The CIA’s process for assessing targeted drone killings

At Langley,Virginia, the CIA’s drone ‘hit-list’ is signed off by the CIA general counsel–together with the head of the National Clandestine Service (formerly the CIA Directorate of Operations), and the lawyers at the Counterterrorist Center.

The CIA process for putting a person on the hit list begins at Langley headquarters. There, analysts and operatives in the Counterterrorism Center (CTC) pore over reports from informants and foreign intelligence services, as well as intercepts from the National Security Agency, whose interpreters and analysts have transformed voice files collected from sensors into English-language transcripts. They also watch hours of videotape from CIA or military special operations surveillance cameras, scrutinize satellite imagery, and collect information from observers on the ground. In the best cases, they also benefit from the forensic work of a new type of postindustrial secret agent whose expertise is the digital exhaust of captured thumb drives, hard drives, cell phones, and other electronics.

A couple of times a month, a pleasant-sounding secretary from the CIA’s CTC trekked across the agency’s campus to its old headquarters building, took the elevator to the seventh floor of executive suites, and handed acting CIA general counsel John Rizzo a manila envelope marked “top secret,” with a standard pink routing slip attached to the outside. Rizzo was involved in daily operations in the decade following the 9/11 attacks. He had been part of the spy world for thirty-three years, and never had he found himself in such a strange and lonely position. He would remove the two-to-five-page dossier from the envelope and read it alone in his office. It was information on the habits and history of the next man whom officers at the CTC wanted to kill — without a hearing, without giving the targeted man a chance to refute the information or even to admit guilt and surrender. Instead, Rizzo, the lawyers at the CTC, and the head of the National Clandestine Service (formerly the CIA Directorate of Operations) would act as judge and jury on these terrorism files.


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