Obama in Thrall to CIA Killing Machine

Obama in Thrall to CIA Killing Machine

By Toby Harnden - April 16, 2013

ONE balmy evening, Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, was relaxing with his family on his father-in-law’s rooftop in the village of Zanghara, south Waziristan.

Two miles above, a Predator drone trained an infrared camera on him as he lay on his back and was joined by his wife and uncle. The images were so clear that it could be seen that the ailing Mehsud was receiving an intravenous drip.

Moments later two Hellfire missiles were launched from the Predator. Once the dust had cleared, all that was left of Mehsud was a bloody torso. Eleven others, including his wife and mother-in-law, had also died.

Mehsud’s death, in August 2009, caused barely a ripple in Washington, but it was extraordinary because he was an enemy of Pakistan, not America.

CIA lawyers had struggled to get approval to kill him but, under pressure from Pakistan, had made the case that he could be added to the “kill list” because the Pakistani Taliban sheltered al-Qaeda operatives. In the US capital some described the strike as a “goodwill kill”.

The incident is recounted in a new book, The Way of the Knife, by Mark Mazzetti. It details how the CIA has got back into the killing business over the past dozen years and how President Barack Obama fell under the spell of the spy agency.

The man who ran as a liberal, anti-war candidate has brushed away concerns about the attacks. During one meeting he responded to a request for an expansion of America’s drone fleet by saying: “The CIA gets what the CIA wants!”

Mazzetti, a New York Times national security correspondent, examines the CIA’s close alliance with ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency, which MI6 has always kept at arm’s length.

Ultimately, the CIA’s relationship with ISI proved disastrous. Mazzetti writes that Admiral Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, had suspicions that someone senior in the Pakistani military or ISI had harboured Osama bin Laden.

The first drone strike in Pakistan was in June 2004, also in south Waziristan, during the Bush administration. It killed Nek Muhammad Wazir, only a marginal threat to America but someone ISI dearly wanted dead. That strike was part of a deal that involved Pakistan opening up its air space for future drone attacks.

According to Mazzetti, Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6 until 2004, cast mild doubt on the morality of the drone strikes from the outset. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 he saw a strike on a Mitsubishi truck in Afghanistan live on a screen at CIA headquarters in Arlington. He cracked a wry smile and said: “It almost isn’t sporting, is it?”

The book describes how Obama has overseen the expansion of a “military-intelligence complex” in which the CIA forms brief alliances with US special forces.

Obama is now facing criticism from the Republican senator Rand Paul and some liberal Democrats over the drone programme. Before this began, it was conducted in almost complete secrecy. It received minimal congressional oversight even when, as in the case of Mehsud, the targets have had only a tangential connection to the war in Afghanistan or the defence of America.

Mazzetti argues that the CIA has become “a killing machine . . . consumed with manhunting”, while Obama has in effect overseen a third war after Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is one that carries few political risks but “has created enemies just as it has obliterated them”.

Mazzetti told The Sunday Times: “Obama saw the Iraq war as this complete catastrophe and has seen this as something that’s cleaner and more surgical, but everything has costs and consequences.”

Obama has become intimately involved in signing off kill lists and sealing the fates of individuals in Yemen and Somalia. “What the White House would say is if we’re going to kill people we want the president being in charge of it,” said Mazzetti. “But on the other hand . . . it’s really unprecedented to have a president making specific decisions about who lives and who dies.”

The CIA’s power has grown exponentially under Obama, eclipsing the State Department. Its ascendancy was symbolised by a meeting in the White House situation room in June 2011 in which Cameron Munter, the US ambassador to Islamabad, protested against drone strikes via a secure video link.

CIA drones had just attacked a tribal council meeting in a village in north Waziristan, killing dozens of innocents and enraging Pakistanis. Munter, a donnish figure with a doctorate in European history, had already been in a screaming match with the CIA station chief over a drone strike he believed had undercut US interests. “You’re not the ambassador!” Munter shouted at the CIA man.

“You’re right, and I don’t want to be the ambassador,” the station chief replied, the mocking implication being that the ambassador was just a bit player in Pakistan.

Munter demanded veto power over CIA drone strikes in Pakistan because the killing was out of control. But before he could finish, Leon Panetta, the CIA director, cut him off. “I don’t work for you,” he said.

Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, began to defend Munter, turning to Panetta to tell him that the ambassador could not be steamrollered.

“No, Hillary,” Panetta responded, “it’s you who are flat wrong.”

Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, eventually brokered a supposed compromise. Munter could object to specific drone strikes but the CIA could then get approval from the White House. In effect the CIA had won — killing trumped diplomacy.

Munter resigned prematurely from his post and is on a three-year secondment to a Californian university. Admiral Dennis Blair, director of national intelligence and technically Panetta’s boss, was fired for criticising CIA operations.

At the end of his time at the CIA, Panetta, a staunch Catholic, joked: “I’ve said more Hail Marys in the last two years than I have in my whole life.”

Aside from the estimated number killed in Pakistan by American drones of up to 3,308, according to the New America Foundation, another casualty has been the CIA’s traditional mission of providing the president with intelligence about emerging threats and global developments. A senior Obama administration figure told Mazzetti: “The CIA missed Tunisia. They missed Egypt. They missed Libya.” 


Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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