[THS] I'm Taking You Out With a Drone to Save You From Torture
The Harder Stuff in news and commentary
ths at psalience.org
Wed Feb 16 14:32:20 CET 2011
Inside the Killing Machine
President Obama is ordering a record number of Predator strikes. An exclusive
interview with a man who approved lethal operations.
By Tara Mckelvey
February 15, 2011 "Newsweek" - -- It was an ordinary-looking room located in an
office building in northern Virginia. The place was filled with computer monitors,
keyboards, and maps. Someone sat at a desk with his hand on a joystick. John A.
Rizzo, who was serving as the CIAs acting general counsel, hovered nearby, along
with other people from the agency. Together they watched images on a screen that
showed a man and his family traveling down a road thousands of miles away. The
vehicle slowed down, and the man climbed out.
A moment later, an explosion filled the screen, and the man was dead. It was very
businesslike, says Rizzo. An aerial drone had killed the man, a high-level terrorism
suspect, after he had gotten out of the vehicle, while members of his family were
spared. The agency was very punctilious about this, Rizzo says. They tried to
minimize collateral damage, especially women and children.
The broad outlines of the CIAs operations to kill suspected terrorists have been
known to the public for some timeincluding how the United States kills Qaeda and
Taliban militants by drone aircraft in Pakistan. But the formal process of determining
who should be hunted down and blown to bits, as Rizzo puts it, has not been
previously reported. A look at the bureaucracy behind the operations reveals that it is
multilayered and methodical, run by a corps of civil servants who carry out their
duties in a professional manner. Still, the fact that Rizzo was involved in murder, as
he sometimes puts it, and that operations are planned in advance in a legalistic
fashion, raises questions.
More than a year after leaving the government, Rizzo, a bearded, elegant 63-year-
old who wears cuff links and pale yellow ties, discussed his role in the CIAs lethal
operations with me over Côtes du Rhone and steak in a Washington restaurant. At
times, Rizzo sounded cavalier. Its basically a hit list, he said. Then he pointed a
finger at my forehead and pretended to pull a trigger. The Predator is the weapon
of choice, but it could also be someone putting a bullet in your head.
The number of such killings, carried out mostly by Predators in Pakistan, has
increased dramatically during the Obama administration, and these covert actions
have become an integral part of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
How CIA staffers determine whether to target someone for lethal operations is a
relatively straightforward, and yet largely unknown, story. The president does not
review the individual names of people; Rizzo explains that he was the one who
signed off. People in Washington talk about a target list, as former undersecretary
of state Richard Armitage described the process at a recent event in Washington. In
truth, there is probably no official CIA roster of those who are slated to die. I never
saw a list, says a State Department official who has been involved in discussions
about lethal operations, speaking without attribution because of the nature of the
subject. Officials at the CIA select targets for neutralization, he explains. There
were individuals we were searching for, and we thought, its better now to neutralize
that threat, he says.
The military and the CIA often pursue the same targetsOsama bin Laden, for
examplebut handle different regions of the world. Sometimes they team upor
even exchange jobs. When former CIA officer Henry A. Crumpton was in Afghanistan
after 9/11, he and Gen. Stanley McChrystalthe former head of Joint Special
Operations Command, a secretive military unitworked closely together, and so did
their subordinates. Some of the people I knew and who worked for me went to work
for himand vice versa, recalls Crumpton. Some counterterrorism experts say that
President Obama and his advisers favor a more aggressive approach because it
seems more practicalthat administration officials prefer to eliminate terrorism
suspects rather than detain them. Since the U.S. political and legal situation has
made aggressive interrogation a questionable activity anyway, there is less reason to
seek to capture rather than kill, wrote American Universitys Kenneth Anderson,
author of an essay on the subject that was read widely by Obama White House
officials. And if one intends to kill, the incentive is to do so from a standoff position
because it removes potentially messy questions of surrender.
In defense of a hard-nosed approach, administration officials say the aerial-drone
strikes are wiping out Qaeda militants and reducing the chances of another terrorist
attack. They have also been careful to reassure the public that the killings are legal.
When NEWSWEEK asked the administration for comment, a U.S. official who declined
to be identified addressing such a sensitive subject said: These CT
[counterterrorism] operations are conducted in strict accordance with American law
and are governed by legal guidance provided by the Department of Justice.
Explains Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer, Were not in kindergarten on this
anymore: weve been doing this since 2001, and theres a well-established protocol.
A Los Angeles Times article once described John Rizzo as the most influential career
lawyer in CIA history, and he arguably knows more than anyone else in the
government about the legal aspects of the CIAs targeted killings. But he stumbled
into the world of espionage almost by accident. He graduated from George
Washington University Law School and was living in D.C. in the 1970s when the
Church committee released its report on the CIAs attempts to assassinate foreign
leaders. Rizzo sensed an opportunity: With all that going on, theyd need lawyers.
He got a CIA job soon afterward.
Decades later, as the CIAs interrogations and lethal operations were ramped up after
9/11, Rizzo found himself at the center of controversy. He was, as he puts it, up to
my eyeballs in President Bushs program of enhanced interrogations in the so-called
black sites, or secret prisons, located in Afghanistan and in other countries. Justice
Department lawyer John C. Yoo wrote the infamous torture memo of August 2002
because Rizzo had asked for clarification about techniques that could be used on
detainees. Rizzo had once hoped to become the CIAs general counsel, but members
of the Senate intelligence committee balked because of the role he played in
authorizing the interrogations. Rizzo retired in 2009.
Today, Rizzo can sometimes sound boastful. How many law professors have signed
off on a death warrant? he asks. He is quick to emphasize that the groundwork was
prepared in a judicious manner, and felt it important that he observe the killing of
some of the high-level terrorism suspects via live footage shown in CIA offices. I was
concerned that it be done in the cleanest possible way, he explains.
Clean, but always morally complex. Rizzo would sometimes find himself sitting in his
office on the seventh floor of the CIA building with a cable about a terrorism suspect
in front of him, and he would wonder how his Irish-Italian parents would feel about
his newly assigned duties.
After President Bush authorized the CIA to hunt down Qaeda fighters in the wake of
9/11, the attorneys were always involved, but they were very goodvery aggressive
and helpful, in fact, says Crumpton. They would help us understand international
law and cross-border issues, and they would interpret specific language of the
Under another Bush order, signed several years later, a variety of people who worked
in terrorist camps could be targeted, and not just named terrorism suspects; at that
point, the pool of potential candidates reviewed by CIA lawyers became much larger.
Despite the secrecy surrounding these orders, their scope has become clear. The
authority given in these presidential findings is surely the most sweeping and most
lethal since the founding of the CIA, William C. Banks, director of Syracuse
Universitys Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, told a House
The hub of activity for the targeted killings is the CIAs Counterterrorist Center, where
lawyersthere are roughly 10 of them, says Rizzowrite a cable asserting that an
individual poses a grave threat to the United States. The CIA cables are legalistic and
carefully argued, often running up to five pages. Michael Scheuer, who used to be in
charge of the CIAs Osama bin Laden unit, describes a dossier, or a two-page
document, along with an appendix with supporting information, if anybody wanted
to read all of it. The dossier, he says, would go to the lawyers, and they would
decide. They were very picky. Sometimes, Scheuer says, the hurdles may have been
too high. Very often this caused a missed opportunity. The whole idea that people
got shot because someone has a hunchI only wish that was true. If it were, there
would be a lot more bad guys dead.
Sometimes, as Rizzo recalls, the evidence against an individual would be thin, and
high-level lawyers would tell their subordinates, You guys did not make a case.
Sometimes the justification would be that the person was thought to be at a
meeting, Rizzo explains. It was too squishy. The memo would get kicked back
The cables that were ready for prime time, as Rizzo puts it, concluded with the
following words: Therefore we request approval for targeting for lethal operation.
There was a space provided for the signature of the general counsel, along with the
word concurred. Rizzo says he saw about one cable each month, and at any given
time there were roughly 30 individuals who were targeted. Many of them ended up
dead, but not all: No. 1 and No. 2 on the hit parade are still out there, Rizzo says,
referring to you-know-who and [Ayman al-] Zawahiri, a top Qaeda leader.
As administration critics have pointedout, government officials have to go through a
more extensive process in order to obtain permission to wiretap someone in this
country than to make someone the target of a lethal operation overseas.
Rizzo seems bitter that he and other CIA officials have been criticized for authorizing
harsh interrogations under Bush, and yet there has been little outcry over the faster
pace of lethal operations under Obama. (From 2004 to 2008, Bush authorized 42
drone strikes, according to the New America Foundation. The number has more than
quadrupled under President Obamato 180 at last count.)
The detainees, by and large, survived, Rizzo observes; today, high-level terrorism
suspects often do not.
And for all the bureaucratic review, its not always precise in the real world. In
December people took to the streets of Islamabad to protest the strikes and to show
support for a Waziristan resident, Karim Khan, whose son and brother were killed in a
strike in 2009 and has filed a lawsuit against the U.S., charging a CIA official for their
Administration officials insist that the targeted killings rest on a solid legal foundation,
but many scholars disagree. Georgetown Universitys Gary Solis, the author of The
Law of Armed Conflict, says people at the CIA who pilot unmanned aerial vehicles are
civilians directly engaged in hostilities, an act that makes them unlawful combatants
and possibly subject to prosecution.
These days, Rizzo is working on a memoir. He does not talk about the morality of
what he didhe is not that kind of guybut lately has been trying to come to terms
with the implications of the deadly task he performed, and which others are now
performing in that office building in Virginia.
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