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 Iraq

Obama: U.S. ‘Broke’ Siege of Iraqi Mountain

Displaced Iraqi families from the Yazidi community cross the Iraqi-Syrian border at the Fishkhabur crossing, in northern Iraq, on Aug. 13, 2014.
Displaced Iraqi Yezidi families cross the Iraqi-Syrian border in northern Iraq on Aug. 13, 2014 Ahmad Al-Rubaye—AFP/Getty Images

"We helped vulnerable people reach safety and we helped save many innocent lives"

Updated 1:33 p.m. E.T.

President Barack Obama said Thursday that U.S. air strikes and humanitarian drops, as well as the efforts of Kurdish forces, have broken the siege of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, where thousands of members of the Yezidi religious minority had been trapped by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon from Martha’s Vineyard, where he is vacationing, Obama said a U.S. military and civilian team concluded Wednesday that U.S. efforts have dramatically lessened the likelihood that a rescue would need to be staged to free the civilians on the mountain.

“Because of the skill and professionalism of our military and the generosity of our people, we broke the [ISIS] siege of Mount Sinjar,” Obama said. “We helped vulnerable people reach safety and we helped save many innocent lives.”

U.S. military aircraft have carried out around a dozen air strikes in Iraq since Obama authorized military action a week ago, and U.S. transport planes have delivered more than 114,000 meals and 35,000 gallons of fresh water on the mountain in airdrops carried out over the past seven nights.

Obama maintained that the situation in Iraq remains “dire” for those Iraqis who live in areas under the control of ISIS, which has taken large swaths of territory and several of the country’s largest cities in offensives over the past several months. Obama said the U.S. stands ready to carry out similar humanitarian efforts elsewhere in Iraq if necessary, and reiterated that U.S. air strikes would continue in order to protect American military advisers and diplomatic facilities in Iraq.

Obama added that the burden for a long-term solution to the crisis in Iraq lies on the shoulders of the Iraqi government, saying that after a conversation with newly selected Prime Minister–designate Haider al-Abadi, he is “modestly hopeful that the Iraqi government situation is moving in the right direction.”

Al-Abadi would replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is struggling to hold onto power even as domestic factions and international leaders have withdrawn support. Al-Maliki insists that he should have a third term in office, given the success of his Shi‘ite-led faction in an election this past April. However, President Fouad Massoum has asked al-Abadi, a lawmaker from al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, to try to form a government.

TIME Military

U.S. No Longer Waging a Time-Share War

Peshmerga forces enter Makhmur
Kurdish Peshmerga forces regained some territory in northern Iraq on Sunday. Ensar Ozdemir / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Unlike Obama's earlier military orders, his Iraq plan lacks a deadline

President Obama was eager to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, is eager to pull them out of Afghanistan, and refused to put them into Libya and Syria. His reticence is justifiably rooted in opposition at home to any more ground combat following more than a decade of war after 9/11.

But over the weekend, he warned that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s threat to Kurdish city of Erbil in northern Iraq warranted U.S. military airstrikes, and that they could continue over a sustained period of time. “I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” he said Saturday. “This is going to take some time.” On Sunday, Kurdish forces reportedly ousted ISIS fighters from a pair of border towns 20 miles from Erbil as U.S. warplanes conducted a third consecutive day of attacks on ISIS forces.

Changes in waging war have proliferated since the so-called non-state actors known as al-Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center towers, attacked the Pentagon and sent United Flight 93 diving into a Pennsylvania field. The foe is elusive, metamorphosing from al-Qaeda in Iraq to ISIS, as the jihadist leaders wage battle among themselves for supremacy.

Any conflict that begins, as the latest Iraq venture did, with humanitarian airdrops to thousands of dehydrated and hungry Yazidis in and around Mount Sinjar makes for a different kind of war.

Obama said he acted because of concerns for the safety of U.S. military advisers and consular officials in Erbil, threatened by an ISIS advances over the past week. The advisers are there, and in Baghdad, to plot how the U.S. can aid the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki in its battle against ISIS. Without such a U.S. stake in Libya or Syria, he has felt no need to take military action there.

But the flames now burning around the Middle East are part of a larger conflagration, fueled by crumbling autocracies and religious zealots, who are recruiting unemployed young men eager to belong to something bigger than themselves.

The U.S. and other Western nations essentially are biding their time, hoping such fires will eventually die out with minimal involvement by them. That could happen.

But if ISIS succeeds in establishing anything approximating a real state straddling the Syrian-Iraq border, it will become a new launching pad for attacks against the U.S. and its interests, just like in Taliban-led Afghanistan.

“Every day that goes by, ISIS builds up this caliphate and it becomes a direct threat to the United States of America,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House subcommittee on counter-terrorism, told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “They are more powerful now than al-Qaeda was on 9/11.”

Obama and his successor know that they cannot allow a jihadist-run state, pledged to killing “infidels,” in the heart of the Middle East.

“I would be rushing equipment to Erbil,” Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., told CNN Sunday. “I would be launching airstrikes, not only in Iraq but in Syria against ISIS.”

In a prescient comment that turned out to be correct, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned in 2003 that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would be “a long, hard slog.” Americans tired of both, in part because of the Bush Administration’s ambitious, costly and unrealized plans for remaking both nations.

But what we’re seeing now is a new kind of war, and it requires a new kind of leadership.

Iraq, for its part, needs a leader who can gather its warring factions under one roof and turn it into a functioning 21st Century state.

If such a leader fails to materialize, Iraq will continue its slow-motion suicide.

Then it will take a U.S. leader who is willing to detail the possible risks of continued half-hearted actions—what the New York Times called “a Military Middle Road” in a Sunday headline—in the region. He—or she—will have to fashion a new kind of calibrated, and sustained, warfare that a democracy can support.

TIME Iraq

Pentagon Denies Reports of Airstrikes on ISIS Militants in Iraq

Thousands flee Iraq's Mosul
Thousands of Yazidi and Christian people flee Hamdaniyah town of Mosul to Erbil after the latest wave of ISIL advances that began on Sunday has seen a number of towns near Iraq's second largest city Mosul fall to the militants on August 6, 2014. Mustafa Kerim—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Also claims reports the U.S. had begun humanitarian air drops to people in need in northern Iraq are false

Updated 6:13 p.m. E.T.

The Pentagon denied reports Thursday that it had begun conducting airstrikes on Sunni targets in Iraq or humanitarian air drops to thousands of members of a persecuted religious minority under siege from militants in the northwest of the country.

The New York Times, citing Kurdish officials, reported that U.S. forces bombed at least two targets in northern Iraq. The McClatchy news agency also reported aerial bombings outside the town of Kalak in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, stating that Kurdish media had described jets as American bombers.

But the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said on Twitter that the press reports were “completely false.” The Pentagon also denied a report, by ABC News, that the U.S. had begun humanitarian air drops to people in need in northern Iraq.

Earlier on Thursday, a defense official told TIME that the Iraqi government had begun airdrops in northern Iraq and that it was considering providing “direct assistance wherever possible.” Multiple news outlets, including CBS News and the New York Times, reported Thursday that airdrops or airstrikes were among the options under consideration.

Thousands of people from the Yazidi minority—considered “devil worshippers” by the advancing Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS)—have fled their homes in the Sinjar region in northwestern Iraq and are holed up in mountains around the town of Sinjar, according to the United Nations, where they face dehydration and hunger. The UN said on Tuesday that some 40 children have died.

“According to official reports received by UNICEF, these children from the Yazidi minority died as a direct consequence of violence, displacement and dehydration over the past two days.”

TIME Military

Quadruple Threat: Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine, All Rolled Into One

Branched out: From Marine, Soldier, Sailor to U.S. Air Force Airman
Now-Air Force Staff Sgt. Jesus Yanez has also served in the Army, Navy and Marines since 1993. Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez / Department of Defense

Staff sergeant has served in all four branches of the U.S. military

Despite the Pentagon’s nonstop jawboning about joint operations—where the military’s four sister services cooperate to prevail on the battlefield—those with time in uniform will tell you that each service is like a foreign land to the other three.

That makes Staff Sergeant Jesus Yanez, currently manning checkpoints at the biggest U.S. base in Afghanistan, a genuine world traveler.

Since 1993, he has served in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

His skills pay dividends when he’s spending his day off getting pizza or walking around with military colleagues at Bagram air base, just outside Kabul. After his buddies spy an American sailor wearing foreign-looking insignia they don’t understand, the questions begin:

“They ask me, `What rank is that?’ And I’ll say `He’s a petty officer,’ and they ask: `What’s a petty officer?’” referring to the Navy’s non-commissioned officers. “They’ll ask me, `Do you salute warrant officers?’”—those in the Army between enlisted and officers—“and I’m like, `Yes, Army warrant officers get a salute.’”

But military life’s not all about rank. “The food in the Air Force is much better than in the Army, Navy or Marine Corps,” says Yanez, who is in the middle of a five-month tour in Afghanistan with the Air Force—and enjoying every bite. Marine chow, not so much: “You could throw a biscuit into the wall and make a hole through it.” But the Marines, he concedes, score high elsewhere: “Their uniforms are probably the best in the military.”

Yet he says he has learned from each of the services. “In the military, you’re like a family,” Yanez says. “It doesn’t matter what branch you’re in, if something happens to you, everybody’s going to be there for you. And the military gave me an education—I have an associate’s, bachelor’s and a master’s.”

Yanez as a Marine 20 years ago. USMC

Yanez, 39, hails from El Paso, Texas. He served as an active-duty Marine from 1993-97. “They always say the Marine Corps’ boot camp is the hardest one to go through,” he remembers thinking. “In my mind, when I was in high school, I’d think if I could be a Marine, I could do anything.”

He left the corps and spent a couple of years in the civilian world. “After awhile, I missed the military, just in general,” Yanez recalls. The single father of two wanted to stay in El Paso. He was looking for a reserve slot, and checked out, but rejected, the El Paso Marine Reserve unit. “I didn’t want to do artillery,” he says of their specialty.

So he ended up in a nearby Navy Reserve unit. “The Navy Reserve had a master of arms program, which is almost like an MP [military police], and that when I enlisted,” he says. “I wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement.” But Yanez says he found the Navy too informal—“I wasn’t used to the first-name basis at the reserve unit”—especially following his Marine service.

He traded the Navy for the Army in late 2001. “After September 11, I just felt that I needed to go back and do my part for my country,” he says. But he spent time stateside after his new reserve unit already had deployed to Iraq, which Yanez found disappointing. “The opportunity for me to deploy with the Army wasn’t there,” he says. In his reserve service, Yanez generally has drilled one weekend a month, with a two-week block of training annually.

But while working as a civilian Army police officer at El Paso’s Fort Bliss, he heard from Air Force reservists there that they routinely deployed overseas. So in 2006, he joined the Air Force as a member of the Texas Air National Guard’s 204th Security Forces Squadron, and spent part of 2010 in Iraq.

“It sort of just happened, being in all four branches,” Yanez, with the 455th Expeditionary Base Defense Squadron at Bagram, recently told an Air Force public-affairs officer. “I didn’t even think about it until one of my friends mentioned it.” Pentagon officials said Thursday that Yanez’s quad-service heritage is “highly unusual,” but don’t have data detailing just how rare it is.

Yanez doesn’t boast of his unusual military background. “I don’t have any stickers on my vehicle—I don’t even have any tattoos,” he says. But something betrays his past, at least to keen observers. “People always ask me, even though I’m in an Air Force uniform, if I was a Marine,” he says. “Because I still have a high and tight flattop” haircut. “Saves me a lot of money.”

One more thing. Yanez doesn’t want those in the Coast Guard thinking he’s slighting them. Coasties always feel dissed when people talk about the nation’s four military services, because Coast Guard personnel insist they’re the fifth. The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, but can be commanded by the Department of Defense in times of war. “Maybe I’ll get a job with the Coast Guard,” he says, “when I retire.”

TIME Military

Lawyer: Bergdahl ‘Deeply Grateful’ to Obama

Bergdahl Being Treated At U.S. Military Hospital In Germany
Bowe Bergdahl, who was held by the Taliban for nearly five years before being released in May. U.S. Army / Getty Images

Army sergeant held by Taliban believes President’s decision “saved his life,” his attorney Eugene Fidell tells TIME

No one’s heard anything yet from Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the former prisoner-of-war freed in a May 31 swap for five Taliban leaders after nearly five years as a Taliban prisoner. He hasn’t spoken to the press—by all accounts, he hasn’t even spoken to his parents. But, in typical American fashion, he has retained—and spoken to—an attorney.

“Sergeant Bergdahl is deeply grateful to President Obama for having saved his life,” Eugene Fidell, retained a week ago by the soldier, told TIME on Wednesday.

Fidell has traveled to Texas—where Bergdahl has returned to active duty at a desk job in San Antonio following his “re-integration” back into the service—to discuss with his client the investigation into the circumstances leading up to Bergdahl’s abduction in 2009. The attorney declined to offer any insights into Bergdahl’s mood, legal defense, or relationship with his family. Bergdahl also has an Army lawyer.

Eugene Fidell Yale

But Fidell did suggest the case—now being investigated by a two-star Army major general—is more complicated than he originally thought. That’s saying something: Fidell is a prominent military-law expert who lectures at Yale Law School on the topic, and former president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

“Before I was in the case, I was skeptical that the investigation called for a major general,” Fidell says. “I thought that a talented lieutenant colonel would be more than enough horsepower—I thought it was overkill.” Army officials say Major General Kenneth Dahl has yet to interview Bergdahl.

Fidell said he has changed his mind as he has dived into the case. “Based on what I now know about the complexity of the issues, which are in a number of spheres that I’m not going to get into, I understand why the Army thought that a general officer should be involved,” Fidell adds. “I now understand why management thought that it was a good idea to have a two-star officer doing this investigation.”

The lawyer, who has taken the case pro bono—without pay—declined to discuss the specifics that led him to change his mind. But Bergdahl’s case is complex: according to the soldiers with whom he served, Bergdahl simply walked away from his combat outpost in June 2009 before being captured by the Taliban along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Some of those troops have called Bergdahl a deserter, and alleged that fellow soldiers died hunting for him.

Questions also surround the Army’s decision to allow Bergdahl to enlist, two years after he washed out of Coast Guard boot camp after only 26 days. And lawmakers on Capitol Hill have criticized Obama for giving up five senior Taliban leaders for Bergdahl, now 28.

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., told TIME on Tuesday that he doesn’t believe the swap was in the nation’s interest. “We were duty bound to bring him back, but I think we’re duty bound to bring him back in the right way,” said the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness subcommittee. “What other opportunities were there for us to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s release besides releasing these five high-ranking Taliban officials?…we did increase the risk to Americans and American interests by releasing these five.”

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said that Bergdahl is now free to come and go like any other soldier. “He’s free to leave base…he’s not under any particular restrictions,” Kirby said. “And I would remind you, he’s not been charged with anything.”

TIME Military

Navy Nurse Refuses Gitmo Force Feed Order

Guantanamo Hunger Strike
In this photo Nov. 20, 2013 file photo reviewed by the U.S. military, a U.S. Navy nurse stands next to a chair with restraints, used for force-feeding, and a tray displaying nutritional shakes, a tube for feeding through the nose, and lubricants, including a jar of olive oil, during a tour of the detainee hospital at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Charles Dharapak—AP

A detainee described the act as a conscientious objection

A Navy medical officer at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba has refused an order to continue force-feeding hunger-striking prisoners in what one detainee lawyer described as an act of conscientious objection.

“There was a recent instance of a medical provider not willing to carry-out the enteral feeding of a detainee. The matter is in the hands of the individual’s leadership,” a Pentagon spokesperson said in an email. “The service member has been temporarily assigned to alternate duties with no impact to medical support operations.”

It is the first known instance of a U.S. service member rebelling against the Pentagon’s force-feeding policy. An unknown number of the 149 detainees at Guantánamo’s Camp Delta have been on hunger strike for the past year and a half to protest their indefinite detention.

News of the refusal comes to the public by way of an attorney for one of the detainees, who, according to The Miami Herald, says his client described how some time before the Fourth of July a Navy medical nurse suddenly shifted course and refused to continue force-feeding prisoners. The nurse, he said, was abruptly removed from duty at the detention center. The attorney said his client described the nurse’s action as a conscientious objection.

The Herald reports that the prisoner who provided news of the incident described the nurse as a roughly 40-year-old Latino man most likely with the rank of lieutenant in the Navy.

Last year, civilian doctors writing for the New England Journal of Medicine declared that medical professionals taking part in force-feeding was unethical and called the Guantánamo medical staff to refuse to participate.

TIME Military

Building a Better Bullet

DARPA's Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) bullet may be precise, but its artist's rendering of the round is pretty vague.
DARPA's Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) bullet may be precise, but its artist's rendering of the round is pretty vague. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

The Pentagon wants the capability for its snipers, making their goal of "one shot, one kill" even more likely

Accuracy trumps terror every time. For good or for ill, that is why Israeli missiles have killed at least 160 Palestinians, while Palestinian rockets have killed zero Israelis. While killing innocents as well as terrorists, the Israeli strikes are precise. So is its Iron Dome anti-missile system, which appears to be doing a pretty good job destroying Palestinian rockets headed for Israeli population centers. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are left to launch unguided rockets, hoping to get lucky and kill Israelis.

Along the same lines, imagine if you could transform a dumb bullet into a guided missile?

That’s what the Pentagon did earlier this year, successfully firing .50-caliber bullets that steered themselves in mid-flight. It has just released a video trumpeting the tip-top targeting of its Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) program.

“This video shows EXACTO rounds maneuvering in flight to hit targets that are offset from where the sniper rifle is aimed,” the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency says. “EXACTO’s specially designed ammunition and real-time optical guidance system help track and direct projectiles to their targets by compensating for weather, wind, target movement and other factors that could impede successful hits.”

The Pentagon wants the capability for its snipers, making their goal of “one shot, one kill” even more likely. The April 21 test by DARPA contractor Teledyne Scientific & Imaging shows the new bullet homing in on its target by riding a laser beam aimed by the sniper team at the desired target. Vanes on its body—and an onboard optical receiver—allow it to maneuver in mid-flight.

The highly-classified EXACTO program began six years ago. “The ability to more accurately prosecute targets at significantly longer range would provide a dramatic new capability to the U.S. military,” DARPA’S original program description said. “The use of an actively controlled bullet will make it possible to counter environmental effects such as crosswinds and air density, and prosecute both stationary and moving targets while enhancing shooter covertness.”

Such a weapon, DARPA said when it launched the program, could employ “fire and forget” technologies including “fin-stabilized projectiles, spin-stabilized projectiles, internal and/or external aero-actuation control methods, projectile guidance technologies, tamper proofing, small stable power supplies, and advanced sighting, optical resolution and clarity technologies.”

The Pentagon wants the new gun to be no heavier than the combined 46-lb. weight of the current $11,500 M107 sniper rifle and all its associated gear (including ammo, tripod, scope and slide rules for target calculations).

Military sharpshooters require extensive and expensive training—all of which could be reduced with a better gun. Snipers “are unable to take a shot the vast majority of the time” because of wind or other weather factors, and a lack of confidence in their ability to hit the target or flee if detected, DARPA has said.

Then-Army Captain Keith Bell, former commander of the Army sniper school at Fort Benning, Ga., told TIME five years ago that he couldn’t wait to get his hands on the new bullet. “The EXACTO would be revolutionary,” he said from Mosul, Iraq. “It will more than double our range and probably more than double our accuracy.”

Current sniper rifles can regularly hit trucks at 2,000 meters, but not bad guys. (The record kill is 2,430 meters, just over 1.5 miles. It was charted by Canadian army corporal Rob Furlong against a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan’s Shah-i-kot valley during Operation Anaconda in March 2002—but his first two shots missed.) “There’s no limit as far as I can see so long as the bullet’s stable—I think 2,000 or 2,500 meters is very attainable,” Bell said. “Right now, anything past around 800 meters is an extremely tough shot.”

TIME Pentagon

U.S. Stepping Up Scrutiny of China’s Military Moves

Uotsuri Island
This is one of the disputed Senkaku islands, controlled by Japan but sought by China. The U.S. has a treaty obligation to Japan to defend the islands. Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Seeks status quo in region without “containing” Beijing

Sometimes, the delicacies of diplomacies require lying. Or, as the foreign-service set puts it, diplomacy.

“Let me emphasize to you today: the U.S. does not seek to contain China,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday at the two-day China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing.

That was hard to square with the headline atop a story in Thursday’s Financial Times newspaper: Pentagon plans new tactics to deter China in South China Sea. U.S. officials say increased air and sea patrols in the region should be expected as part of President Obama’s “pivot” to the Pacific.

Neither Washington nor Beijing can get all it wants.

“The U.S. has carved out a limited number of steps that it is willing to take to signal the Chinese that the U.S. has an interest in preventing coercion, and in trying to compel a peaceful resolution of disputes,” says Bonnie Glaser, a Chinese military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The U.S. wants to keep playing the key cop in the western Pacific, a beat it has sailed since World War II. It wants to preserve the status quo. Many nations in the region appreciate the U.S. military presence, given their bloody histories with the Middle Kingdom.

But China has made clear it has expansionist aims, as its economy grows and it seeks small islands, reefs and atolls long claimed by Japan, the Philippines and other neighbors. Any one of these claims could spark shooting that could trigger war.

Thomas P.M. Barnett, a former Pentagon official and now the chief analyst at the private Wikistrat intelligence firm, says the U.S. needs to raise the price for such Chinese mischief. “Every great power goes through its reckless `teenage years,’” he says. “Beijing will persist in these 19th century behaviors for some time, but it needs to be educated—as unimperiously as possible—that such tactics come with great costs in the 21st-century interdependencies that define globalization.”

The Obama Administration has been making that clear. “In recent months, China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in Singapore in May. “It has restricted access to Scarborough Reef, put pressure on the long-standing Philippine presence at the Second Thomas Shoal, begun land reclamation activities at multiple locations, and moved an oil rig into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands…we firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert those claims.”

Yet despite Kerry’s claim that “the U.S. does not seek to contain China,” the U.S. has made clear it is willing to go to war to keep China from gaining control of what Japan calls the Senkaku islands, known in China as the Diaoyus. The stakes, in terms of geography, could hardly be smaller: the Senkakus consist of five uninhabited islets and three barren reefs in the East China Sea. But they’re surrounded by waters rich in fish, natural gas and oil.

The Chinese claim Japan stole the islands from them in 1895, based on ancient texts and maps suggesting the islands were theirs; Japan says they were unclaimed by any nation when it took them over. Nationalists in each country insist they belong to their side. Tensions over the islands’ fate have been steadily rising, and spiked in 2012 after Japan’s government bought three of the islands from a Japanese family.

U.S. officials repeatedly stress they have no opinion on the islands’ “ultimate sovereignty.” China is well aware of such American ambiguity. But Hagel said last fall the U.S. is willing to go to war to preserve Tokyo’s control over them: “Since they are under Japan’s administrative control, they fall under United States treaty obligations to Japan.”

Given that U.S. pledge, it may be easier to understand Beijing’s leeriness toward Kerry’s claim the U.S. doesn’t seek to contain China.

TIME Pentagon

U.S. Military Sends Scouting Party Into the Twitterverse

The Twitter Inc. logo is shown with the U.S. flag during the company's IPO on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York
Lucas Jackson—Reuters

Pentagon wants to learn how to mold social media to prevent “adverse outcomes”

The first warriors fought on the ground. Then, someone hollowed out a log and naval warfare began. Aircraft came next, followed by space—and now, cyberspace. So it should come as no surprise that the exploding corner of cyberspace—social media—is the next battleground.

The fog of war now includes rolling clouds of Tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram photos that the Pentagon wants to filter, track and exploit. Enveloping the globe, from friends and foes alike, the torrent of data can serve as an early-warning system of trouble brewing—or a leading indicator of imminent action by a potential troublemaker.

That’s why the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency has spent three years and $35 million, plumbing pixels as part of its Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program. Makes sense that DARPA’s in charge: the agency basically invented the Internet. “Events of strategic as well as tactical importance to our Armed Forces are increasingly taking place in social media space,” DARPA says. “We must, therefore, be aware of these events as they are happening and be in a position to defend ourselves within that space against adverse outcomes.”

Britain’s Guardian newspaper suggested Tuesday that the program might be connected to papers leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden showing “that US and British intelligence agencies have been deeply engaged in planning ways to covertly use social media for purposes of propaganda and deception.”

But Peter W. Singer, a strategist with the independent New America Foundation, sees it more as Defense Department due diligence. It appears to be “a fairly transparent effort, all done in the open, following academic research standards, aiming to understand critical changes in the social, and therefore, emerging battlefield, environment,” Singer says of DARPA’s efforts. “I am not deeply troubled by this—indeed, I would be troubled if we weren’t doing this kind of research to better understand the changing world around us.”

DARPA says researchers have to take steps to ensure that “no personally identifiable information for U.S. participants was collected, stored or created in contravention to federal privacy laws, regulations or DoD policies.” It issued a statement Wednesday declaring it was not involved in the recent Cornell University study of Facebook users, and that the work it has funded “has focused on public Twitter streams visible and accessible to everybody.”

The program’s aims, according to DARPA:

  • Detect, classify, measure and track the (a) formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes), and (b) purposeful or deceptive messaging and misinformation.
  • Recognize persuasion campaign structures and influence operations across social media sites and communities.
  • Identify participants and intent, and measure effects of persuasion campaigns.
  • Counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations.

The goal is to win without firing a shot. The agency cited, without elaboration, an incident that it said occurred solely on social media as an example of what it wants to do:

Rumors about the location of a certain individual began to spread in social media space and calls for storming the rumored location reached a fever pitch. By chance, responsible authorities were monitoring the social media, detected the crisis building, sent out effective messaging to dispel the rumors and averted a physical attack on the rumored location. This was one of the first incidents where a crisis was (1) formed (2) observed and understood in a timely fashion and (3) diffused by timely action, entirely within the social media space.

DARPA’s lengthy research roster (at least those publicly available; there’s no link to IBM’s Early Warning Signals of System Change from Expert Communication Networks, for example) doesn’t detail anything about waging war. It’s all about tapping into those who use social media, how to figure out who their leaders are, and perhaps sway their thinking. Academics and computer scientists, working for major universities and outfits like SentiMetrix (which says its “sentiment engine has been proven to work in predicting election outcomes, conflicts, and stock price fluctuations”) have written more than 100 papers on a wide range of topics:

Cues to Deception in Social Media Communications

Well-crafted deceptive messaging is difficult to detect, a difficulty compounded by the fact that people are generally naïve believers of information that they receive. Through studying modern forms of communication, as that found in social media, we can, though, begin to develop an understanding of how users’ expectations lead them to detect deception and how deception strategies are exhibited through linguistic cues.

The Language that Gets People to Give: Phrases that Predict Success on Kickstarter

Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter—where entrepreneurs and artists look to the internet for funding—have quickly risen to prominence. However, we know very little about the factors driving the “crowd” to take projects to their funding goal. In this paper we explore the factors which lead to successfully funding a crowdfunding project. We study a corpus of 45K crowdfunded projects, analyzing 9M phrases and 59 other variables commonly present on crowdfunding sites. The language used in the project has surprising predictive power— accounting for 58.56% of the variance around successful funding.

Understanding Individual’s Personal Values from Social Media Word Use

The theory of values posits that each person has a set of values, or desirable and trans-situational goals, that motivate their actions. The Basic Human Values, a motivational construct that captures people’s values, have been shown to influence a wide range of human behaviors. In this work, we analyze people’s values and their word use on Reddit, an online social news sharing community. Through conducting surveys and analyzing text contributions of 799 Reddit users, we identify and interpret categories of words that are indicative of user’s value orientations.

The Digital Evolution of Occupy Wall Street

We examine the temporal evolution of digital communication activity relating to the American anti-capitalist movement Occupy Wall Street. Using a high-volume sample from the microblogging site Twitter, we investigate changes in Occupy participant engagement, interests, and social connectivity over a fifteen month period…the Occupy movement tended to elicit participation from a set of highly interconnected users with pre-existing interests in domestic politics and foreign social movements. These users, while highly vocal in the months immediately following the birth of the movement, appear to have lost interest in Occupy related communication over the remainder of the study period.

A Computational Approach to Politeness with Application to Social Factors

We use our framework to study the relationship between politeness and social power, showing that polite Wikipedia editors are more likely to achieve high status through elections, but, once elevated, they become less polite.

If it seems difficult to discern a pattern here, that’s because the agency engages in basic research. It only builds the tools that others will use to build the next war (or disinformation) machine. There’s no telling which of these reports—if any—contains a glimmer of military utility. The only way to find out is to continue such research until it yields a breakthrough, or until the Pentagon goes broke.

 

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