way be aiding the enemy? As Charle pointed out above, putting many of this fly-by-night terrorst groups on a list would only serve the purpose of making them known to random wackos around the world who might then just gravitate to become members of these groups; which would only serve the purpose of expanding their terrorists capabilities. I’m really at a loss to understand why there are people who think that everything must be made known. I’m certain that the media has already been complicit in the deaths of many civilians around the world by it’s 24/7 coverage of every piece of sensitive military information it could broadcast – it was no accident that Osama bin Laden so easily escaped our troops in Afghanistan – the media kept him well informed as to just where our forces were looking for him.

      1. omgamike July 27, 2013

        Let’s just say that one of these “associated” groups is not actually associated with any terrorist faction and has not terrorist intentions, whatsovever. Let’s assume that their goal is twofold. First, to govern their country not according to what Americans want, but according to their own wants and needs. Second, that they want to control their own commercial interests, including their natural resources, be they oil, or valuable minerals. Our government would feel that they were acting against our own national interests. One man’s terrorists are another man’s nationalists. We would surely act forcibly against anyone attempting to destroy our democratic ideals, or attempt to grab our own natural resources and/or minerals. So, it then becomes in our interests to classify that group’s existence, so that we can call them terrorists, or terrorist affiliated. The American people should be aware of this information, as it would allow us to try and prevent any actions against a group who only wants to protect their own values and resources.

        1. Independent1 July 27, 2013

          And given the name of this “associated forces” the average American would know enough about what is going HOW? The average American who isn’t smart enough to know how to vote right about political candidates that are harming them every day!! Give me a break!! Sorry but I’m not buying it!! The average American doesn’t know which way is up!!!

          1. omgamike July 27, 2013

            A prime example of these “associated forces” could be Iraq and it’s people, or Egypt, or Afghanistan. Or you could look in any of several countries in Latin America, that we have meddled in their internal affairs, in the name of “democracy”. I would guess that the average American, if not already knowledgeable about these interventions, would be very interested in learning about them. I know about them and they would definitely affect my votes.

          2. Independent1 July 27, 2013

            I can’t disagree with your comments, but two of my main concerns are: 1): groups like Faux News will grab onto any opportunity they can find to over dramatize any situation that seems questionable, as they’ve done with the Benghazi attack and 2) because the vast majority of Americans will know very little about these “associated forces”, it will be difficult for the average American to discern whether or not what they’re hearing about these groups is true, or just something that’s being over trumpetted as Benghazi has been. The 4 years under Obama were by far the safest for our overseas personnel in the passed 35 years, but Faux News has turned one attack in 4 years into a media circus. (Considering that in the previous 8 years there were 13 attacks with more than 55 people dying and no media circuses, what Faux News has done is super hyprocrital and totally misleading to the American population. And you can be sure that they would do the same thing if one of the “associated forces” was any group they could overhype.)

          3. omgamike July 27, 2013

            That is exactly our problem. We have to reach those low information people, whose only sources of information are either Faux News, Rush Lumbaugh ( or his like), or even the pastors of some of the southern evangelical churches. To do this there needs to be a grassroots effort, within the southern states, to mount a massive educational advertising attack, in terms they can understand, in order to elevate their way of thinking.

            How to do that. Enrage enough progressives to mobilize an army of advocates. This will require a truly inspirational leader. One who has empathy for these low info people, who will not put them down ( or their beliefs), but will, rather, attempt to show them the truth of what is happening in America, and of how they keep voting against their own interests.

            I am open to suggestions. D devil’s advocate will be greatly appreciated in order to show the weaknesses of my assumptions/ideas.

      2. FredAppell July 27, 2013

        I can’t counter your remarks because in spite of what I wrote, I agree with your reasoning. I’m more concerned with the definition of ” associated forces”. I simply want to be assured that we are fighting the right people for the right reasons. It’s the governments job to keep us safe and secure and it is our job to make sure they do theirs without infringing on our rights. I don’t need to know everything our government does, I just want them to do it honestly. I completely agree about your media comment, their hands aren’t exactly clean either. I know I didn’t go into great detail but I hope this answer is sufficient.

        1. Independent1 July 27, 2013

          Similarly, I can’t disagree with your concerns, but two of my main concerns are: 1): groups like Faux News will grab onto any opportunity they can find to over dramatize any situation that seems questionable, as they’ve done with the Benghazi attack and 2) because the vast majority of Americans will know very little about these “associated forces”, it will be difficult for the average American to discern whether or not what they’re hearing about these groups is true, or just something that’s being over trumpetted as Benghazi has been. The 4 years under Obama were by far the safest for our overseas personnel in the passed 35 years, but Faux News has turned one attack in 4 years into a media circus.

          1. FredAppell July 27, 2013

            Well get ready for it because if it was on here than it is possible
            that we are going to hear it from some of the other news outlets as well.
            I really did like your media comment and in an ironic twist, here we are hearing about this from the media. In all seriousness though, I never gave the terrorists much thought even directly after 9/11. What they did it was incredibly evil but it didn’t worry me that they would strike again so when America went into full Intelligence and war mode I was perplexed. Of course we need to have both institutions but right now both those institutions seem to be on steroids. Terrorism has become the 21st centuries version of the Red Menace and we are completely overreacting. I still believe that we already had enough in place to stop 9/11 from occurring and that it was a once in a lifetime fluke, albeit, a very horrible fluke. Sorry, I got way off topic, but it explains my original comment. We already know how FOX would spin this and it is already out there so it’s out of our hands but we can hold our leaders to account and make sure that the checks and balances our continuing to work. Don’t take my remarks as an indictment on President Obama, my concern is primarily
            directed at our intelligence agencies who could operate with
            impunity if they so desire. Remember J. Edgar Hoover? He blackmailed an entire government. That happened in the lifetime of some of our fellow posters. I wish I had the right answers but I’m just an idealist with a willingness to see everything from different angles including the ones I don’t fully subscribe to.

      3. S.J. Jolly July 28, 2013

        In the heyday of the Soviet Union, even dairy farm production was classified, because making that information available may in some way be aiding the enemy.

  2. Lonnie Avery July 27, 2013

    For once, I agree with Sen. McCain ! If Carte Blanche is bad !

  3. charleo1 July 27, 2013

    Asymmetric, an asymmetric war, is what we’re engaged in. Guerrillas with friends.
    The whys that they hate us, are not as important in this respect, as the fact that they do. Only our understanding of that, is pertinent. That if we, “The Great Satan,” single out a group by the announcement of their name with our great infidel bullhorn, it is a cause for celebration in their world. Because, they’ve just hit the big leagues! The money, and recruits, that had been so hard to come by before, and the attention all these groups vie for, is theirs. And we made that happen. All that is fact, and there’s not a darn thing we can do about it. It seems to me, we’ve gotten into a rather bad habit when it comes to facts in this Country. We act as though as part of our self proclaimed American Exceptionalism, we may just ignore facts we don’t like.
    Like a choice we exercise as part of our liberty. Then, unencumbered by realities the problem becomes what we prefer. Easy to understand, perfect for oppositional demagoguery, with solutions totally harmonious with our own personal opinions,
    and politics. Look, I’m not discounting the validity of those who never in any circumstance trust the U.S. Government to tell them the truth. That is their opinion, and maybe their politics as well. I’m only saying, that sometimes reality requires that they do so to an extent to which they are not comfortable. Again, it is one of those facts some of us for our own reasons, fail to give the proper respect, to which all inarguable facts are due. Every Nation must have secrets for it’s own interests, and securities. And we as citizens must acknowledge the necessity for it. If our politics
    is messed up. We don’t like Congress, or we feel the President is plotting aganist
    America, or the military industrial complex is running foreign policy, or whatever
    doubts we may personally hold about the UN. None of things change the facts on
    asymmetric warfare. The fact we are in a fight right now with people who are beyond reason. We have no option to placate them, as some suggest we do. The fact is,
    they hate us, pray everyday for our destruction, and will do so until we kill them.
    That goes aganist every one of my personal beliefs. But that doesn’t keep the war
    we are in, from being what it is.

  4. Allan Richardson July 27, 2013

    Is it secret, or did the spokesman do a Rick Perry and “oops” forget the third one?

    Seriously, though, there are probably dozens of little outfits that change their names frequently, so there would be no point in listing them anyway. Unless some of us are paranoid enough to think that someone OTHER than Islamic terrorists is being targeted (with our previous President, we’re lucky it wasn’t FRANCE).

    1. Dominick Vila July 28, 2013

      Another possibility is the interpretation of promoting the benefits of ACA as a war on insurance companies and the pharma industry…
      Don’t forget, we also had a war on drugs, a war on poverty and just about anything that could be solved, allegedly, by bellicose means.
      Since we already withdrew from Iraq, the only country we are still at “war” with (I use that term with some trepidation) is Afghanistan. Needless to say, the right, who never saw a war they didn’t like, including some with tiny islands that are hard to differentiate from fly poop on a map, are now convinced that launching drone attacks against Al Qaeda camps in places like Pakistan and Yemen are acts of war, a no-fly zone in Libya was a major war in their eyes, and training some rebel groups in Syria is definitely the start of WWIII.

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