Inside the CIA’s “Kill List”

An excerpt from Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin. Reprinted with permission from Little, Brown and Company

Targeted killings — critics call them assassinations — have been conducted by the U.S. government for a decade, and drones have played a large part in the continuation and frequency of such activities. Armed Predators and Reapers have become the weapons of choice for killing individual terrorist leaders in foreign lands. The success of weapon-carrying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) created a demand within every branch of the military and the CIA for as many of them as their corporate inventor, California-based General Atomics, could produce. It also spawned a development and production frenzy within the niche community of manufacturers experimenting with other types of unmanned aircraft, and with the many larger defense contractors whose technology is used to move a drone’s surveillance pictures and targeting information around the world — from the battlefield to the sanctuary — in a matter of seconds.

The number of drones in the U.S. arsenal has increased from sixty to more than six thousand since 9/11. Funding for drone-related projects and activities was about $350 million in 2001, when the first CIA Predator was being flown from a trailer once used as a daycare center in the parking lot of the agency’s headquarters. In ten years, spending on drones has ballooned to over $4.1 billion, and there are over twenty different types of UAVs in the government’s inventory. Most of them are used for surveillance. Some of the experimental ones are as small as a dragonfly, and disguised as one, too.

In the drone war, U.S. national security agencies have maintained at least three separate “kill lists” of individuals, several sources explained. The National Security Council (NSC) kept one list and reviewed it at weekly meetings attended by the president and vice president. Another was the CIA’s, with no input from the NSC or the Defense Department. A third list was the military’s, but that was really more than one, since the clandestine special operations troops of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had their own list as well. Some suspected terrorists were on multiple lists. But even these highly classified kill lists were not coordinated among the three primary agencies involved in creating them. Each group had its own set of lawyers looking at legal questions. The military and the CIA each had its own set of targeters developing the time and location of the strike. Each had its own pilots, command centers, budget process, and long logistics and personnel pipeline to maintain its own fleet of UAVs.

Permission to kill also was granted variously, depending on the agency involved and the location of the person targeted, said U.S. intelligence and military officials. Some individuals could be killed on the say-so of tactical commanders without approval from above, while others could not be killed without senior military or even cabinet-level approval; still others could not be killed without presidential approval. Until July 2009, the military’s lethal drones targeted individuals in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now most of the kills take place in Afghanistan; the CIA’s drones, on the other hand, killed people in countries where U.S. forces were not conducting military operations, including Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. Presidential approval was absolutely required to operate in these countries. In Somalia, where there was no effective government, once the White House approved the overall mission, all that was needed were multiple CIA or JSOC confirmations of the target’s location — so the wrong person wouldn’t be killed. In Yemen, where the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh had agreed to allow the CIA and JSOC to operate, authority was delegated to commanders in the region. In Pakistan, however, in August 2010, after a number of civilians had died in drone attacks and the public there began to grow more vocal in its opposition to them, CIA director Leon Panetta announced that he would personally approve every drone strike. The director’s input had not been required since the first year after 9/11.

The CIA process for putting a person on the hit list begins at Langley headquarters. There, analysts and operatives in the Counterterrorism Center (CTC) pore over reports from informants and foreign intelligence services, as well as intercepts from the National Security Agency, whose interpreters and analysts have transformed voice files collected from sensors into English-language transcripts. They also watch hours of videotape from CIA or military special operations surveillance cameras, scrutinize satellite imagery, and collect information from observers on the ground. In the best cases, they also benefit from the forensic work of a new type of postindustrial secret agent whose expertise is the digital exhaust of captured thumb drives, hard drives, cell phones, and other electronics.

A couple of times a month, a pleasant-sounding secretary from the CIA’s CTC trekked across the agency’s campus to its old headquarters building, took the elevator to the seventh floor of executive suites, and handed acting CIA general counsel John Rizzo a manila envelope marked “top secret,” with a standard pink routing slip attached to the outside. Rizzo was involved in daily operations in the decade following the 9/11 attacks. He had been part of the spy world for thirty-three years, and never had he found himself in such a strange and lonely position. He would remove the two-to-five-page dossier from the envelope and read it alone in his office. It was information on the habits and history of the next man whom officers at the CTC wanted to kill — without a hearing, without giving the targeted man a chance to refute the information or even to admit guilt and surrender. Instead, Rizzo, the lawyers at the CTC, and the head of the National Clandestine Service (formerly the CIA Directorate of Operations) would act as judge and jury on these terrorism files.

Rizzo is a slight man with bright blue eyes, fluffy white hair, and polished fingernails. He had already served in the agency longer than most of his colleagues when he started reviewing the nominations shortly after 9/11. He approached the job with the detachment expected of a competent attorney, although, in private, he sometimes wondered what his Irish Catholic parents would think of killings like these and his role in them. Although he led these real death-panel reviews, he had a surprisingly hard time keeping the names of people on the list straight, which he blamed on his sense that “all those names sound alike,” as he would say to colleagues.

Still, it was a responsibility that weighed on him. “This was risky business,” he told me. “I would be second-guessed if the wrong person got hit.

“The thought never left my mind that I was giving legal approval for killings and I had never done that before. I just had to stay focused and detached. I had no problem with the morality of it because of the continued threat al-Qaeda posed. . . . In moments of reflection, it was daunting to be in that position.”

The duty to approve or reject putting an individual on the kill list was granted to this small group at the CIA by President Bush, and the responsibility was extended by President Obama. The agency’s approval process was orderly, vetted by legions of lawyers in the White House, the National Security Council, and the CIA, and then affirmed without much discussion or controversy by eight members of Congress, known as the Gang of Eight. They included the House and Senate Democratic and Republican leaders and the chairmen and vice chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. The CIA did not seek Congress’s approval for the program or to kill a particular individual on the list. But once the covert drone program began, the agency kept Congress informed of those who had been killed.

Intelligence officials involved in the CIA selection process say there were never more than two or three dozen individuals on the list at one time. To nominate a person for “lethal action” (the term used in the original 2001 Presidential Finding that made such killings legal, in the U.S. government’s view), CTC analysts would summarize the intelligence reporting they had on an individual using as much specific incriminating evidence as possible. The boilerplate request at the bottom of the case file was always the same: Based on the above, we believe (Mr. X) poses a current and ongoing threat to the United States and therefore meets the legal criteria for lethal action pursuant to the Presidential Finding.

Rizzo would then review the evidence contained in the file. Because there were no written criteria or words of guidance from the Department of Justice on exactly what constituted “a current and ongoing threat,” Rizzo knew the interpretation was on his shoulders, so he and his lawyers in the CTC poked and prodded the analysts about the freshness of their information, and he decided on his own that the outer edge of “current” would be information that was no more than six months old. Sometimes he and his lawyers would deny the CTC a request, usually for relying upon old and possibly outdated information.

The same was true for the renewal process. Every name on the list had to be reviewed by the lawyers every six months, and some people were taken off it because the information became outdated. The other key requirement was that the person in the file had to pose a threat to the United States — not a threat to an ally but a threat to the United States.

Being a U.S. citizen, native-born or naturalized, did not disqualify anyone from being on the list. New Mexico–born Anwar al-Awlaki was put on the CIA list sometime in 2010 when it became clear he was not just a fiery cleric spewing anti-American rhetoric but was helping to inspire and organize attacks. By then, however, Awlaki had been on JSOC’s list for some time. However, another American al-Qaeda member, Adam Gadahn, was never considered for execution because in the judgment of intelligence analysts he was all talk, a Tokyo Rose.

In Pakistan, where the United States used drones beginning in mid-2008 to go after al-Qaeda and Taliban members who had fled over the Afghan border, there was an elaborate Kabuki dance between Islamabad and Washington. The Pakistani government had given the CIA approval for such strikes as long as they were kept secret — which they never were because Pakistanis and local journalists sooner or later discovered the ruins, and the wrong people, civilians, were often killed. For internal political reasons, the Pakistani government usually publicly condemned the very strikes they had approved each time one became known. Sometimes there would be a temporary halt until the tensions subsided.

In Yemen, Obama took advantage of the political void caused by the popular uprising against the regime in June 2011 by secretly ordering a dramatic increase in drone strikes against leaders of the terrorist group there, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Yemen strikes were considered bold by international legal norms not only because the United States was not at war with Yemen but because, in the absence of a Yemeni government, Obama did not seek its approval. The unilateral move symbolized just how comfortable the new president had become with remote-control warfare.

Obama’s unprecedented use of drones began shortly after he took office, when he ordered an increase in lethal drone strikes in Pakistan. The strikes were facilitated by a coordination center set up near the border post not far from Peshawar, where Pakistanis sit alongside U.S. and British intelligence. With better intelligence and better coordination, the number of drone attacks increased between 2008, when there were 35, and 2009, when there were 53. They doubled in 2010, to 117.

The acceleration was aided by a number of technological advances: the more accurate Reapers had reached the region, better intercept technology was available, and Pakistan granted the United States permission to fly low-profile eavesdropping aircraft inside the country.

In all, from July 2008 to June 1, 2011, the CIA launched 220 strikes inside Pakistan, according to a senior CIA official. The agency said that some 1,400 suspected militants were killed, along with about thirty civilians.

The private Conflict Monitoring Center (CMC) based in Islamabad, which collects Pakistani and foreign news reports of casualties, had its own count. It believed that 2,052 people, “mostly civilians,” were killed in the five-year campaign through June 2011, and that this number included 938 casualties in 132 drone attacks in 2010 alone.

Rizzo and his colleagues at the CTC knew they were skating on the edge of public disapproval over the accidental civilian deaths, even with all the approvals they had in hand. The motto at the CTC was: “You have to plan and execute each shot to preserve your ability to do the next shot.”

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