[The Pentagon and CIA have both been running parellel drone assassination programs concurrently in Afghanistan and Pakistan. For some unknown reason, all drone attacks have been attributed to the CIA, even though no one outside of those two agencies really knows which drones carried-out the day’s murders, or whether the war crimes were committed by piloted aircraft, or even whose air force that day’s air assassins belonged to. It seems that the CIA is often blamed for PAF attacks within FATA. All terminator drone programs have been run out of US and Pakistani military bases. For Obama to think that he can hide the more repulsive, better publicized CIA murder program beneath or within the Pentagon’s drone program, now that the political backlash against all drones is rapidly building, is ludicrous, although keeping within the parameters defined by the complete hypocrisy inherent in all of Obama’s “innovative” approaches to continuing the evil wars of George Bush. All missile assassinations must end, as well as all illegal, criminal ‘paramilitary” (terrorist) operations.]
At a time when controversy over the Obama administration’s drone program seems to be cresting, the CIA is close to taking a major step toward getting out of the targeted killing business. Three senior U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast that the White House is poised to sign off on a plan to shift the CIA’s lethal targeting program to the Defense Department.
In this Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
The move could potentially toughen the criteria for drone strikes, strengthen the program’s accountability, and increase transparency. Currently, the government maintains parallel drone programs, one housed in the CIA and the other run by DOD. The proposed plan would unify the command and control structure of targeted killings, and create a uniform set of rules and procedures. The CIA would maintain a role, but the military would have operational control over targeting. Lethal missions would take place under Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which governs military operations, rather than Title 50, which sets out the legal authorities for intelligence activities and covert operations. “This is a big deal,” says one senior administration official who has been briefed on the plan. “It would be a pretty strong statement.”
Officials anticipate a phased-in transition in which the CIA’s drone operations would be gradually shifted over to the military, a process that could take as little as a year. Others say it might take longer but would occur during President Obama’s second term. “You can’t just flip a switch, but it’s on a reasonably fast track,” says one U.S. official. During that time, CIA and DOD operators would begin to work more closely together to ensure a smooth hand-off. The CIA would remain involved in lethal targeting, at least on the intelligence side, but would not actually control the unmanned aerial vehicles. Officials told The Daily Beast that a potential downside of the Agency relinquishing control of the program was the loss of a decade of expertise that the CIA has developed since it has been prosecuting its war in Pakistan and beyond. At least for a period of transition, CIA operators would likely work alongside their military counterparts to target suspected terrorists.
The policy shift is part of a larger White House initiative known internally as “institutionalization,” an effort to set clear standards and procedures for lethal operations. More than a year in the works, the interagency process has been driven and led by John Brennan, who until he became CIA director earlier this month was Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser. Brennan, who has presided over the administration’s drone program from almost day one of Obama’s presidency, has grown uncomfortable with the ad hoc and sometimes shifting rules that have governed it. Moreover, Brennan has publicly stated that he would like to see the CIA move away from the kinds of paramilitary operations it began after the September 11 attacks, and return to its more traditional role of gathering and analyzing intelligence.
Lately, Obama has signaled his own desire to place the drone program on a firmer legal footing, as well as to make it more transparent. He obliquely alluded to the classified program during his State of the Union address in January. “In the months ahead,” he declared, “I will continue to work with Congress to ensure that not only our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and systems of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”
Shortly after taking office, Obama dramatically ramped up the drone program, in part because the government’s targeting intelligence on the ground had vastly improved and because the precision technology was very much in line with the new commander-in-chief’s “light footprint” approach to dealing with terrorism. As the al Qaeda threat has metastasized, U.S. drone operations have spread to more remote, unconventional battlefields in places like Yemen and Somalia. With more strikes, there have been more alleged civilian casualties. Adding to the mounting pressure for the administration to provide a legal and ethical rationale for its targeting polices was the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior commander of al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate, who also happened to be a U.S. citizen. (Two weeks later, his 16-year old son was killed in a drone strike, which U.S. officials have called an accident.) The recent nomination of Brennan to head the CIA became a kind of proxy battle over targeted killings and the administration’s reluctance to be more forthcoming about the covert program. At issue were a series of secret Justice Department legal opinions on targeted killing that the administration had refused to make public or turn over to Congress.
It looks like the White House may now be preparing to launch a campaign to counter the growing perception—with elites if not the majority of the public—that Obama is running a secretive and legally dubious killing machine. For weeks, though the White House has not confirmed it, administration officials have been whispering about the possibility that Obama would make a major speech about counterterrorism policy, including efforts to institutionalize—but also reform—the kinds of lethal operations that have been a hallmark of his war on terrorism. With an eye on posterity, Obama may feel the time has come to demonstrate publicly that his policies, for all of the criticism, have stayed within the law and American values. “Barack Obama has got to be concerned about his legacy,” says one former adviser. “He doesn’t want drones to become his Guantanamo.”
But for the president to step out publicly on the highly sensitive subject of targeted killings, he’s going to have to do more than simply give an eloquent speech. An initiative like shifting the CIA program to the military, as well as other aspects of the institutionalization plan, may be just what he needs.
How does the CIA’s targeted killing program differ from the military’s—and what are the implications of shifting one program into the other? Perhaps most important is that the CIA’s program is “covert”—which is to say it is not only highly classified, it’s deniable under the law. That means the CIA, in theory, can lie about the existence of the program or about particular operations. The military’s targeted killing program, however, is “clandestine”—which means it is secret but not deniable.
Losing its drone program will, at some level, be a blow to the CIA’s identity.
There are other important differences between how the two programs are run, especially the process by which killing decisions are made. Since the inception of the drone program, targeting decisions have been made inside the CIA with little or no input from other agencies, though the White House sometimes weighs in. In deciding who should be placed on its kill list, the military, on the other hand, subjects itself to robust interagency vetting, where officials and lawyers from across the national security bureaucracy weigh in on individual targeting “nominations.” While the CIA’s process is said to be extremely rigorous—in some ways even more rigorous than the military’s—the opportunity for, say, the State Department legal adviser to be heard on lethal activities adds an extra layer of accountability. With the CIA’s program moving to the Pentagon, DOD’s vetting procedures will prevail.
Another difference is the role of Obama himself. Upon taking office, Obama had decreed that he would sign off on individual kill or capture operations conducted by the military away from traditional battlefields; he does not, by contrast, sign off on all CIA strikes. (Obama’s sign-off authority on military drone strikes was a subject of contention during the recent Brennan-led internal reform process, according to a current and a former administration official. At one point, the military pushed hard to take the commander-in-chief out of the process. But the State Department and other agencies argued that letting the president call the shots was the ultimate form of accountability—and Obama ultimately retained his authority.)
There are other ways in which the military’s program is more constrained than the CIA’s. Typically, though not always, the military’s lethal activities occur under a congressional grant of authority in the context of an armed conflict. The CIA can resort to lethal force simply when the president issues a covert finding—one that the American people may never know about. Another key legal difference: the military considers itself bound by international law and specifically the laws of war. The CIA, on the other hand, has signaled that while it follows “all applicable law,” international law does not necessarily apply to all of its activities.
To be sure, even with these distinctions, it is not clear that the bureaucratic shift will usher in a new era of openness and accountability. For one thing, targeted killing operations will likely be run by the highly secretive Joint Special Operations Command, the umbrella organization for shadow warriors like the Navy SEALs and DELTA Force. And while they run clandestine, rather than covert operations, JSOC is not known for its eagerness to advertise its operations with the press or Congress.
In fact, there’s at least a chance that the change could mean less congressional oversight rather than more. There’s nothing in the law that says the military has to brief congressional committees about its lethal activities. The CIA, on the other hand, is compelled under Title 50 to notify Congress of its intelligence activities. Says Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor and former Justice Department official during the Bush administration: “Moving lethal drone operations exclusively to DOD might bring benefits. But DOD’s lethal operations are no less secretive than the CIA’s, and congressional oversight of DOD ops is significantly weaker” compared to congressional oversight of the CIA. (Still, as a matter of policy, the Obama administration has taken it upon itself to “back brief” Congress after any of its targeted killings away from conventional battlefields.)
Losing its drone program will, at some level, be a blow to the CIA’s identity. The program has given the Agency a prominent and—ironically—highly visible role in the terror wars. And the spies can take credit for severely degrading, if not decimating, al Qaeda’s core organization in Pakistan. At the same time, according to multiple officials, there has been relatively little pushback from the CIA’s top leadership. One reason might be a sense of relief that the CIA would no longer own such a controversial program. The more likely reason? The man who engineered the idea—John Brennan—is now in charge.
Klaidman, a former NEWSWEEK managing editor, is writing a book on President Obama and terrorism to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012.
For inquiries, please contact The Daily Beast at email@example.com.
[CIA used Bara extremist Haji Namdar (who had undergone ten years of Wahhabi indoctrination in Saudi Arabia) to set-up first “Radio Mullah” station and first Talibanized “religious police” in Khyber, to stage Shariah-enforcement attacks. He even used the same name for his thugs as the Saudis, “Suppression of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue.”(SEE: Waging War Upon Ourselves). Namdar focused upon local Barelvi preacher Pir Saifur Rehman and his followers, before bringing-in radical Mufti Shakir for reinforcements. Both sides raised their own radical armies, Pir Rehman formed Ansar Ul-Islam, Shakir formed Lashkar i-Islami, which he turned over to Mangal Bagh after arrest by government forces. Ansar today wages war against both the LI and their supporters, the TTP of Hakeemullah Mehsud.]
January 29, 2013
Ansar ul-Islam, which in recent days has been engaged in bloody skirmishes with the most hard-line and violent Taliban faction in Pakistan, has a history of fighting against fellow militant Islamist groups in the region.
In recent days residents of the Khyber Agency, located in Pakistan’s northwest FATA tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, are crediting Ansar ul-Islam with fiercely resisting the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Since January 25, more than 80 civilians and fighters have died in skirmishes between the two groups in the remote Tirah region of Khyber.
Ansar ul-Islam, like the TTP, is officially banned by the Pakistani government and has been accused of reprisals and killings. Critics claim it aims to control the Afridi tribe, the largest tribe in Khyber Agency, in order to take over the lucrative trade that passes through the district.
‘They Are Not Terrorists’
Latif Afridi, a secular politician from the region, says that Ansar ul-Islam is fighting against a coalition of the TTP, Al-Qaeda, and Lashkar-e-Islam — its hard-line nemesis in Khyber.
Afridi says Ansar ul-Islam is essentially acting as a defense force for the region.
Supporters of Ansar ul-Islam note that the group allows and protects schools in the regions it controls, while they are the targets of attacks by other Pakistani Taliban factions.
”They are not terrorists. They have never been involved in terrorist activities such as suicide bombings,” Afridi says. “They are just fighting for protecting their region. They have always helped the government in its efforts to establish peace in the region.”
Ansar ul-Islam arrived on the scene when followers of an Afghan Sufi preacher, Pir Saifur Rehman, formed the militia in 2004 to counter the Lashkar-e-Islam (Army of Islam) formed by Mufti Munir Shakir, a hard-line Sunni cleric who opposes Sufism.
Rehman and Shakir followed two different sects of Sunni Islam. The former preached Brelvi Islam inspired by Sufism, while the latter advocated puritanical Deobandi Islam.
The two engaged in a propaganda war, branding each other “infidels” through their own illegal FM radio stations.
Pakistani authorities expelled both clerics from Khyber in 2006 and Rehman later died in Lahore, but their followers kept Ansar ul-Islam and Lashkar-e-Islam alive as rival militias.
The group allows and facilitates government officials to make identity papers to tribesmen in Khyber’s Tirah Maidan region.
The two groups moved their fight from the lowland trading town of Bara into the highlands of Tirah, where clans and families among the Afridi Pashtun tribe supplied their fighters.
Ansar ul-Islam counted on local support and covert government aid, while Lashkar-e-Islam established an alliance with the TTP.
Thousands have died and tens of thousands of families have been displaced by the fighting between the two groups since 2006.
Afridi says that, over the years, Ansar ul-Islam has emerged as a more moderate faction focused on protecting its supporters.
‘Government Needs Such Groups’
Most significantly, it has moved away from preaching sectarian hatred, which wins it more support among the Afridis of Khyber.
”In a way, they are good people. Pakistan today needs such people,” Afridi says. “They do not engage in sectarian hatred and are tolerant. You can sit with them and they will even listen to your advice or criticism. The government needs such groups.”
According to Farhad Shinwari, a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal in Khyber Agency, Ansar ul-Islam helps the local authorities to deliver health care and education in regions it controls.
“They often meet officials and always ask for more development projects,” Shinwari says. “All the schools are open in the regions they control. None of the public schools has been blown up. A large number of students regularly attend these schools. They have also helped in administering successful polio-vaccination campaigns here.”
Afridi says that the current fighting erupted after Ansar ul-Islam resisted a TTP move to expand its control within Khyber Agency. Recently, the TTP began to move eastward into the district’s Maidan region, which is controlled by Ansar ul-Islam.
He says that the TTP forcefully evicted some 1,300 Pashtun families from the western part of Khyber Agency in the summer of 2012 to provide shelter for Al-Qaeda fighters targeted by relentless drone strikes in their North Waziristan base, some 300 kilometers south of Khyber.
Afridi says that a defeat of Ansar ul-Islam would have far-reaching consequences.
He says that if the TTP and Al-Qaeda were to establish control over Maidan in Tirah, peace in Khyber and the surrounding regions would be severely threatened. A stranglehold over the mountainous region would facilitate their attacks against targets in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province’s capital, Peshawar, which abuts Khyber to the east.
“It will make it very difficult for the displaced Afridi tribesmen to return to their homes and will also stir an even greater displacement crisis,” Afridi says.
In recent weeks, the TTP has intensified its violent campaign. It has staged numerous high-profile attacks in Peshawar, including the assassination of senior government minister Bashir Bilour in late December.