From Jailer to Eraser: The CIA’s shift to drones

In an excerpt adapted from Mark Mazzetti’s upcoming book, “The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth”, The New York Times has published a must-read on the transformation of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center from a post 9/11 global “interrogation” network to a paramilitary killing machine. There are many interesting “revelations”, including the hitherto secret origins of the CIA’s drone campaign in the tribal lands.

Nek Muhammad, a Pashtun tribesman from South Waziristan, was killed in June 2004 by a CIA Predator strike – the first of its kind in Pakistan. At the time, Pakistan’s military claimed responsibility for the attack, deeming the Taliban ally an “enemy of the state”. But the reality is that Pakistan had allowed the US to conduct the strike as part of a secret deal that would open up its northwestern airspace.

The deal came less than a month after a scathing report on the CIA’s network of enhanced interrogation and detention, “and helped transform an agency that began as a cold war espionage service into a paramilitary organization”. Not all were happy with this transformation: Ross Newland, a former senior official with the CIA, believes the agency has grown too comfortable with remote-control killings, stating that “This is just not an intelligence mission.”

More on Nek Muhammad

Born near Wana in South Waziristan, Nek Muhammad was a “star” of the tribal areas by 2004. Pakistan’s northwest mountainous region is populated by Wazirs, Mehsuds, and other Pashtun tribes that live semi-autonomously from Islamabad. A member of the Wazir tribe, Muhammad raised an army to fight Paksitan troops (even though the ISI had trained a generation of Islamist fighters in the Afghan jihad), forcing them into a series of negotiations and a controversial “peace deal”. His experience began during fighting with the Taliban in 1993 in Afghanistan. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Muhammad  hosted fleeing Arab and Chechen fighters escaping across the Durand Line. With their help, he launched attacks against U.S. and Pakistani positions.

Pakistani officials had previously balked at the idea of allowing CIA Predators in their airspace, fearing the fallout from allowing the U.S. to penetrate its national sovereignty. But Muhammad forced their hand. And in Washington, intelligence officials were witnessing with growing alarm the spread of al-Qaeda operatives in the tribal areas. George Tenet, then CIA director, encouraged the agency’s Islamabad station to lobby the Pakistanis.

As the battles raged in South Waziristan, the station chief in Islamabad paid a visit to Gen. Ehsan ul Haq, the ISI chief, and made an offer: If the C.I.A. killed Mr. Muhammad, would the ISI allow regular armed drone flights over the tribal areas?

In secret negotiations, the terms of the bargain were set. Pakistani intelligence officials insisted that they be allowed to approve each drone strike, giving them tight control over the list of targets. And they insisted that drones fly only in narrow parts of the tribal areas — ensuring that they would not venture where Islamabad did not want the Americans going: Pakistan’s nuclear facilities, and the mountain camps where Kashmiri militants were trained for attacks in India.

The ISI and the C.I.A. agreed that all drone flights in Pakistan would operate under the C.I.A.’s covert action authority — meaning that the United States would never acknowledge the missile strikes and that Pakistan would either take credit for the individual killings or remain silent.

From Jailer to Eraser

As these negotiations raged, the CIA’s inspector general, John L. Helgerson, had just finished a damning report on the abuse of detainees at the CIA’s secret prisons. ” It was perhaps the single most important reason for the C.I.A.’s shift from capturing to killing terrorism suspects.”

The brunt of criticism fell on the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, or CTC – the spearhead of the agency’s paramilitary operation. Their focus had been on capturing and interrogating al-Qaeda and its global affiliates. Helgerson’s report stated that many practices violated the United Nations Convention Against Torture. The ground had shifted: the document’s publication spelled the beginning of the end for the CIA’s detention program – and the rise of another type of secret war.

Targeted killings offered a new direction, and quite ironically, would not throw up the same kinds of legal quandaries as illegally detained and interrogated prisoners. It seemed risk-free.

The agency, of course, had a long and ambiguous history with targeted killings. And before 9/11, it was reluctant to re-engage with the practice.

A new generation of C.I.A. officers had ascended to leadership positions, having joined the agency after the 1975 Congressional committee led by Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, which revealed extensive C.I.A. plots to kill foreign leaders, and President Gerald Ford’s subsequent ban on assassinations. The rise to power of this post-Church generation had a direct impact on the type of clandestine operations the C.I.A. chose to conduct.

The debate pitted a group of senior officers at the Counterterrorism Center against James L. Pavitt, the head of the C.I.A.’s clandestine service, and others who worried about the repercussions of the agency’s getting back into assassinations. Mr. Tenet told the 9/11 commission that he was not sure that a spy agency should be flying armed drones.

John E. McLaughlin, then the C.I.A.’s deputy director, who the 9/11 commission reported had raised concerns about the C.I.A.’s being in charge of the Predator, said: “You can’t underestimate the cultural change that comes with gaining lethal authority.

“When people say to me, ‘It’s not a big deal,’ ” he said, “I say to them, ‘Have you ever killed anyone?’

“It is a big deal. You start thinking about things differently,” he added. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, these concerns about the use of the C.I.A. to kill were quickly swept side.

Today, any concerns about the legality and morality of drone strikes seem quaint – belonging to another era; an era when a global Predator Empire seemed like the stuff of science fiction.

Mazzetti’s full report can be found here.

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