January 29, 2006


CIA Expands Use of Drones in Terror War: 'Targeted killing' with missile-firing Predators is a way to hit Al Qaeda in remote areas, officials say. Host nations are not always given notice. (Josh Meyer, January 29, 2006, LA Times)

High-ranking U.S. and allied counter-terrorism officials said the program's expansion was not merely geographic. They said it had grown from targeting a small number of senior Al Qaeda commanders after the Sept. 11 attacks to a more loosely defined effort to kill possibly scores of suspected terrorists, depending on where they were found and what they were doing.

"We have the plans in place to do them globally," said a former counter-terrorism official who worked at the CIA and State Department, which coordinates such efforts with other governments.

"In most cases, we need the approval of the host country to do them. However, there are a few countries where the president has decided that we can whack someone without the approval or knowledge of the host government." [...]

The Predator, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San Diego, is a slender craft, 27 feet long with a 49-foot wingspan. It makes a clearly audible buzzing sound, and can hover above a target for many hours and fly as low as 15,000 feet to get good reconnaissance footage. They are often operated by CIA or Pentagon officials at computer consoles in the United States.

The drones were designed for surveillance and have been used for that purpose since at least the mid-1990s, beginning with the conflict in the Balkans. After the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush ordered a rapid escalation of a project to arm the Predators with missiles, an effort that had been mired in bureaucratic squabbles and technical glitches.

Now the Predator is an integral part of the military's counter-insurgency effort, especially in Iraq. But the CIA also runs a more secretive — and more controversial — Predator program that targets suspected terrorists outside combat zones.

The CIA does not even acknowledge that such a targeted-killing program exists, and some attacks have been explained away as car bombings or other incidents. It is not known how many militants or bystanders have been killed by Predator strikes, but anecdotal evidence suggests the number is significant.

In some cases, the destruction was so complete that it was impossible to establish who was killed, or even how many people.

Among the senior Al Qaeda leaders killed in Predator strikes were military commander Mohammed Atef in Afghanistan in November 2001 and Qaed Sinan Harithi, a suspected mastermind of the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen, in 2002. Last year, Predators took out two Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan: Haitham Yemeni in May and Abu Hamza Rabia in December, one month after another missile strike missed him.

The attack on Rabia in North Waziristan also killed his Syrian bodyguards and the 17-year-old son and the 8-year-old nephew of the owner of the house that was struck, according to a U.S. official and Amnesty International, which has lodged complaints with the Bush administration following each suspected Predator strike.

Another apparent Predator missile strike killed a former Taliban commander, Nek Mohammed, in South Waziristan in June 2004, along with five others. A local observer said the strike was so precise that it didn't damage any of the buildings around the lawn where Mohammed was seated. At the time, the Pakistani army said Mohammed had been killed in clashes with its soldiers.

Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA's special unit hunting Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, said he was aware of at least four successful targeted-killing strikes in Afghanistan alone by November 2004, when he left the agency. [...]

Although presidents Ford and Reagan issued executive orders in 1976 and 1981 prohibiting U.S. intelligence agents from engaging in assassinations, the Bush administration claimed the right to kill suspected terrorists under war powers given to the president by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks.

It is the same justification Bush has used for a recently disclosed domestic spying program that has the National Security Agency eavesdropping on American citizens without warrants, and a CIA "extraordinary rendition" program to seize suspected terrorists overseas and transport them to other countries with reputations for torture.

Strickland, like some other officials, said the Predator program served as a deterrent to foreign governments, militias and other groups that might be harboring Al Qaeda cells.

"You give shelter to Al Qaeda figures, you may well get your village blown up," Strickland said. "Conversely, you have to note that this can also create local animosity and instability."

The CIA's lawyers play a central role in deciding when a strike is justified, current and former U.S. officials said. The lawyers analyze the credibility of the evidence, how many bystanders might be killed, and whether the target is enough of a threat to warrant the strike.

Other agencies, including the Justice Department, are sometimes consulted, Strickland said. "The legal input is broad and extensive," he said.

Scheuer said he believed the process was too cumbersome, and that the agency had lost precious opportunities to slay terrorists because it was afraid of killing civilians.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 29, 2006 8:05 PM

"[...] the Bush administration claimed the right to kill suspected terrorists under war powers given to the president by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks.[...]"

Are we running amok? What will the EU think of us.

"[...]The lawyers analyze the credibility of the evidence, how many bystanders might be killed, and whether the target is enough of a threat to warrant the strike.[...]"

Is there such a thing as bystanders in these situations?

Posted by: Genecis at January 29, 2006 9:18 PM

This delightful ditty appeared three years ago, but it fits beautifully with this story:

Jest send out your chiefs and surrender;
in person or call us by phone.
You can drive a carpool,
If you do you're a fool,
'cause you can't get away from the drones.

Jest send out your chiefs an' surrender
if not we will powder your bones
you can turn on your cell,
then you'll end up in hell,
'Cause you can't get away from the drones.

Posted by: Mike Morley at January 29, 2006 9:24 PM

As long as we are preparing to defend ourselves for the time our enemies start getting the same things.

Posted by: Andrew X at January 29, 2006 9:51 PM

Scheuer's right.

Why the heck are we consulting bloody lawyers about which terrorists to kill and when.

As we already know, we missed killing the Taliban chief because of the damned lawyers. When are we gonna learn our lesson?

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at January 29, 2006 11:22 PM

The answer is remarkaby simple, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." (Present comnpany excluded, of course)

Posted by: erp at January 30, 2006 9:21 AM

Andrew X:

Part of the 21st century paradigm, (and this is a point that Lou Gots, PNAC, et al. have previously made), is that America's enemies aren't going to get those weapons, at least not in quantities that will make any appreciable difference, should they go up against the U.S.

Many Western European nations, and Canada and Japan, have the technical ability to develop the kinds of weapons that America will put into service in the 2010 - 2030 timeframe - but they won't want to spend the money to develop and build them.

Many nations and extranational groups that will oppose the U.S. during the first half of the 21st century would be willing to spend whatever it would take to match the U.S. in terms of weapons sophistication - but all of them lack the ability to design and manufacture such.

North Korea, for instance, can build nuclear weapons, (with help), but their only hope for delivering them to American shores is to put them into shipping containers.

Meanwhile, the Model T version of a Starship Trooper exoskeleton is less than twenty years out; we're just waiting on a suitable power source, everything else could be assembled off-the-shelf.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 30, 2006 10:27 AM

erp: If I thought my passing could save the republic from this terrible curse ...

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 30, 2006 5:29 PM

Oh, Robert we couldn't do without you.

Posted by: erp at January 30, 2006 6:26 PM