CIA shifts focus to killing targets

The Washington Post reports on the shifting focus of the CIA and its counter-terrorism strategies. Once an organization primarily concerned with analysis and policy, the CIA and its its Counterterrorism Center are now central forces in shadowy paramilitary operations in the Arabian Peninsula. The CIA has become far more closely involved in Special Operations, meshing at foreign bases with contractors and elite military personnel, whom the authors claim went into Pakistan covertly at least five times between 2002 and 2006.

In the decade since 9/11, the agency has undergone a fundamental transformation – from intelligence to the ‘cold counterterrorism objective of finding targets to capture or kill’, often oriented around controversial drone strikes. The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, which had 300 employees on the day of the attacks, now exceeds al-Qaeda’s core membership around the globe. With about 2,000 on its staff, the CTC accounts for 10 percent of the agency’s workforce, has designated officers in almost every significant overseas post and controls the CIA’s expanding fleet of drones.Even the agency’s analytic branch, which traditionally existed to provide insights to policymakers, has been enlisted in the hunt. About 20 percent of CIA analysts are now “targeters” scanning data for individuals to recruit, arrest or place in the cross­hairs of a drone. The skill is in such demand that the CIA made targeting a designated career track five years ago, meaning analysts can collect raises and promotions without having to leave the targeting field.

A booming sector

Critics contend that the CIA’s embrace of “kinetic” operations has diverted the agency from its traditional espionage mission. Human rights groups go further, saying the CIA now functions as a military force beyond the accountability that the United States has historically demanded of its armed services. The CIA doesn’t officially acknowledge the drone program, let alone provide public explanation about who shoots and who dies, and by what rules.

“We’re seeing the CIA turn into more of a paramilitary organization without the oversight and accountability that we traditionally expect of the military,” said Hina Shamsi, the director of the National Security Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Fran Moore, head of the CIA’s analytic branch, said “The vast majority of analysts would not identify themselves as supporting military objectives,” Moore said in an interview at CIA headquarters. Counterterrorism “is clearly a significant, growing and vibrant part of our mission. But it’s not the defining mission.”

One former senior U.S. intelligence official described the agency’s paramilitary transformation: “You’ve taken an agency that was chugging along and turned it into one hell of a killing machine”.

The engine of that machine is the CTC, an entity that has accumulated influence to such a degree that it resembles an agency within an agency. The center swelled to 1,200 employees in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and nearly doubled in size since then. A CIA veteran said he asked the CTC chief about the pace of strikes against al-Qaeda last year and got a typically profane reply: “We are killing these sons of bitches faster than they can grow them now.”

The headquarters for that hunt is on a separate floor in a CTC unit known as the Pakistan-Afghanistan Department, referred to internally as PAD. Within the past year, the agency has created an equivalent department for Yemen and Somalia in the hope that it can replicate the impact of PAD. PAD serves as the anchor of an operational triangle that stretches from South Asia to the American Southwest. The CIA has about 30 Predator and Reaper drones. CIA officials insist that drone strikes are among the least common outcomes in its counter­terrorism campaign.

“Of all the intelligence work on counterterrorism, only a sliver goes into Predator operations,” a senior U.S. official said. The agency’s 118 strikes last year were outnumbered “many times” by instances in which the agency provided tips to foreign partners or took nonlethal steps.

The CIA was heavily involved in the raid by U.S. Special Operations troops on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May. Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs, but the operation was carried out under CIA authority, planned in a room at agency headquarters and based on intelligence gathered over a period of years by the CTC.

Growing collaboration

The assault was the most high-profile example of an expanding collaboration between the CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the nation’s elite military teams. “You couldn’t tell the difference between CIA officers, Special Forces guys and contractors,” said a senior U.S. official after a recent tour through Afghanistan. “They’re all three blended together. All under the command of the CIA.”

Their activities occupy an expanding netherworld between intelligence and military operations. Sometimes their missions are considered military “preparation of the battlefield,” and others fall under covert findings obtained by the CIA. As a result, congressional intelligence and armed services committees rarely get a comprehensive view. Hybrid units called “omega” or “cross matrix” teams have operated in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen, according to senior U.S. military officials.

Those employed in Afghanistan were “mostly designed against specific high-value targets with the intent of looking across the border” into Pakistan, said a former senior U.S. military official involved in Special Operations missions. They wore civilian clothes and traveled in Toyota Hilux trucks rather than military vehicles.

“They were designed to develop sources and leads” but also to “be prepared if necessary to be the front end of a more robust lethal force.”

On at least five occasions, officials said, Special Operations units working closely with the CIA ventured into Pakistan in exercises designed to test their ability to close in on a target without being detected by Pakistani authorities. The operations, which took place between 2002 and 2006, amounted to early rehearsals of the bin Laden raid.

Yet officials describe a distortion effect in collecting intelligence. Dependence on counterterrorism cooperation from a country such as Egypt makes it more risky to engage in activities that might jeopardize that relationship, such as gathering intelligence on corruption in the government or its fragile hold on power.

Senior officials also voice concern about changes in the agency’s analytic branch, where 35 percent are now in jobs where their main function is to support operators and 10 percent are deployed abroad. “We were originally set up with a more singular focus on policymakers,” said Moore, the head of the CIA’s analytic branch. But for a growing number of analysts, “it’s not just about writing for the president. It’s about gaining leads.”

In this new operation-focused era, targeters play a critical role. In counterterrorism operations, it means placing militants in the remotely controlled sights of Predator and Reaper drones. The CIA’s skill and efficiency at doing so has given the drone program a momentum of its own. JSOC has been flying armed drones over Yemen for much of the past year. But those flights fall under conventional military authorities that require permission or at least a level of acquiescence from Yemen. The CIA is in a better position to keep flying even if that cooperation stops.

The administration is also counting on the lethal proficiency of the targeters settling into their cubicles in the latest addition to the sprawling offices of the CTC, a department focused exclusively on Yemen and Somalia. “The kinetic piece of any counterterror strike is the last 20 seconds of an enormously long chain of collection and analysis,” said a U.S. official involved in the creation of the new department. “Traditional elements of espionage and analysis have not been lost at the agency. On the contrary. The CT effort is largely an intelligence game. It’s about finding a target . . . the finish piece is the easy part.”

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