JSOC Using Captured Militants to Analyze Intel

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Last week the Washington Post published an investigation into the CIA’s operational shift to focus increasingly on “the cold counterterrorism objective of finding targets to capture or kill.” The report documents the expansion of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) and its drone campaign in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, disagreement over the use of Afghan militias trained by the CIA and secret incursions into Pakistan.

We talked to FRONTLINE correspondent Stephen Grey — who spent the last year investigating America’s secret Kill/Capture campaign to take out Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan — about the expansion of the CIA’s counterterrorist apparatus and what it means.

What does the Post story tell us that we didn’t already know?

“Of Taliban prisoners captured by JSOC who are “turned” so as to be cooperative, some are trained at Bagram Airbase to read satellite images and video feeds to help find targets.”

The article reveals a level of disquiet among people within the agency, or people who have retired recently, about how the growing element of Kill/Capture within the intelligence game and the war on terror is going, which we’ve been reporting on.

There’s also a significant amount of detail and clarity revealed about the whole paramilitary apparatus of the CIA. The CIA’s relationship with the military itself is underemphasized in the piece, I think. But it’s right to point out there’s been a militarization within the ranks of the CIA, from the expansion of the kill-capture program, including the construction of a new airfield to launch predator drone strikes in Yemen, to the sheer amount of floor space and real estate devoted at CIA headquarters for the kill-capture project and the way so many CIA personnel’s careers are now drawn into the targeting process.

The Post details examples — like the bin Laden raid — of the expanding collaboration between the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which oversees elite military teams.  What’s the relationship between JSOC and the CIA?

There’s a lot we don’t know. Much of what goes on here is a fusion operation.  JSOC people [work] with CIA, and CIA people with JSOC. They have access to each others’ system. They are by and large an integrated operation in the level of targeting and sharing of information about targets. Ultimately the shots are being called in Afghanistan by the military. The CIA sees themselves as operating in support of the military within the “warzone.” Outside that, the CIA take the lead, with the military in support, in countries like Pakistan, where no ‘overt’ military mission is authorized.

There’s one clear difference between the military and the CIA. The CIA is much more centralized and run from Washington. There’s very little that CIA does on the ground that isn’t authorized from Washington, whereas the military is less so.

From a senior US intelligence source, we also learned that a critical part of the targeting process for the CIA drone strikes in Pakistan came and comes from JSOC, and is very coordinated. Of Taliban prisoners captured by JSOC who are “turned” so as to be cooperative, some are trained at Bagram Airbase — which houses the main interrogation center — to read satellite images and video feeds to help find targets.  Those are the kind of people who can say who’s in what room in which maddrassah building. That’s the value of the people who’ve just come from the Haqqani [network's] training areas, for example.  They have been, captured and turned and they have very specific training information.

Other US intelligence sources say that JSOC is getting so good at interrogation techniques that a majority of prisoners they deal with are willing to talk; and within those a significant number are prepared to help in a proactive way. All of this emphasizes not only the role that interrogation ‘de-briefs’ continue to play within what is called human intelligence, but also how dependent the CIA is on the military.

How do the Counterterror Pursuit Teams — the “elite” Afghan militias trained by the CIA’s Special Activities Division to gather intelligence and launch raids — operate? 

What people told FRONTLINE is that the CIA is involved in these private armies, the “Counterterror Pursuit Teams.” Looking at their role in the conflict in Afghanistan, it’s not just going after people to kill and capture, it’s to collect intelligence that helps military operations and special forces. We’ve met some of them – for example the Khost Protection Force [KPF], which we profiled in our report The Secret War.

“Counterterror Pursuit Teams” is actually a new name for the militias that were established to take over the country as soon as the CIA arrived in Afghanistan [in 2001] with suitcases of cash. Because they have the money, whereas the military didn’t, the CIA took the lead and established those relationships. They’ve carried on a parallel organization. The teams are not under the Afghan government, but they do liaison with the National Directorate of Security [NDS], Afghan intelligence. They do work closely with US Special Forces and the military, and you see a lot of references to them in WikiLeaks cables.

Mostly what they do is collect intelligence.  The militias include members of tribes that span the border, so when it comes to running human intelligence networks within the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, these people are pretty invaluable, as is the Afghan intelligence service [NDS]. Part of the intelligence comes from these pursuit teams.

There haven’t been that many operations of attacks across the border; crossing the border is only a part of what they do.

The CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan has escalated dramatically in recent years, and now programs modeled after it are being adopted for targets in Yemen and Somalia.  What does that tell us about U.S. drone strategy?  

The ramping up of the drone program does not just reflect a more aggressive attitude of the CIA or the Obama administration. It’s also that the intelligence is that much better. Underpinning these strikes are not only the high tech intelligence operations — for example, tracking phone calls — but also human intelligence. And that takes time to develop.  Over the past few years they’ve developed a much stronger unilateral human intelligence capability within Pakistan.

And that’s what’s going on in Yemen and also Somalia – they’re trying to build up their sources of information. They can’t just let loose those drones there. In some ways they’ve been very restrained so far – and that’s because they just don’t have those human intelligence sources in Yemen and Somalia in sufficient [amounts]. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, they’ve developed that network and it’s allowed them to become much more accurate.

So drone strikes have become more accurate in recent years, but there is still a great deal of criticism that the program results in more civilian casualties than U.S. officials admit. 

The New America Foundation has been tracking these strikes, and recently the London-based Center for Investigative Journalism released a report, [concluding that while civilian casualties declined in the past year, at least 45 civilians were killed, a number in stark contrast with the claim made by President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan in June that there hadn’t been a single civilian death in more than a year.]

I think the point to remember here is that even an accurately targeted drone strike that hits the person intended can cause a lot of civilian deaths. So while estimates from the ground, highlighted in those two studies, will tend to exaggerate civilian casualties, the administration’s own estimate is hopelessly low.

On the ground in some of Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the strikes occur, there are plenty of people who have told us they like drone strikes — it’s not the universal attitude, but there are plenty of people living there saying the bad guys are being taken out. But you cannot just rely on accounts of people in the tribal areas. It’s very hard for people to speak honestly in that part of the world [because it can be a very politically-sensitive environment].

Describe the concerns about the drone program you have been hearing in your reporting.

In contrast to what the CIA says publicly, we’ve been told by many with a close involvement in these programs that too many resources are devoted to the drone program. Insiders told us you can’t measure it by how many people are working in this unit or that unit, but that it’s about where the brightest people within the organization are going. Just as resources were diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq when President Bush invaded Iraq, it wasn’t just that they moved people to Iraq, it was that the best and brightest and sharpest of minds were put towards the effort in Iraq.

What critics within US intelligence tell us is that — despite its success in dealing very successful blows at senior Al Qaeda leadership — the drone program is very tactical and not addressing root causes of the radicalism.  These are the concerns of senior U.S. officials we’ve spoken with. It’s what Robert Grenier, the former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, told us earlier this year:

I think that drones are effective in doing what it is they are designed to do, and that is to launch very specific, surgical focused strikes against individual and small groups of militants. That then has unintended political and other effects.  So that’s a whole other question. By launching those attacks, are we creating more militants than in fact we are killing? Well that’s a very open question.

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