Back in February 2011, John Rizzo gave an on the record account of CIA practices involving drone strikes. He is currently under investigation for possible breaches of security. Some snippets of the interview below, where Rizzo discusses the CIA’s ‘hit list’ and some of the legal-bureaucratic mechanisms at the CTC for targeted killing.
More than a year after leaving the government, Rizzo, a bearded, elegant 63-year-old who wears cuff links and pale yellow ties, discussed his role in the CIA’s “lethal operations” with me over Côtes du Rhone and steak in a Washington restaurant. At times, Rizzo sounded cavalier. “It’s basically a hit list,” he said. Then he pointed a finger at my forehead and pretended to pull a trigger. “The Predator is the weapon of choice, but it could also be someone putting a bullet in your head.”
The number of such killings, carried out mostly by Predators in Pakistan, has increased dramatically during the Obama administration, and these covert actions have become an integral part of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
How CIA staffers determine whether to target someone for lethal operations is a relatively straightforward, and yet largely unknown, story. The president does not review the individual names of people; Rizzo explains that he was the one who signed off. People in Washington talk about a “target list,” as former undersecretary of state Richard Armitage described the process at a recent event in Washington. In truth, there is probably no official CIA roster of those who are slated to die. “I never saw a list,” says a State Department official who has been involved in discussions about lethal operations, speaking without attribution because of the nature of the subject. Officials at the CIA select targets for “neutralization,” he explains. “There were individuals we were searching for, and we thought, it’s better now to neutralize that threat,” he says
The hub of activity for the targeted killings is the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, where lawyers—there are roughly 10 of them, says Rizzo—write a cable asserting that an individual poses a grave threat to the United States. The CIA cables are legalistic and carefully argued, often running up to five pages. Michael Scheuer, who used to be in charge of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, describes “a dossier,” or a “two-page document,” along with “an appendix with supporting information, if anybody wanted to read all of it.” The dossier, he says, “would go to the lawyers, and they would decide. They were very picky.” Sometimes, Scheuer says, the hurdles may have been too high. “Very often this caused a missed opportunity. The whole idea that people got shot because someone has a hunch—I only wish that was true. If it were, there would be a lot more bad guys dead.”
Sometimes, as Rizzo recalls, the evidence against an individual would be thin, and high-level lawyers would tell their subordinates, “You guys did not make a case.” “Sometimes the justification would be that the person was thought to be at a meeting,” Rizzo explains. “It was too squishy.” The memo would get kicked back downstairs.
The cables that were “ready for prime time,” as Rizzo puts it, concluded with the following words: “Therefore we request approval for targeting for lethal operation.” There was a space provided for the signature of the general counsel, along with the word “concurred.” Rizzo says he saw about one cable each month, and at any given time there were roughly 30 individuals who were targeted. Many of them ended up dead, but not all: “No. 1 and No. 2 on the hit parade are still out there,” Rizzo says, referring to “you-know-who and [Ayman al-] Zawahiri,” a top Qaeda leader.