Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


pentagon-2008

The Pentagon in January 2008. (PHOTO: DAVID B. GLEASON/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Who Is the United States at War With? That’s Classified Information

• July 30, 2013 • 12:00 PM

The Pentagon in January 2008. (PHOTO: DAVID B. GLEASON/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

President Obama has repeatedly said the U.S. is targeting Al Qaeda and “associated forces.” But the government won’t say who those forces are.

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, Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan) 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.”

“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.”

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, Lieutenant Colonel 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. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) 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. Last Wednesday, Representative Adam Schiff (D-California) 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.


This post originally appeared on ProPublica, a Pacific Standard partner site.

Cora Currier
Cora Currier was previously on the editorial staff of the New Yorker. She has written for the New Yorker’s website, The European, Let’s Go guides, and other publications. During the 2008 presidential election, she covered the youth vote for The Nation.

More From Cora Currier

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.