TIME Military

The Rescue That Wasn’t

Part of a damaged helicopter is seen lying near the compound where al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad
The tail of a downed Special Ops helicopter inside bin Laden's compound in Pakistan in 2011. The pilots who led that successful mission belonged to a unit created because of a failed rescue effort in Iran 31 years earlier. REUTERS

If you're waiting for perfect intelligence to guarantee success, you'll never launch a military rescue mission

The Pentagon spoiled Americans with its near-perfect grab of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Save for a wrecked helicopter, Operation Neptune Spear went off without a hitch (assuming, as many Americans did, that taking bin Laden alive was never a top priority).

But the Navy SEALs drew to an inside straight that night in Abbottabad, Pakistan. All the practice in the world can’t trump bum intelligence. And the U.S. intelligence community’s estimates that bin Laden would be in the compound where he died ranged from 30 to 95%. If bin Laden hadn’t been there, the raid would have been deemed a failure, and would perhaps still be a secret.

The Pentagon only confirmed the failed July raid to rescue James Foley, whose murder was made public in a video released by Islamic militants on Tuesday, and several other U.S. hostages in Syria, after word began to leak out late Wednesday. “Unfortunately, the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, said in a statement.

Such misses have happened before.

In 1970, 56 U.S. troops raided North Vietnam’s Son Tay prison camp to rescue the estimated 55 U.S. POWs believed to be there.

Technically, Operation Ivory Coast succeeded: the U.S., using more than 100 aircraft to support the operation, seized the camp. Unfortunately for the U.S., the North Vietnamese had moved the prisoners a day earlier due to North Vietnamese concerns that the camp was too close to a river that might flood. Two U.S. troops were injured during the mission.

Perhaps the most infamous rescue attempt since then was 1980’s Operation Eagle Claw, the aborted mission to bring home the 52 U.S. hostages held in Tehran after Iran seized the U.S. embassy there. They had been held for six months when President Carter ordered eight choppers on a risky two-night mission to rescue them. But sandstorms and mechanical woes grounded three of them on the first day, forcing the military to scrub the mission. As they withdrew, one of the helicopters hit a refueling plane at the Desert One staging site in the Iranian desert, killing eight U.S. troops.

The fiasco doomed any chance Carter had of winning a second term—Iran released the hostages shortly after Ronald Reagan took office—and led Congress to create the U.S. Special Operations Command to coordinate such efforts in the future. It also led the Army to create the Night Stalkers of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the unit whose pilots flew the Navy SEALs to bin Laden’s lair.

TIME Military

U.S. Launched Operation to Rescue ISIS Hostages, Pentagon Says

Journalist James Foley covers the civil war in Aleppo, Syria, in November 2012.
Journalist James Foley covers the civil war in Aleppo, Syria, in November 2012. Nicole Tung—AP

No hostages were found at the target location

Updated Aug. 20, 9 p.m. ET

The United States launched a rescue operation this summer to free American hostages held in Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Department of Defense said Wednesday, but no hostages were found at the target location.

In a statement released a day after the Sunni extremist group released a graphic video showing the execution of American journalist James Foley, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. Kirby confirmed that American air and ground forces attempted a rescue to free a number of American hostages held by militants in Syria.

A U.S. government official confirmed Wednesday night that Foley was among the Americans the military attempted to rescue.

“This operation involved air and ground components and was focused on a particular captor network within [ISIS]. Unfortunately, the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location,” Kirby said. “As we have said repeatedly, the United States government is committed to the safety and well-being of its citizens, particularly those suffering in captivity. In this case, we put the best of the United States military in harms’ way to try and bring our citizens home.”

Lisa Monaco, the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, said Obama authorized the operation “because it was the national security team’s assessment that these hostages were in danger with each passing day in [ISIS] custody.”

The ground portion of the operation was carried out by U.S. special forces operators. Monaco said the government wouldn’t go into detail on the operation to protect “operational capabilities.”

“The United States government uses the full breadth of our military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to bring people home whenever we can,” Kirby said. “The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will work tirelessly to secure the safety of our citizens and to hold their captors accountable.”

In a statement to reporters Wednesday, Obama referenced the Americans still being held by ISIS. “We keep in our prayers those other Americans who are separated from their families. We will do everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for. “

TIME National Security

Study: Passport Officers Struggle to Spot Fake Photo IDs

Officers failed to recognize faces were different from ID photos 15% of the time in a test situation

Officials charged with issuing passports mistakenly accepted photo identification displaying a different person 14% of the time, according to the results of a study published Monday.

The study asked officials to accept or reject someone based on whether a displayed photo matched the person before them. They mistakenly accepted someone with a different photo displayed almost 15% of the time and mistakenly rejected someone whose real photo was displayed 6% of the time.

“At Heathrow Airport alone, millions of people attempt to enter the UK every year. At this scale, an error rate of 15% would correspond to the admittance of several thousand travellers bearing fake passports,” said Rob Jenkins, a psychology researcher at the University of York and study co-author.

Officers fared even worse on a separate test that asked them to match a current photo with identification photos taken two years prior. They matched the photos incorrectly 20% of the time, a figure equivalent to the performance of an untrained control group.

The study, which tested 27 Australian passport officers, found that training had little influence on officers’ ability to identify faces on passports correctly. The best way to address faulty identification is to hire people who are innately better at identifying faces, researchers concluded.

“This study has importantly highlighted that the ability to be good at matching a face to an image is not necessarily something that can be trained,” said University of Aberdeen professor Mike Burton, a study co-author. “It seems that it is a fundamental brain process and that some people are simple more adept at it than others.”

TIME Military

Dam Yankees: U.S. Steps Up Bombing in Northern Iraq

IRAQ-UNREST-KURDS-DAM
Smokes rises from U.S. air strikes near Mosul dam on Sunday. Ahmad Al-Ruhbye—AFP/Getty Images

But limiting strikes for political reasons may prove untenable

The Obama Administration made clear last week that its ban against U.S. “boots on the ground” inside Iraq only pertained to combat boots. Sunday, it went back to its dictionary and stretched the definition of “humanitarian” to include offensive bombing strikes against Islamist militants in northern Iraq.

That’s because ever since the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) seized the Mosul dam, it has had the power to release the reservoir behind it, turning the Tigris River downstream into Class V rapids with a 60-foot wall of water.

“The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, endanger U.S. personnel and facilities, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace,” President Barack Obama said in a letter to congressional leaders.

The U.S. military launched 23 airstrikes on ISIS targets over the weekend, including 14 on Sunday. A fleet of fighter-bombers, bombers and drones took out nearly 20 ISIS vehicles—mostly U.S.-built armor and Humvees that ISIS captured from retreating Iraqi forces—on Sunday alone. An Iraq military spokesman said Monday that Iraqi special forces and Kurdish fighters had regained control of the dam, although that claim has not been confirmed.

“These operations are limited in their nature, duration, and scope,” Obama said, “and are being undertaken in coordination with and at the request of the government of Iraq.”

The weekend air strikes nearly doubled the number the U.S. has launched in Iraq since they began Aug. 8, and marked the most coordinated military effort between U.S. and Iraqi forces since the U.S. military left the country in 2011.

Pentagon fingers are crossed that the combination of U.S. air strikes and Iraqi ground operations will be sufficient to defeat ISIS. Defense officials, and the White House, are acutely aware that the American public has no appetite for deeper involvement—military or otherwise—in Iraq.

The operation makes military sense, but justifying it using the original two-prong test—Obama said Aug. 7 that the U.S. would attack targets in Iraq only “to protect our American personnel, and… to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death”—may prove too convenient.

“This policy of not dealing with it as an ecosystem I think is wrong,” Michigan Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CBS on Sunday. “They have a long-term plan about where they’re going that would establish their caliphate from Beirut through Syria through Iraq.”

ISIS wants to create that caliphate from which it would seek to attack the U.S. and other targets in the west. Every time the Administration expands its military footprint in Iraq to deal with the threat—and justifies it on humanitarian grounds, or to protect U.S. personnel—it restrains its freedom to act the next time if stronger military action is required.

TIME Military

Pentagon Taps Crowdsourcing to Chart Future Threats

The Pentagon is already crowdsourcing weapons design. Now it's going to use it to help develop U.S. national security strategy. DARPA

Reaching out to multitudes online to determine how to best prevent and wage tomorrow’s wars

Think the Pentagon was ill-prepared and stumbled after it invaded Iraq and Afghanistan? Think you could have drafted a better war plan?

Well, the U.S. Department of Defense may agree with you. That’s why it said late Thursday that it’s seeking a “crowd-sourcing entity,” mostly likely a contractor, to chart “the types of future challenges to national security for which the President of the United States would expect U.S. armed forces to have the ability to address.”

The Pentagon wants the winning bidder to brainstorm online with “a large and diverse group of people collaborating in real time” to improve how the nation prepares for, and fights, its wars.

Crowdsourcing is the 21st Century’s version of putting our heads together, via the Internet, to tackle a problem and come up with the best solution. Instead of a handful of experts—war-planners, for example—it relies on a constellation of thousands or more individuals, often unpaid, who funnel their ideas into a central clearinghouse, where the optimum ones supposedly float to the surface.

The military is already using crowdsourcing on a more limited scale, to design a next-generation combat vehicle and considering its potential to help track nuclear proliferation.

But this latest proposal could put crowdsourcing’s fruits inside the Tank, the top-secret Pentagon lair where the nation’s senior generals and admirals train, equip and conduct the nation’s wars.

The Defense Department stresses that the crowdsourcerer it hires will only “enhance the Department’s understanding of the future security environment” and won’t actually be drafting war plans. But it’s encouraging creative thinking: “An understanding of a range of alternative futures and the types of national security challenges they may present is necessary to inform strategy development and force planning analysis within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense [for] Policy.”

The Pentagon wants the “crowd-sourcing entity” to produce these three “Performance Objectives”:

a. Identify alternative futures and global and regional security environments in the 2020-2025 timeframe that considers military, sociological, economic, scientific, technological, and environmental trends and potential shocks with implications for the Department.

b. Generate innovative scenarios that present pathways to a crisis or conflict that is antithetical to U.S. national security interests. Scenarios will provide a narrative description that captures a representative potential future national security challenge and includes the following key elements: identity of key actors, their interests and objectives, primary drivers to conflict and rationale for key actors’ decision-making and actions, key capabilities they could use in a crisis or conflict, description of representative activities they would take (i.e., the manner in which they would use their capabilities to achieve their objectives), and role of third parties. Scenarios should remain within the bounds of plausibility.

c. Develop and provide quick-turn analyses exploring the implications for the Department on new and/or potentially game-changing military capabilities of the adversary identified in the alternative futures environment and/or the innovative scenarios to inform the development of alternative strategies and force planning options to mitigate the impacts of the capabilities.

“There is no requirement for the work to be conducted at the Pentagon,” the solicitation adds, “with the exception of periodic briefings of deliverables as stated in the Performance Objectives.”

If you’re interested in helping hone the nation’s future war-fighting environment, you’d better get cracking. The Pentagon is seeking a three-year deal beginning next month, and the deadline to apply is Sept. 4. “A written notice of award or acceptance of an offer, mailed or otherwise furnished to the successful offeror within the time for acceptance specified in the offer, shall result in a binding contract without further action by either party,” the Pentagon adds. The winner will not have access to classified information, which could help things.

The solicitation warns that it may reject any bidder whose offer “is evaluated to be unrealistic in terms of program commitments, including contract terms and conditions, or unrealistically high or low in cost/price when compared to Government estimates, such that the proposal is deemed to reflect an inherent lack of competence or failure to comprehend the complexity and risks of the program.”

“An inherent lack of competence or failure to comprehend the complexity and risks of the program?” Talk about unilateral disarmament. Such a requirement would have kept the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the drawing boards.

TIME National Security

Edward Snowden Embraces American Flag on WIRED Cover

"I care more about the country than what happens to me," Snowden tells magazine

Edward Snowden isn’t an easy man to get a hold of. The U.S. government wants to prosecute him, his admirers want to meet him and the media want to interview him. Meanwhile, Snowden is in Russia, and for many of his seekers, inaccessible.

But WIRED managed to interview Snowden for its current issue, however, and in a decision sure to arouse controversy, put on its cover the man some believe to be a traitor draped in an American flag, looking pensively off into the distance.

Platon/Wired

Snowden tells WIRED that he’s willing to go to prison, but not if it means scaring other whistleblowers. “I care more about the country than what happens to me,” he says. “But we can’t allow the law to become a political weapon or agree to scare people away from standing up for their rights, no matter how good the deal. I’m not going to be part of that.”

He also told Wired that he most fears U.S. government, not Russian police: “I’m going to slip up and they’re going to hack me. It’s going to happen.” Another interesting tidbit: Snowden wasn’t sure anyone would care about his leaks. “I thought it was likely that society collectively would just shrug and move on,” he says. Despite his fears, however. the U.S. House of Representatives voted earlier this year in a 293-to-123 vote to halt the NSA’s practice of conducting warrantless searches of millions of Americans’ emails and phone calls.

Is Snowden a patriot or a traitor? A whistleblower or a criminal? The questions about Snowden’s motives won’t be answered anytime soon, but the provocative cover is sure to add some fuel to the debate.

[WIRED]

TIME Military

The U.S.’s Timid Third Iraq War

IRAQ-UNREST-KURDS
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters take positions in northern Iraq on Tuesday. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP / Getty Images

Air strikes may help, but on their own they won’t turn the tide against ISIS

The contrasting views of two senior U.S. military leaders on the effectiveness of American air strikes against jihadist targets in northern Iraq could hardly have been more stark.

“Very effective,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters Monday in Sydney, Australia.

“Very temporary,” Army Lieut. General William Mayville, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said later in the day at the Pentagon.

The conflicting signals were a sign of an Administration determined to do just enough to avert a humanitarian catastrophe without launching a third U.S.-Iraq war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL).

While F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s dropped 500-pound bombs on targets like artillery pieces, mortars and armored vehicles, aided by MQ-1 Predators and their 20-pound warheads, they didn’t appear to do much to change the situation on the ground. The U.S. Air Force and Navy are flying up to 100 attack, reconnaissance and support missions a day over Iraq.

Mayville’s briefing was as perplexing and unsatisfying as the 19 airstrikes the U.S. military carried out in Iraq through Aug. 11.

“I’m very concerned about the threat posed by ISIL in Iraq and in the region,” he said. “They’re very well-organized. They are very well equipped. They coordinate their operations. And they have thus far shown the ability to attack on multiple axes. This is not insignificant.”

So what is the U.S. military prepared to do to deal with this threat?

“There are no plans,” Mayville said, “to expand the current air campaign beyond the current self-defense activities.”

The U.S. military can only do what it is told to do, but the disconnect between threat and response seems especially wide right now. The goals are limited to rescuing the thousands (or tens of thousands; the Pentagon isn’t sure) of Yazidis trapped on, in and around Sinjar Mountain in northwestern Iraq, and to protect the Kurdish city of Erbil, where a small number of U.S. personnel, including about 40 recently-dispatched military advisers, are based. Warplanes launching the strikes come from air bases in Kuwait and Qatar and from the USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf, a carrier named for the President who launched the first U.S. war against Iraq in 1991.

“We assess that U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq have slowed ISIL’s operational tempo and temporarily disrupted their advances toward the province of Erbil,” Mayville said. “However, these strikes are unlikely to affect ISIL’s overall capabilities or its operations in other areas of Iraq and Syria.”

Predictably, ISIS forces have begun to mix in with local civilians to elude U.S. attacks. “One of the things that we have seen with the ISIL forces is that where they have been in the open, they are now starting to dissipate and to hide amongst the people,” Mayville said. “The targeting in this is going to become more difficult.”

The U.S. has begun providing the Kurdish militias known as the Peshmerga with small-arms ammo directly, instead of funneling it through the central Iraq government in Baghdad, he added.

Anthony Zinni was the deputy commander of a U.S. effort to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s forces—Operational Provide Comfort—after 1991’s Gulf War. “The Peshmerga are fully capable, given the right weapons, equipment and support—like air support—of stopping ISIS in their tracks,” he says. “At least from the north.”

The number of Peshmerga waxes and wanes as the threats the Kurds perceive rise and fall. The U.S. estimated their fighting strength in 2011 at 70,000 to 80,000, but that number could double if all security and police forces are included.

“They’ve been fighting for a long time, against Saddam, with the PKK [Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party] up in Turkey, and even in Iran,” says Zinni, who ended his military career as chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000. “They’ve been fighting an insurgency for a hell of a long time because they want a state. They’re also fighting for their homes, their families and their kids—when [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki sends a bunch of soldiers up into the Sunni areas they don’t care—but the Kurds know this is it, that this is an existential threat.”

The Kurds are fighters. “They do have a good warrior ethos—unlike the Iraqis, these are basically people who are agrarian, tough mountain people,” Zinni says. “They’re not fat cats. They haven’t been living in a garrison in a city. They train hard and live in a rugged part of the country. They live in an austere environment—all the things that make up a tough soldier.”

Zinni echoes U.S. military officers who privately grumble that Obama erred in declaring he would not send troops back into Iraq. “I think he made a big mistake in publicly saying he would not put boots on the ground,” Zinni says. “Why tell the other guy what you won’t do?

“You could find yourself with boots on the ground, if only to defend that part of country,” Zinni warns. “Not necessarily going on offense on the ground, but I think it could come to the point where if we had to defend it, we’d have to put boots on the ground, and I don’t think he could get out of that.”

Some U.S. military officers believe it would require up to 15,000 ground troops to turn the tide against ISIS in northern Iraq.

TIME National Security

Experts Warn of Terrorism Blowback From Iraq Air Strikes

IRAQ-UNREST-KURDS
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters look on as smoke billows from the town Makhmur, about 175 miles north of Baghdad, during clashes with ISIS militants on August 9, 2014 Safin Hamed—AFP/Getty Images

ISIS has long threatened America openly — will Obama's strikes inspire it to act?

The American air strikes against a militant group in Iraq could motivate the fighters to retaliate with terrorist attacks against U.S. civilians, experts warn.

President Barack Obama’s air strikes against militants from the group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) “could increase the likelihood that ISIS or somebody inspired by ISIS, would strike against the homeland,” says Seth Jones, a terrorism expert with Rand Corp.

ISIS has long threatened America openly. In June the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, warned Americans that “soon enough, you will be in direct confrontation [with us].” Last week a spokesman for the group vowed that “we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House.”

Despite that bombastic rhetoric, ISIS has thus far been consumed with its fights in Iraq and Syria, and with capturing territory to form an Islamic caliphate. But counterterrorism officials worry that the fanatical group could now place a higher priority on attacking Americans. Jihadists in online forums and on Twitter are already calling for terrorist attacks in response to Obama’s intervention in Iraq.

The prospect of blowback was on the mind of senior officials even before Obama approved air strikes last week.

“That’s one of the downsides of U.S. involvement,” former deputy CIA director Michael Morell told CBS News in June. “The more we visibly get involved in helping the [Iraqi] government fight these guys, the more we become a target.”

A U.S. intelligence official would not say whether the threat level has escalated, saying the U.S. continues to monitor the known ISIS threat. “ISIS has previously stated its willingness to strike targets outside of the region and the [intelligence community] is working in close coordination with our allies to track these threats,” says Brian Hale, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

In July, Brett McGurk, the top State Department official for Iraq, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the 30 to 50 suicide bombers per month deployed in Syria and Iraq by ISIS “are increasingly Western passport holders,” and that “it is a matter of time before these suicide bombers are directed elsewhere.”

Several experts agreed that attacking ISIS will make the group more eager to strike back against America, but said the threat is hard to calculate — and no reason to avoid taking on the group.

“U.S. strikes against ISIS may well raise that group’s interest in carrying out terrorist attacks against U.S. targets,” says Daniel Benjamin, a former top State Department counterterrorism official now at Dartmouth College. “But the significance of that shouldn’t be overstated.”

Benjamin questions whether the ISIS threat has increased significantly, given its previously known desire to kill Americans. Regardless, he adds: “We can’t let our policies be held hostage by this concern.”

Obama’s strikes this month mark the first direct U.S. attacks on ISIS in its current form. But the U.S. military did battle with the group’s prior incarnation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, during the U.S. occupation of that country in the mid-2000s. AQI never found a way to hit Americans beyond the Iraq battlefield.

But since splitting with al-Qaeda, broadening its ambition and declaring itself ISIS — and, more recently, the Islamic State — the group has attracted Westerners whose passports could grant them easy entry to Europe and the U.S.

“What is concerning, and which makes this situation different,” warns Jones of Rand Corp., is that large complement of Western fighters, which AQI did not posses. “The connections to this battlefield from the West are stronger than they were a decade ago.”

Jones says there’s precedent for the U.S. drawing the attention of a regionally focused terrorist group by targeting its ranks. The attempted 2010 Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, was trained and directed to strike the U.S. by the Pakistani Taliban, which sought revenge for American drone strikes against the group’s leadership.

At least one expert on Sunni radical groups doubts that Obama’s strikes make Americans any less safe, however.

“I don’t think this changes [ISIS's] calculus,” says Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They are likely planning attacks whether the U.S. conducts targeted air strikes or not. We shouldn’t have reactionary policy when it comes to [ISIS] anyway — why would we let them continue to grow just because they aren’t attacking us now?”

“In my opinion,” Zelin says, “we should destroy them as soon as possible.”

TIME Foreign Policy

How Obama Evolved on the Issue of ‘Genocide’ in Iraq

President Barack Obama speaks at the State Department following the U.S. -Africa Summit in Washington.
President Barack Obama speaks at the State Department following the U.S. -Africa Summit in Washington, Aug. 6, 2014. Doug Mills—The New York Times

Hard choices for a gun-shy President

As a first-time presidential candidate in 2007, Barack Obama built his campaign around a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Nothing could shake him from his plan to end what he called a “dumb” war. At a New Hampshire campaign stop that July, Obama was asked whether he might delay a pullout if it meant preventing outright genocide in Iraq.

No, Obama said. “[If] that’s the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now — where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife — which we haven’t done.”

Almost exactly seven years later, Obama has ordered military action in Iraq “to prevent a potential act of genocide,” as he put it in his public remarks Thursday night.

For now, that action will consist of airlifting supplies to thousands of members of Iraq’s Yazidi religious sect, trapped atop a mountain and surrounded by the fanatical Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS). But it could also include air strikes against those ISIS fighters.

Did Obama flip-flop on a matter as serious as genocide? That would be too glib a conclusion. Seven years after Obama’s comments in New Hampshire, Iraq is a different place. The U.S. Army is long gone, and taking action there doesn’t prolong an ongoing occupation. Nor is Obama ordering anything like a reinvasion of the country. He has authorized — though not yet specifically ordered — only limited strikes against ISIS fighters in the region. “We are not launching a sustained US campaign against [ISIS] here,” a senior Administration official told reporters Thursday night.

What’s more, Obama’s new urgency, while framed mainly in humanitarian terms, is about something broader. Obama is also prepared to use air strikes to prevent Sunni militants from storming the Kurdish capital of Erbil — a vital city to an important regional ally, and one the U.S. would protect even if dozens of U.S. diplomats and military advisers were not stationed there. If Obama decides to strike at ISIS, then, he’ll have strategic and national security reasons, as well as humanitarian ones, to do so.

But even if Obama did act solely to protect the Yazidi, that would be consistent with the quasi doctrine for humanitarian action he described when he ordered air strikes in Libya in March 2011. The Libya intervention may now be remembered mainly for the long NATO air campaign that eventually toppled Muammar Gaddafi. But remember that Obama justified acting not to end Gaddafi’s regime, but to protect the people of Benghazi from impending slaughter — “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world” — at the hands of Gaddafi forces who had encircled the city. (It is a particularly bitter irony for Obama that Benghazi is now synonymous with tragedy and scandal, and not the rescue of thousands of innocent lives.)

In announcing his Libya action, Obama explained that the U.S. can’t intervene everywhere something awful is happening. But, he argued, the U.S. should intervene in those cases where limited military action is likely to save many lives with low risks:

It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country — Libya — at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

Mount Sinjar today has much in common with the Benghazi of 2011. The U.S. can act in a limited way to prevent a great atrocity (and, in this case, with the support of the national government — which the senior Obama official says would give any air strikes legitimacy under international law).

Why not Syria? Or for that matter the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the Central African Republic, or anywhere else that innocents are dying every day? Because, Obama would surely say, the nature of those conflicts make limited U.S. intervention with clear and achievable goals impossible.

In his 2007 comments about genocide, Obama at least seemed to imply that, because the U.S. can’t prevent slaughter everywhere, it shouldn’t take humanitarian action anywhere. But as President he has adopted a different point, first in Libya and now in Iraq: Just because we intervene in some places doesn’t mean we have to intervene everywhere.

That doesn’t make for a very tidy doctrine. Nor will it console the miserable people of Syria. But it will bring jubilation to the terrified thousands on Mount Sinjar, for whom salvation is now coming.

TIME National Security

Reports: Snowden Granted 3 More Years in Russia

Former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden poses for a photo during an interview in an undisclosed location in December 2013 in Moscow.
Former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden in an undisclosed location in Moscow, December 2013. Barton Gellman—Getty Images

"If I could go anywhere in the world, that place would be home," Snowden said in an interview in May.

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden received permission to stay in Russia for an additional three years, his lawyer told local media Thursday, amid the worst U.S.-Russian relations since the Cold War.

Snowden revealed troves of classified information on the American government’s surveillance activities before fleeing the U.S. more than a year ago. He was shortly thereafter granted temporary asylum in Russia, which expired Aug. 1.

His lawyer in Russia, Anatoly Kucherena, was quoted in Russian news agencies saying Snowden received an extended temporary residency for three years, the Associated Press reports. However, Snowden has not received political asylum, which would allow him to stay indefinitely. Kucherena said applying for political asylum requires a separate process, but Kucherena did not say whether Snowden had begun that procedure.

The lawyer’s statements in Russia could not be immediately confirmed.

Snowden faces charges of espionage in the U.S., but Russia, which does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S., has refused to hand him over. The case was a major source of tension between the two countries even before relations deteriorated further following Russia’s annexation of Crimea earlier this year and its suspected support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

[AP]

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