The Dronification of State Violence, Part III: The Drone War Paper Trail

Previous section: The Dronification of State Violence, Part II: Historical Origins

The Paper Trail

National Security Decision Directive 207

So far, we have provided some of the broad-brush strokes of the CIA’s partnership with Pakistan’s ISI. Yet in analyzing the CIA, it is easy to “black box” the institution itself. In the sections that follow, we aim to show how the CIA is more than the individuals that populate it. Instead, a range of nonhuman elements and forces anchor this institution, enabling and disabling what is possible. This has a number of important consequences, particularly when it comes to the role of responsibility, ethics, and the status of thought. Below, we discuss the role of presidential directives—connecting an empirical analysis of the orders penned during the Afghan mujahideen to a theoretical examination of their bureaucratic function.

A particularly revealing window into the geopolitics of the Afghan mujahideen of the 1980s are the “presidential directives”[1] that were issued. These documents, which are types of presidential “executive orders,”[2] greatly expanded the role of the CIA’s paramilitary activities. Presidential directives can remain secret for decades, but usually require Congressional notification through what is called a “presidential finding.”[3] On 3 July 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed a presidential directive to aid and support Afghan fighters—months before the actual Soviet invasion. While Carter’s initial presidential directive was modest in scope, the next document guiding CIA activity (on January 1980) allowed the U.S. to arm the mujahideen. This created a crucial bureaucratic “push.” In 1981 President Ronald Reagan signed the seminal Executive Order 12333 United States Intelligence Activities. The document solidified the distinctive role of the CIA for “special activities approved by the President.” Although the CIA possessed this role since the 1947 National Security Act, Executive Order 12333 codified the CIA’s power to execute state violence outside of Congressional oversight. By contrast, the U.S. military was still technically only able to perform such “special activities” under the Congressional 1973 War Powers Resolution.[4]

Ronald ReaganAfter modest Soviet gains in 1985, Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 166 U.S. Policy, Programs and Strategy in Afghanistan. This document reaffirmed the goals of the CIA’s Afghan program, namely, to “improve the military effectiveness of the Afghan resistance in order to keep the trends in the war unfavorable to the Soviet Union,” and led to a drastic increase in funding for covert activity, including Stinger missiles and the ground deployment of CIA operatives. As Steve Coll reflects, “Ten years later the vast training infrastructure…built with the enormous budgets endorsed by NSDD-166—the specialized camps, the sabotage training manuals, the electronic bomb detonators, and so on—would be referred to routinely in America as ‘terrorist infrastructure’.”[5] On 20 January 1986, Reagan signed NSDD 207 The National Program for Combating Terrorism. In the same year, the U.S. Congress allocated $470 million in covert funding, an amount that rose to $630 million in 1987. This document helped transform which institutions were responsible for combating terrorism. Prior to NSDD 207, the “lead agency” for international terrorist activities outside of the United States was the State Department—and this was inscribed in NSDD 30, a kind of “grandfather” directive signed in 1982. While this restriction remained the case in NSDD 207, the directive legislated that the lead agency was to be assisted by a variety of inter-agency groups, including the CIA. Furthermore, the director of the CIA was instructed to establish “an all-source intelligence fusion center for international terrorism.” This would be named the Counterterrorist Center—today’s drone war headquarters.[6] NSDD 207 also instructed the CIA to provide a unilateral “clandestine service capability for preventing, pre-empting and/or disrupting international terrorist activity.”[7]

The Reagan’s administration emphasis on “terrorism” accelerated the growing individualization of warfare, with the Counterterrorist Center focused on identifying dangerous persons. Important in this respect is Executive Order 12947 signed by President Bill Clinton on 23 January 1995. Significantly, this order approved the creation of a list of “specially designated terrorists” that could be individually targeted with economic sanctions. Osama bin Laden was placed on this list under Executive Order 13099. After al-Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, Clinton declared that Osama bin Laden—now a specially designated terrorist—had begun a terrorist war. The president’s response to the bombing was firstly bureaucratic: in August of 1998 he signed a “Memorandum of Notification” (MON), or amendment, to the NSDD 207 signed by Reagan. The new MON expanded on the directive to allow the CIA to take terrorists into custody. In this instance, amending the previous presidential directive was more expedient than writing a new one according to Coll. This is important. As Coll explains, “A new finding would trigger all sorts of complex bureaucratic, budgetary, and legal steps. It seemed wiser to use a MON to amend the legal authority the center already possessed, to make it more specific.”[8] Controversially, this MON also permitted some heavily circumscribed lethal force. Months later the White House circulated new MONs that allowed a lethal attack against the al-Qaeda leader. Of course, this generated debate within the Clinton administration given that Executive Order 12333 prohibited assassination.

Osama_bin_Laden_portraitAfter the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the CIA would return to Afghanistan and reignite its relationship with Pakistan’s ISI under President Musharraf. Six days after the attack, President Bush told his advisers he wanted to “sign a finding today. I want the CIA to be first on the ground.”[9]Bush’s presidential directive created a secret list of high-value targets—individuals—that the CIA was authorized to kill without further presidential approval—going well beyond Clinton’s “specially designated terrorist” finding. John Rizzo, the former acting general counsel of the CIA, provided the legal opinion for Bush’s directive. Rizzo said that the Bush directive allowed activities that were “unprecedented in my twenty-five years of experience at CIA.”[10] The Bush document was expanded significantly a month later in October 2001. Under National Security Presidential Directive 9 Combating Terrorism, the U.S. program of targeted killings went global, according to testimony given by Donald Rumsfeld in the 9-11 Commission. This still-classified document authorizes covert action that “formally expanded the CIA’s power to include the use of lethal force against suspected terrorists when engaging in global counterterrorism activities.”[11]

The effect of all of these actions, time and time again, has been a powerful bureaucratic push within the CIA: presidential directives have continuously modified and expanded the spaces of U.S. sovereignty, connecting battlefield with boardroom. In this sense, the document is no less deadly than the Hellfire missile it authorizes—both exist in a single, topological continuum. Furthermore, the idea that there exists a pure sovereign “decision” is partly a conceit: presidents always find themselves in the midst of documents that modify, and even overtake, their individual agency.


Bureaucracy thus works to decentralize decision-making and anonymize action through a constellation of paperwork. In his analysis of bureaucracy, Max Weber argued: “The management of the modern office is based upon written documents (‘the files’), which are preserved in their original or draught form, and upon a staff of subaltern officials and scrubes of all sorts.”[12] Despite this document-centric definition, Weber believed that documents were always under the control of humans. Turning this on its head, we agree with Hull, who writes: “Documents are not simply instruments of bureaucratic organizations, but rather are constitutive of bureaucratic rules, ideologies, knowledge, practices, subjectivities, objects, outcomes, and even the organizations themselves.”[13] That is to say, documents act as “anchors,” or even engines, of state violence, and they function alongside and against the officials who must obey them. Moreover, such documents can work to anonymize state violence. Presidential directives usually contain the signature of a single man—the U.S. president. But anonymous bureaucrats then invest their authority and legitmacy that this signature confers to an organization. Hull calls this the “generation of a collective agent.”[14] This means that documents have a social life not unlike that of their human signatory, and “may be duplicated, bound to other artifacts, supplemented, abridged through the removal of parts, transported, locked up.”[15] The key point here is that modern drone warfare is an intensely bureaucratic arrangement, composed not just of high-tech machinery that haunts the skies, but files and folders that jostle between offices.

Next section:The Dronification of Violence, Part IV: The Predator


[1] Under Ronald Reagan, Presidential directives were known as “National Security Decision Directives”; under George W. Bush they were “National Security Presidential Directives”; and now under Obama they are “Presidential Policy Directives.”
[2] Modern executive orders stem from the proclamations given by President George Washington on June 8, 1789, when he directed the officers of the Confederation government “to impress me with a full, precise, and distinct general idea of the affairs of the United States” handled by each official (Congressional Research Service, 2008). Executive orders have since been enumerated and published in the Federal Register and Code of Federal Regulations.
[3] After a series of scandals surrounding “Watergate” and CIA interference in the Chilean election, in 1974 Congress adopted the “Hughes-Ryan” amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act. Section 662 prohibited the appropriation of funds by the CIA for intelligence activities “unless and until the president finds that each such operation is important to the national security of the United States and reports, in a timely fashion, a description and scope of such operation to the appropriate committees of Congress” (quoted in Congressional Research Service, 2008, p. 12-13).
[4] Executive Order 12333, 1.8(E) “No agency except the CIA (or the Armed Forces of the United States in time of war declared by Congress or during any period covered by a report from the President to the Congress under the War Powers Resolution (87 Stat. 855)1) may conduct any special activity unless the President determines that another agency is more likely to achieve a particular objective.”
[5] Coll, Steve. 2004. Ghost wars: The secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001. London: Penguin Books. p. 145
[6] Its name has changed slightly to Counterterrorism Center
[7] A scan of NSDD 207 can be found here:[8] Coll 2004, 424.
[9] Quoted in Bobich
Bobich, Joshua. 2007. Note: Who authorized this?!: An assessment of the process for approving U.S. covert action. William Mitchell Law Review 33: 1111-1132. p. 1130.
[10] PBS, 2011. John Rizzo: The lawyer who approved CIA’s most controversial programs.
[11] Bobich 2007, 1130.
[12] Weber Max. 1978. Economy and society. Berkeley: University of California Press. p.957.
[13] Hull, Matthew. 2012. Documents and bureaucracy. Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 251–67. p. 253.
[14] Hull, Matthew. 2003. The file: Agency, authority, and autography in an Islamabad bureaucracy. Language & Communication 23: 287-314. p.301.
[15] Ibid, p. 293.

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, History of Drones, Terrorism and Counterterrorism, White House Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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