A question for the readership

[ by Charles Cameron — terminology of war ]

.

I have a question:

Do we have or need a term for the kind of situation where one nation, while ostensibly at peace with another, fights them by means that are plausibly deniable –- I’m thinking a campaign of sabotage, computer viruses, assassinations -– whose leaders when asked if they would care to deny them, smile like so many Cheshire Cats?

This certainly seems to be one mode of the continuation of politics by other means — and once war is declared, it would fold itself into war itself as covert and info ops — but I was wondering: is there a name for this, or do we perhaps need a name for it, in “peacetime”, as one of the forms of warfare?

I pinged Mark on this, since he’d know better than I, and he replied:

There is no legal term for such a state.

Individually, these actions either constitute “violations of sovereignty” or “criminal acts” depending on how the state chooses to interpret them, until they consider them “an act of war” (i.e. mining harbors, sabotage, assassination) and act diplomatically. Until then it is a state of “peace” under International Law.

Which leaves me wondering: is it about time we had a name for this kind of war, which the United States and / or Israel may plausibly – and deniably – be waging at against Iran as we speak?

Would it be useful to have a term for, and a legal doctrine about, campaigns of this sort?

25 comments on this post.
  1. Scott:

    I always thought this was handled under the term espionage.

  2. Charles Cameron:

    Hi Scott:
    .
    Espionage is the activity, perhaps, but I guess I’m looking for a term for waging a distinct campaign of espionage.

    .
    The US is presumably spying on all sorts of people all the time, Iran included — but that makes a question like “is the US spying on Iran?” virtually useless, whereas “is the US currently conducting an espionage campaign against Iran?” — with “espionage campaign” having a distinct meaning and its own name — would be more specific and helpful, it seems to me.

  3. Peter J. Munson:

    In more ways than one, isn’t this best described as a cold war?  Perhaps a great game for those with a bit more fancy for it?  Either way, its nothing new.

    I don’t think espionage is the right term.  While covert, cold war activities are often carried out by agencies charged with espionage, the espionage piece is an intelligence function, while the covert activities are distinct.   

  4. Duncan Kinder:

    With all due respects this is cryingly obvious:
     
      “As always, should you or any of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”


    Any relationship, the nature of which could give rise to the above quotation, should be characterized as “Phelpsian.”


  5. Jeff Medcalf:

    The name for this is “peace.” Consider the era from, say, 1775 to 1815 in Europe. The French, Spanish, English and Dutch were sometimes at war, sometimes at peace. But when at peace, they were generally in the state you describe, with espionage, rebuilding for the next war, and sabotage all being common. Peace means not an absence of conflict, but an absence of large-scale killing to resolve the conflict.

     

  6. Charles Cameron:

    Thanks, all.  Here’s where I wish I’d been a historian.
    .
    Cold War? — doesn’t that include proxy wars (Vietnam)? Great Game? — didn’t that include the two Anglo-Afghan wars?  Both of these seem to be, if “peacetime” wars, then peacetime wars with smaller wartime wars within them.  Peace?  That works a bit like espionage for me — if I say we seem to be waging peace against Iran, or maybe Israel is, or we both are, there’s still some figuring out for the reader to do…
    .
    I’m looking for something like “coversion”.  As in: “we seem to be waging a coversion against Iran” or “Iran accuses us of waging a coversion against them” — where “coversion” is defined as “covert warfare including a program of espionage, sabotage, and intentional fatalities, waged under cover of peace”.

  7. Peter J. Munson:

    Well, the U.S. and Iran aren’t necessarily engaging in proxy wars, but they are certainly engaged in combat between proxies in wars that are not proxy wars.  That is to say, Iraq and Afghanistan are not proxy wars, but there is an U.S.-Iran element to some of the fighting going on between proxies.  

    I really don’t think we need another term.  This is not new.  All the new terms do is send people off pontificating about things they don’t really understand and imagining that they have found a new phenomenon and can sell a new solution to it. 

  8. Dave:

    I thought this was usually called Unconventional Warfare.

    The definition has varied over the years.  This one has been in existence for quite some time but has been replaced by the next on in the Dictionary of Military Terms (JP 1-02):

    UW is “a broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted through, with or by indigenous or surrogate forces who are organized, trained, equipped, supported and directed in varying degrees by an external source. It includes, but is not limited to, guerrilla warfare, subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities and unconventional assisted recovery.”

    The current definition of UW is:
    “Activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.”

  9. zen:

    Very interesting post Charles. Permit me a windy follow up comment 🙂
    .
    While International Law often comes across as a mixture of a joke and tendentious horsesh*t in practice, on the point of “peace or war?” you have raised, IL matters a great deal and real consequences flow from it. Furthermore, IL intersects here with national law of every sovereign state.
    .
    In the case of American domestic law, most “black” and “gray” activities are executed under either Title 10 or Title 50 of the US code (it may very well be that there are other, highly classified, authorities that govern specific and extraordinary situations, but set those aside). Title 50 defines “covert actions” carried out by the CIA or other non-military Federal intelligence agencies  as:
    .
    “an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly….”
    .
    Title 50
    activities require a “presidential finding”, usually formulated under the auspices of the NSC as a PDD/NSDD  (same legal weight as an executive order) and are subject to the reporting and oversight requirements required by the Congress. There is some leeway in the timing of reporting but ultimately to comply with the law, the White House *must* follow the reporting requirements. Failure to do so may be considered an impeachable offense, as with Iran-Contra. The oversight is stronger here because covert actions are assumed to be taking place in states with which the United States is formally at peace, possibly even friendly or allied states.
    .
    Specifically excluded from this are espionage, diplomacy and “special activities” -i.e. those carried out traditionally by military units ( yes, this means in some instances covert operations can be swept under this exception by tasking the mission to DoD instead of the CIA).
    .
    Title 10 covers the latter and falls under the military chain of command with the President as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. In this stronger constitutional position, the reporting requirements are not present for what are considered to be “traditional military activities”, even if these are functionally covert or clandestine. The implicit assumption is that most of the time the military is operating during a state of war, under an AUMF or other special legal situation. This is not always the case and the military striking at al Qaida (a combatant) may be operating in a non-belligerent state without that state’s permission or even awareness.
    .
    Now here’s the interesting part:
    .
    Most of these activities, outside of a state of armed conflict ( what war is under IL) are usually illegal on the territory of the unwilling sovereign state on which they take place, despite being legal under US law, regardless of who carries them out, IC or DoD. Furthermore, these actions may or may not also be illegal under international law but that is *heavily* dependent upon the context. Many actions that are illegal in abstract isolation become legal under international law depending on what others are doing. For example, invading a neighbor state to fight cross-border rebels is normally illegal – unless the neighbor state is unwilling or unable to take action to prevent the rebels from using their territory as a base – then such “hot pursuit” military action, overt or covert, is legally justified.
    .
    Plausible deniability comes in because the state being infringed my choose to treat captured title 10 or title 50 personnel as private criminals to be prosecuted in civil court, as irregular combatants and potential war criminals, as spies or simply “disappear them” and not acknowledge the violation of their sovereignty at all. Or they can treat their presence as a serious diplomatic incident (Nicaragua with Hasenfus, Khrushchev with Gary Powers) or an act of war. Pakistan chose to prosecute CIA contractor Ray Davis criminally for killing two ISI assassins until a diplo deal was cut to free him. this gives states maximum room to avoid escalation to war but it also permits states to escalate hostilities under the guise of peace.

  10. Charles Cameron:

    Fascinating.  And thanks in particular to Zen:

    this gives states maximum room to avoid escalation to war but it also permits states to escalate hostilities under the guise of peace.

    I think this last sentence of yours captures in a nutshell the reason — the concern — behind my question.

  11. Peter J. Munson:

    Zen, is this a true statement?  “Pakistan chose to prosecute CIA contractor Ray Davis criminally for killing two ISI assassins”  Maybe I missed something but was this ever really shown to be the case?  I don’t know that we have any evidence that they were assassins, much less ISI assassins.

  12. Larry Dunbar:

    As a reader I would say, “THERE IS NO PROGRESSIVE OR GRADIENT FORM OF WARFARE; THERE ARE ONLY ARMIES WHO FIGHT THAT WAy”. Warfare only matters in who has an advantage, and who can negotiate from a position of the greatest advantage. Right now, because for one reason, Iran was able to enter our OODA loop as we 3GW’ed Iraq. This has given them an advantage that we have not been able to master, but we are gaining. It comes down to: are they going to give China what we gave them, or are the excuses going to flow? I mean, we can see the skin, but not all that fancy technology that may, or may not, have been under the skin. #transparency 

  13. zen:

    Hi Peter,
    .
    ”  I don’t know that we have any evidence that they were assassins, much less ISI assassins.”
    .
    Very true. Our evidence is that two armed men on a motorbike were shadowing an American intel operative out in an area known to have unfriendly organizations ( I think it was LeT but my memory here could easily  be wrong) and Mr. Davis either flipped out and just happened to randomly shoot two innocent Pakistanis who were coincidentally armed and trailing him or he made a reasoned assessment that his life was in immediate jeopardy and preemptively shot his assailants knowing that would get him sent home and scrap whatever mission he was working on at best. My interpretation is that both Islamabad and Washington had their own reasons to resolve the case in the manner they did and make it go away rather having a show trial and letting Davis rot as a high-profile prisoner.
    .
    And in any event, not sure how we would go about gathering evidence in an impartial way regarding potential agents of the ISI in Pakistan 🙂  

  14. Glenn:

    Zen is accurate in his description of covert actions under titele 50 of the US Code., as far as it goes.  Covert action describes the mode in which an activity is conducted so that the government conceals its sponsorship of the activity and retain plausible deniability of its involvement in the activity. But the activity of coercing, disrupting, or overthrowing a hostile government is called unconventional warfare. US Army Special Forces have been training for it, and in some cases practicing it, since 1952.

  15. Peter J. Munson:

    Zen,
    Thanks for the reply.  As you point out tongue in cheek, don’t really think that we could get evidence in an impartial way on this, but in the murky world that is Pakistan these guys weren’t necessarily ISI sponsored.  I wouldn’t be surprised, but just saying that we don’t and won’t ever know.  This could have been a more mundane attempt on him, kidnapping, theft, etc.  While no less of a threat to him, not necessarily ISI.  After his performance at Einstein’s Bagels, though, one has to wonder at the sort of roided-out former military guys who imagine themselves to have “a bit of a SOF background” we have out doing things on contract best left to adults.  I’ve seen these guys elsewhere and many leave a lot to be desired.

  16. zen:

    Charles –
    .
    Dave and Glenn raise the important point that however these activities are defined in terms of legality, there are also important categorical definitions under military doctrine – re: unconventional warfare – theat determine tasking within the military ( ie – to general purpose or special forces and which kind of units among the latter) . I believe joint doctrine adresses some of this but Dave and Glenn can weigh in on the specifics.
    .
    Peter –
    .
    Very true – the Pakistanis could have been local criminals looking to sell a kidnap victim, militants, random thugs or low level hired informants ( like the Mexican cartels use) watching Davis. Likewise, PMC ppl also come in a wide spectrum of ability, experience and professionalism. In addition to our official CIA and DoD personnel, we have CIA contractors and also privately organized networks, like that of Mr. Clairridge and Mr. Furlong in the mix. Some events are inevitably going to be caused by error and chance and not design.

  17. Charles Cameron:

    Part of what I’m “getting” from this discussion is that military doctrine may have one term (and a purpose for its definition and boundaries), legal doctrine (international or national) may have another — and then there’s the general public, in their own discussions and as mediated through journalism — do they have their own way of discussing such things, their own term or terms — and is there a disadvantage in the possible disparity of uses?
    .
    I ask in honest ignorance, and am learning as lot from this discussion.  My thanks to all.

  18. Charles Cameron:

    My friend Ron Hale-Evans wrote me that he’d tried to post some variant of the following to zenpundit twice, without success:
    .
    In answer to “A question for the readership”, the term I have always used for such a state is “cool war,” taken from Frederik Pohl’s prescient 1979 science fiction novel _The Cool War_. It’s well worth reading in this context, I think.

    .

    I’m posting that here on his behalf

  19. Marcus Ranum:

    How about “state-sponsored terrorism” if those attacks are primarily involving civilian systems or pathways? In the case of something like the stuxnet worm, which attacked both an enrichment facility and a breeder reactor, you have a clear violation of Geneva Convention protocol #1 article 56. More to the point, however, assassinations like the ones surrounding Iran’s nuclear effort, are directed against civilians.

    I would call it either “state-sponsored terrorism” (if unattributed, but clearly requiring the resources of a state) or “an act of war” (if attributed) – acts of war can be committed without causing a war. The functional dynamic there is “if you did it to the USA, it would be considered an act of war, but if a superpower does it to you, you’re expected to bend over and take it.”

  20. Marcus Ranum:

    the activity of coercing, disrupting, or overthrowing a hostile government is called unconventional warfare

    I wouldn’t call it “unconventional warfare” if the targets were civilians. There’s a old term for that, and it’s “murder”

    Or would you say 9/11 was “unconventional warfare” waged against the US?

  21. zen:

    Hi Marcus,
    .
    You asked a number of questions, here are my best answers with the caveat that context matters:
    .
     “How about “state-sponsored terrorism” if those attacks are primarily involving civilian systems or pathways? “

    Possibly. Some “civilian systems” are also legitimate military targets. If state agents intentionally blew up a hospital or church, that would clearly be a war crime under Geneva and an act of terrorism. If they blew up transmission lines or communication towers to cripple or degrade command and control of enemy military base, it’s simply an act of war. 
    .
     “
    In the case of something like the stuxnet worm, which attacked both an enrichment facility and a breeder reactor, you have a clear violation of Geneva Convention protocol #1 article 56″
    .
    Setting aside the issue of cyber being arguable under Geneva, Iranian nuclear facilities and programs are under control of the IRGC and are therefore military facilities. The US has not ratified the 1977 Protocol in any even and is not subject to it’s provisions except to the degree which it chooses to be, being bound only by prior Geneva Convention rules. If the state (if it was a state) that launched stuxnet is a signatory then you may have a good argument.
    .
     “
    More to the point, however, assassinations like the ones surrounding Iran’s nuclear effort, are directed against civilians.

    I would call it either “state-sponsored terrorism” (if unattributed, but clearly requiring the resources of a state) or “an act of war” (if attributed) – acts of war can be committed without causing a war. “
    .
    Their civilian status is dependent on who signs their checks. But otherwise I think that is about right. both the state to state relationship and civilian vs. military target status matter in deciding which term applies.
    .
    ” The functional dynamic there is “if you did it to the USA, it would be considered an act of war, but if a superpower does it to you, you’re expected to bend over and take it.”
    .
     No. Acts of war are acts of war regardless of who does them. Most of them just don’t escalate to a state of armed conflict or the planet would have continuous warfare. And Iran dishes out plenty of misery in it’s neighborhood and sometimes further afield, like Paris 
    .
    ” I wouldn’t call it “unconventional warfare” if the targets were civilians. There’s a old term for that, and it’s “murder”
    .
    Unconventional warfare does not automatically = “deliberately targeting civilians”, which is always a war crime if they were noncombatants. Unconventional warfare covers a wide range of activities, not just combat. Not all “civilians” are noncombatants either under the Laws of War. If I work in a factory making bombs or I am an intel contractor, I’m a legitimate military target for the enemy.
    .
    ” Or would you say 9/11 was “unconventional warfare” waged against the US?”
    .
    I’d say 9/11 was “asymmetric warfare” as an operational description and an “act of war” in terms of legality. States are not the only entities capable of waging war, historically speaking. The Taliban is not a state and they are waging war just fine.

  22. Charles Cameron:

    Hi Magnus:

    .

    Calling it state-sponsored terrorism pretty much means the speaker isn’t an official of the sponsoring state who is participating actively in the sponsorship or execution of the attacks, no? It’s deprecatory pretty much by definition. I’m not looking for a term that passes judgment — nor for one that whitewashes, for that matter — but for one that’s judgment-neutral, impartial.

    .

    BTW, I enjoyed your TED talk about tiny, early software decisions becoming very costly fixes down the line very much. Butterfly wing-flaps and tornados?

    .

    And thanks for turning me on to Sword of No-Sword, too. That looks like a book that will interest me greatly.

     

  23. Marcus Ranum Ranum:

    zen – thank you for your replies. I don’t think I am exactly arguing with you; this is a topic that interests me greatly since I am heavily involved in the “cyber” side of things and have been deeply concerned over an attitude that I can only describe as “US exceptionalism” in that area. That should come as no surprise to anyone who is capable of being concerned at all, and who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last decade.

    So, not counter-arguments, but a few observations:
    Possibly. Some “civilian systems” are also legitimate military targets. If state agents intentionally blew up a hospital or church, that would clearly be a war crime under Geneva and an act of terrorism. If they blew up transmission lines or communication towers to cripple or degrade command and control of enemy military base, it’s simply an act of war.

    I made the mistake of reading the GCs in their entirety as part of preparing for a talk I did on cyberwar for ISSA’s world conference in October ’11. What I found was that the ambiguity many people infer in the language is utterly missing in the documents. The oft-quoted doctrine of proportionality is not an escape clause intended to be used to justify attacks against civilians as ‘collateral damage’ but rather as a defense that might be employed when accused of war crimes against civilians (it’s like the ‘entrapment’ defense – it means first off admitting you did the crime, but then arguing that you were retaliating for a similar action by the enemy; i.e.: it’s still a crime) Of course, militarists wish to adopt the most broad-possible reading of the GC in order to effectively ignore them. But if you actually read them they strike me as quite clearly saying, over and over and over “civilians and civilian infrastructure is off limits.”

    Now, I understand that the GC are more honored by being ignored than followed, but if we wish to live in a world in which there are no commonly-shared rules other than the fiat of power, we ought to concern ourselves with such things. Or, to me, the path of honesty would be to simply acknowledge that we’ll plant our red fist in whoever’s face we think we can get away with, and devil take the hindmost. By the same token, when we’re no longer the top dog, we ought not to complain when it’s our turn for our face to meet the boot.

    Setting aside the issue of cyber being arguable under Geneva

    I don’t think that ‘cyber’ should be set aside as ‘arguable’ simply thus: if an attack is worth doing at all, it must be damaging. And if it’s damaging and involves civilians, it’s not arguable that it’s covered under the GC – which is deliberately very broadly-worded. The attempt to care ‘cyber’ out as a separate domain is a transparent maneuver by militarists who want to be able to deliberately target civilian infrastructure and claim they’re keeping their hands clean.

    Whether Bushehr was owned by the Iranian military or a civilian power company is irrelevant; if the coolant pump failure had caused a melt-down it would have been civilians being irradiated. All I can suggest is that you read the relevant parts of the GC and see whether they seem to be clearly-written to you.

    The US has not ratified the 1977 Protocol in any even and is not subject to it’s provisions except to the degree which it chooses to be

    We would, of course, not complain then if a hostile state were to use ‘cyber’ to interfere with a domestic US reactor…

    Of course that’s the exact opposite of what is already going on: we have spokespeople from the US DoD saying “if you shut down our power grid we may respond with a missile between your smokestacks” – so clearly we expect other powers to adhere, with regard to us, to rules we appear to be involved in breaking.

    Their civilian status is dependent on who signs their checks.

    I think we would consider most US employees of our Department of Energy to be “civilians” wouldn’t we?

    Again, I am not arguing with you on this issue, but I fear I see a strong trend towards a denial that sauce for the goose might taste just fine on the gander.

    This issue has historically not been decided based on a doctrine of who signs the paychecks but rather whether or not the target(s) in question wear a uniform and/or carry a weapon. I have tried to determine whether the assassinated Iranian nuclear researchers were military in uniform or not; any information you might have would be very interesting.

    I suspect the US would “have a cow” if someone car-bombed a researcher as they left our facility at Los Alamos. Just a guess.

    Unconventional warfare does not automatically = “deliberately targeting civilians”, which is always a war crime if they were noncombatants

    Yes, you’re right. I’m sorry if I sounded like I was saying that – if that was the impression, I was being unclear. My concern is that there appears to be a consistent effort on the part of US policy-makers to remove any protections that civilians might expect, in order to broadly target anyone and anything in a country that we are at war or even a state of mild annoyance with. This concerns me, and I believe it should concern everyone with any humanitarian instincts. Even if it doesn’t appeal to another person’s humanitarian instincts, even if I’m dealing with a psychopath, it ought to concern them because eventually the shoe winds up on the other foot and paybacks are a real bitch.

    I’d say 9/11 was “asymmetric warfare” as an operational description and an “act of war” in terms of legality.

    I agree completely with that. We would not accept the argument that 9/11’s civilian deaths were collateral damage against a military target (the US economy) and therefore excusable as such. No decent human being would. Again, my concern is that many of the policy-makers in Washington right now do not appear to be decent human beings.

  24. Marcus Ranum Ranum:

    Calling it state-sponsored terrorism pretty much means the speaker isn’t an official of the sponsoring state who is participating actively in the sponsorship or execution of the attacks, no? It’s deprecatory pretty much by definition. I’m not looking for a term that passes judgment — nor for one that whitewashes, for that matter — but for one that’s judgment-neutral, impartial.

    I agree with you, however, I think that it’s entirely reasonable to use deprecatory terminology for attacks that are launched by a state with no intent to attribute them. Searching for non-deprecatory terminology for such a thing – does it not amount to an attempt to pre-whitewash it?

    (I am glad you enjoyed the talk, and the book about Tesshu is truly illuminating. I cannot recommend studying that fascinating person enough; there is a magnificence when a person is so utterly focused on excellence in an area. And if you wish to see that level of focus/excellence in action today I recommend you take a look on youtube for ‘kuroda tetsuzan iaido’ Amazing is not the right word.)

  25. Charles Cameron:

    Marcus:
    .
    I too think it’s entirely reasonable to use deprecatory language if that suits your purpose — but there are also situations where one wants to use a technical, non-prejudicial terminology.  I was wondering what that might be in this case.  Sometimes one might want to call the Pope “the deceiving Antichrist”, ne?  Sometimes “the blessed successor to Saint Peter of blessed memory” — and sometimes, well, just plain old “the bishop of Rome”. I can imagine one Irishman saying the first thing, another saying its opposite — and the third consulting a dictionary, and coming up with the third.
    .
    Thank you once more for the pointers to Tesshu, and to Tetsuzan Kuroda.