YEAR IN REVIEW: The predator war

YEAR IN REVIEW: What are the risks of the CIA’s covert drone program?

On August 5th, officials at the Central Intelligence Agency, in Langley, Virginia, watched a live video feed relaying closeup footage of one of the most wanted terrorists in Pakistan. Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, could be seen reclining on the rooftop of his father-in-law’s house, in Zanghara, a hamlet in South Waziristan. It was a hot summer night, and he was joined outside by his wife and his uncle, a medic; at one point, the remarkably crisp images showed that Mehsud, who suffered from diabetes and a kidney ailment, was receiving an intravenous drip.

The video was being captured by the infrared camera of a Predator drone, a remotely controlled, unmanned plane that had been hovering, undetected, two miles or so above the house. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, A. Rehman Malik, told me recently that Mehsud was resting on his back. Malik, using his hands to make a picture frame, explained that the Predator’s targeters could see Mehsud’s entire body, not just the top of his head. “It was a perfect picture,” Malik, who watched the videotape later, said. “We used to see James Bond movies where he talked into his shoe or his watch. We thought it was a fairy tale. But this was fact!” The image remained just as stable when the C.I.A. remotely launched two Hellfire missiles from the Predator. Authorities watched the fiery blast in real time. After the dust cloud dissipated, all that remained of Mehsud was a detached torso. Eleven others died: his wife, his father-in-law, his mother-in-law, a lieutenant, and seven bodyguards.

Pakistan’s government considered Mehsud its top enemy, holding him responsible for the vast majority of recent terrorist attacks inside the country, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in December, 2007, and the bombing, last September, of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, which killed more than fifty people. Mehsud was also thought to have helped his Afghan confederates attack American and coalition troops across the border. Roger Cressey, a former counterterrorism official on the National Security Council, who is now a partner at Good Harbor, a consulting firm, told me, “Mehsud was someone both we and Pakistan were happy to see go up in smoke.” Indeed, there was no controversy when, a few days after the missile strike, CNN reported that President Barack Obama had authorized it.

However, at about the same time, there was widespread anger after the Wall Street Journal revealed that during the Bush Administration the C.I.A. had considered setting up hit squads to capture or kill Al Qaeda operatives around the world. The furor grew when the Times reported that the C.I.A. had turned to a private contractor to help with this highly sensitive operation: the controversial firm Blackwater, now known as Xe Services. Members of the Senate and House intelligence committees demanded investigations of the program, which, they said, had been hidden from them. And many legal experts argued that, had the program become fully operational, it would have violated a 1976 executive order, signed by President Gerald R. Ford, banning American intelligence forces from engaging in assassination.

Hina Shamsi, a human-rights lawyer at the New York University School of Law, was struck by the inconsistency of the public’s responses. “We got so upset about a targeted-killing program that didn’t happen,” she told me. “But the drone program exists. ” She said of the Predator program, “These are targeted international killings by the state.” The program, as it happens, also uses private contractors for a variety of tasks, including flying the drones. Employees of Xe Services maintain and load the Hellfire missiles on the aircraft. Vicki Divoll, a former C.I.A. lawyer, who now teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy, in Annapolis, observed, “People are a lot more comfortable with a Predator strike that kills many people than with a throat-slitting that kills one.” But, she added, “mechanized killing is still killing.” [continued…]

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