How US Drone Assassinations all Began (Woods)

Chris Woods writes at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) usually gets all the credit for the first US drone targeted killing beyond the conventional battlefield.

But it was the military which gave the final go-ahead to kill on November 3 2002.

Lt General Michael DeLong was at Centcom headquarters in Tampa, Florida when news came in that the CIA had found its target. The deputy commander made his way down to the UAV Room, showing live video feeds from a CIA Predator high above Marib province in Yemen.

The armed drone was tracking an SUV on the move. The six terrorist suspects inside were unaware that a decision had already been made to kill them.

Interviewed by PBS, DeLong later recalled speaking by phone with CIA Director George Tenet as he watched the video wall:

‘Tenet goes “You going to make the call?” And I said, “I’ll make the call.” He says, “This SUV over here is the one that has Ali in it.” I said, “OK, fine.” You know, “Shoot him.” They lined it up and shot it.’

Eight thousand miles away and moments later, six alleged terrorists were dead. Among them was a US citizen.

‘Orchestrator’ killed
The media carried detailed accounts of the ‘secret’ attack within days. Yemen’s government, which had co-operated on the strike, also released the names of the six men killed, including that of US citizen Kemal Darwish.

Concerns he had been deliberately targeted were dismissed, as it was reported the intended CIA target was Qa’id Salim Sinan al-Harithi, al Qaeda’s ‘orchestrator’ of the lethal attack on the USS Cole.

As the New York Times noted at the time, ‘Mr. Harethi was not on the FBI’s list of the 22-most-wanted terrorist fugitives in the world,’ and added that ’although investigators wanted to question Mr. Harethi about the Cole bombing, the CIA did not consult law enforcement officials before the Yemeni operation.’

A secret US cable, dated a fortnight prior to the strike, also shows that Yemen’s government had already incarcerated more than a dozen men wanted in connection with the Cole bombing. At least one of them, Fahd al Quso, was killed in a subsequent US drone strike.

Although investigators wanted to question Mr. Harethi about the Cole bombing, the CIA did not consult law enforcement officials before the Yemeni operation’
New York Times, November 2002

US citizen Darwish was simply in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ that November, it was said. Yet just six weeks beforehand, the Lackawanna terrorist plot in upstate New York had been exposed. Kemal Darwish was named as a key suspect, and a ‘massive worldwide manhunt‘ for him was underway.

Questions remain about how much the CIA and Centcom actually knew about the presence of a US citizen that day.

When assistant US defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz openly discussed the strike with CNN on November 5, he noted only that a ‘successful tactical operation [has] gotten rid of somebody dangerous.’ It would be many years before senior officials would again openly acknowledge the covert drones project.

No inevitability
The way had been cleared for the November 2002 killings months earlier, when President Bush lifted a 25-year ban on US assassinations just after 9/11.

He later wrote that ‘George [Tenet] proposed that I grant broader authority for covert actions, including permission for the CIA to kill or capture al Qaeda operatives without asking for my sign-off each time. I decided to grant the request.’

Since then, under both Bush and Obama, the US has carried out targeted killings (or extrajudicial executions according to UN experts) using conventional aircraft and helicopter strikes; cruise missiles; and even naval bombardments.

Yet the drone remains the US’s preferred method of killing. The Bureau has identified a minimum of 2,800 (and as many as 4,100) killed in covert US drone strikes over the past ten years. What began as an occasional tactic has, over time, morphed into an industrialised killing process.


Every confirmed US drone strike in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia recorded 2002-2012.

There was no inevitability to this when the strikes began. Time magazine opined in 2002 that covert drone attacks were ‘unlikely to become a norm.’ And in the early years of the programme this was true. The next covert drone strike took place in Pakistan in June 2004, followed by a further strike 11 months later.

Yet slowly, surely, the United States has come to depend on its drone killing programme. By Obama’s presidency drone use against alleged militants was sometimes daily. Six times more covert strikes have hit Pakistan under Barack Obama than under George W Bush. And as the Bureau’s work shows, when known strikes in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan are added together, they reveal a growing dependence upon covert drone killings.

Recent reports show that the US is now formalising the drone killing project. Some insiders talk of a decade or more of killing to come, with Mitt Romney noting that he would continue the policy if elected.

In Washington at least, a decade of targeted killings of alleged terror suspects appears to have normalised the process.

Follow chrisjwoods on Twitter.

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Mirrored from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

16 Responses

  1. How did the CIA morph from an intelligence gathering organization to being a secret army of assassins and torturers?

    I read somewhere that during the Cold War, not a single KGB or CIA officer was assassinated by the other side. Each side realized that their opponent was equally capable of an assassination campaign so they chose to not cross that boundary. Of course third parties were not protected by that covenant.

    As an intelligence organization you collect as much information about your opponent as possible, carefully sift and assemble what you have, and get the best possible picture of the facts. It takes a lot of brain power and carful work to produce a useful result. It also produces a deep understanding of the other guy. We operated this way for half a century.

    Now things are much easier. Someone says that someone might be a militant so you assassinate him. No need for brain power there!

    The old way was hard and did not always produce pleasing results, it did however avoid WWIII. The new way produces pleasing amounts of blood, but for some reason we are not winning. We are told that this will have to go on for a long time and then we might “win”.

    The most important thing gained from the old way was the understanding of your opponent. Now we quite deliberately do not attempt to understand our opponents. We never ask: why are they fighting? The only answer that we might hear is: because they are terrorists. A comforting non-answer.

    What if we understood them better? What if we realized that they are fighting to be free of foreign domination? What is their cause was entirely logical and reasonable? What would happen to our rationale for these wars?

    Best not go there, best stick with: they are fighting because they are terrorists!

    • “Now things are much easier. Someone says that someone might be a militant so you assassinate him. No need for brain power there!”

      The process to determine the targeting of Unlawful Enemy Combatants is far more sophisticated than the cartoon version offered in the above-cited quote. It is not just based on “Someone says that someone might be a militant.” Communications intercepts, drone surveillance overflights, information from captured Militants, and other means are all incorporated into a matrix for determining whom to target.

      • Yeah, that’s how it works, all right. And you know this double secret covert stuff just h
        ow, again, exactly? And you are cleared to share this deep stuff with the whole wo. rld? And with all those idiotproof checks and balances no “mistakes”could ever be made? Especially not that initial mistake of thinking this practice will actually “protect American interests?” As opposed to committing unpunishable acts of mech-terror with further erosion of “American s

      • “Unlawful Enemy Combatants” I love it! They are Afghans fighting a foreign invader. How, pray tell, did they become “Unlawful Enemy Combatants”? Bonus question: who gets to decide who is an “Unlawful Enemy Combatant”?

        Another great one, “matrix for determining” sounds like war by spread sheet. No wonder we are losing, we don’t even know why we are fighting.

        How about this; isn’t a militant just someone who thinks militant thoughts or says militant things. He is not necessarily a combatant. Do we kill people for thought crimes now?

        Hasn’t the rationale for this war become quite insane?

      • The ACLU has filed a lawsuit to demand the government release basic information about the targeted killing program. They’re seeking the legal memos on which the program is based. They also want the evidentiary basis for strikes that killed 3 Americans in 2011. They are also seeking information about the process by which the administration adds Americans to the “kill list”. Since you apparently are privy to all the secret information about the drone program, maybe you can call the ACLU and answer their questions

        • For those of you who think that knowing that we use communications intercepts, drone surveillance overflights, and intelligence from captured Militants requires being privy to deep, dark secrets, my question to you is: What rock have you been hiding under the last ten years? This is common knowledge, yet you act astonished that targeting is based on more than, “Someone says that someone might be a militant so you assassinate him.” You should get out more.

          Regarding the statement: “They are Afghans fighting a foreign invader. How, pray tell, did they become “Unlawful Enemy Combatants”? You appear to confuse the Afghan Taliban fighting U.S. and Afghan forces within Afghanistan with Al-Qaeda leaders and operatives, and their affiliated colleagues, in the Pakistani tribal belt. Al-Qaeda leaders and operatives, and their affiliated confederates, who plan and attempt to execute attacks against the United States and U.S. interests, are Unlawful Enemy Combatants, and, thus, the target of the drone program.

        • For those who believe in the perfect accuracy of anything that the CIA or contractors or the military do, and the perfect consistency of those actions with “policy,” and that there’s never error or venality or stupidity in the deployment of those “smart weapons,” or don’t care that there’s “collateral damage” to totally (even by your elastic standards) innocent people obviously stupid enough to dare to be in the “kill radius” (love that term) of a weapon we fire, may we hope that there’s excuses enough that you won’t arbitrarily be excluded from Heaven when the time comes.

          It’s just BS that drone-fire and the rest are actually aimed at people who are “planning on harming the US or US interests” or are even very capable of any such thing in any significant way. Or that the prescription, death by Hellfire with Bugsplat damages, link to newstatesman.com, will in any way cure the supposed disease you say exists.

          There’s a disease process in action here, all right…

      • Wow, a “matrix” well, that’s A-Okay then! Why didn’t you say so before.

        My “disposition” is much better now.

  2. And just how is the killing of people by the US military in a country with which the US is not at war distinguishable from murder?

  3. “How did the CIA morph from an intelligence gathering organization to being a secret army of assassins and torturers?”

    The National Security Act of 1947
    has a nasty little line
    “And such other activities as the President may direct”

    Sets up his own private army.

  4. This is a good article in that it contains links to government documents showing that it is a very complex legal issue that has been analyzed at various levels of government as to what constitutes an “assassination” and how it is treated legally.

    The concept of CIA assassination was initially made public chiefly by the Church Committee and resulted in an executive order by President Ford that barred such killings by the U.S. intelligence community. Presidents Carter and Reagan issued further presidential directives that also placed restrictions on this activity.

    The Church Committee’s findings gave rise to the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) which, in its January 2, 1979 Final Report, found a “probable conspiracy” in the deaths of JFK and MLK. Significantly, while exonerating the U.S. intelligence community in the JFK assassination – two groups that had confirmed relationships with the CIA – organized crime and anti-Castro exiles – the HSCA found it had credible proof linking them to such a probable conspiracy. The HSCA findings and the assassination of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his aide by CIA-affiliated individuals underscore the domestic dangers of a U.S. intelligence-sponsored assassination program.

    It appears that the George W. Bush administration was the key initiator in reviving the concept of U.S.-sponsored political assassination.

    Additionally, what about the “collateral damage” aspect of a targeted killing? How many children have been confirmed dead as the result of drone strikes. Israel met international condemnation when it had an F-16 drop a half-ton bomb on an apartment complex in Gaza to kill Hamas miltary chief Salah Shihadeh and also killed 14 “bystanders”. This led to a U.S. District Court lawsuit by the families of the dead Gazans and injured survivors against Israel. It also led to a retaliatory bombing at Hebrew University by Hamas that left several Israelis dead. America loses moral standing by killing bystanders.

    America should not be engaged in the business of extrajudicial killing.

  5. “Someone MIGHT be a militant.” “And you kill him” with a $$$ drone. Doing favors for BIG-ARMS’s drone-sales group! Cheaper than a USA death-penalty with all those pesky appeals? And no-one to ask (and no one need answer) the questions: “An IMPORTANT militant?” “A DANGEROUS militant?” “How dangerous?” “Will this drone-attack create more enemies than it kills?” “Oh, just a MIGHT BE a militant?”

    It doesn’t matter. Drone-sales up. Power to the joy-stick-boys up (“joy stick” indeed!).

  6. Andrew Bacevich has a piece reprinted in the November issue of Harper’s Magazine (orgiinally published, interestingly, in the September issue of The American Conservative) entitled, “How We Became Israel”. The title is sufficiently descriptive of the content that I need add no additional comment here explaining the article’s cogency to this post.

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