What's the Secret CIA Scandal Really About?

Predator droneIn February of this year, the CIA flew a pilotless drone into Pakistan, near the Afghan border. The plane fired two missiles into the town of Makeen, killing thirty. According to the report, this number included al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, but there was no immediate information how many of the thirty dead were these fighters. Clearly, there were civilian deaths -- so-called "collateral damage."

The target, although the CIA won't confirm it, was Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Mehsud is widely believed to have been responsible for the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. When the smoke cleared, Mehsud wasn't among the dead. If he was the target of the strike, his survival seems to have been a matter of luck.

This isn't anything new. Last Friday, CBS News reported that the CIA has flown more than 50 of these missions into Pakistan in the last year alone. According to the report, these missions have been very successful, "killing half of al Qaeda's top leaders and hundreds of its fighters" in that country. Given those numbers, it's hard to believe that these "top leaders" weren't targeted. It's pretty clear that the CIA is flying drones into Pakistan for the purpose of killing specific people.

Other than people -- like myself -- who aren't happy with the indiscriminate killing involved in these missile strikes, there hasn't been a lot of outrage over them. In the grand scheme of things, we can safely say that these aren't controversial.

So what are we to make of the news that the secret scandal, where the CIA supposedly kept details of a Cheney-ordered assassination squad from congress? When agency director Leon Panetta revealed this program, congress members present called it "stunning." It was so secret that Panetta himself didn't find out about until four months after he was sworn in as CIA Director. He shut it down the same day he learned of it.

Here's an interesting question; if the idea that Cheney would order the assassination of top al Qaeda members in friendly nations is so jaw-dropping that the program was shut down the minute Panetta learned of it, if members of congress were so shocked by it that they're considering an official probe into the program, why aren't the CIA's Predator drone attacks just as shocking? After all, the only real differences here are the tactics and the weapons. We're obviously trying to kill al Qaeda members with drones. We're assassinating them with missiles.


Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief, told TPMmuckraker that because we've been in a state of war against al Qaeda since just after September 11, there would have been no need for a secret CIA [assassination] program that received special legal authorization.

Since the war on terror began, said Cannistraro, the CIA has routinely conducted operations targeting top Qaeda leaders. "The CIA runs drones and targets al Qaeda safe houses all the time," said Cannistraro, explaining that there's no important difference between those kinds of attacks and "assassinations" with a gun or a knife.

This isn't to say that the assassination squads aren't the program that's so controversial, just that they may not be exactly what's being advertised. TPMMuckraker points us to a 2005 New Yorker piece by Seymour Hersh:

Under Rumsfeld's new approach, I was told, U.S. military operatives would be permitted to pose abroad as corrupt foreign businessmen seeking to buy contraband items that could be used in nuclear-weapons systems. In some cases, according to the Pentagon advisers, local citizens could be recruited and asked to join up with guerrillas or terrorists. This could potentially involve organizing and carrying out combat operations, or even terrorist activities. Some operations will likely take place in nations in which there is an American diplomatic mission, with an Ambassador and a C.I.A. station chief, the Pentagon consultant said. The Ambassador and the station chief would not necessarily have a need to know, under the Pentagon's current interpretation of its reporting requirement.

The new rules will enable the Special Forces community to set up what it calls "action teams" in the target countries overseas which can be used to find and eliminate terrorist organizations. "Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?" the former high-level intelligence official asked me, referring to the military-led gangs that committed atrocities in the early nineteen-eighties. "We founded them and we financed them," he said. "The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren't going to tell Congress about it." A former military officer, who has knowledge of the Pentagon's commando capabilities, said, "We're going to be riding with the bad boys."

So, if Hersh was right (and he hasn't been wrong yet), Rumsfeld's program -- which may later have become Cheney's program -- would have us hiring locals to engage in terrorism. That's pretty bad. It would have us paying militaries to commit atrocities. That's worse. This isn't just killing al Qaeda leaders, this is indiscriminate killing to provide cover for the killing of al Qaeda leaders. The collateral damage of missile strikes would probably pale in comparison.

Further evidence that the secret scandal isn't about what it's reportedly about comes from Greg Sargent's Plumline. In a post yesterday, Sargent noted that Republicans want to spin the Cheney hit squad story into a plus for Republicans, by painting Democrats as weak on terrorism. But they don't want a probe into the program.

"This raises the question: If keeping these allegations in the news is so good for Republicans, why don’t they want a probe of the program?" he asks. "If the House did launch an investigation into the CIA’s secret program, of course, the media attention to this story would ratchet up exponentially. Yet Republicans mysteriously don’t support any such efforts... It’s possible that Republicans secretly think a probe would be bad for Dems and want it to look like Dems instigated it. Or maybe the GOP claim that revelations about Bush-Cheney-era CIA deception are really good for Republicans deserve a tad more skepticism."

It might be that the hit squads sound like the sort of strong-armed, take-no-prisoners approach that Republicans think would appeal to Americans, but that the details aren't so appealing. Recruiting people to engage in terrorism would sound a little counterproductive to your average American (mostly because it is), so they want to be able to talk about it in broad terms, without getting down to the bloody and corrupt nitty-gritty. If "assassination squad" becomes "death squad," then things get a little too dark and a little too evil for anyone other than the wingnuttiest to sit comfortably with.

Whatever the reason for the secrecy surrounding the program, we can be pretty damned sure it isn't just about killing terrorist leaders. We're doing that now and no one's especially freaked out about it. If missile attacks by pilotless drones don't strike anyone as criminal, it's hard to see how a guy with a sniper rifle would. In fact, you'd think the hit man would be preferable, since collateral civilian deaths in big fireballs make us more enemies than friends.

Whatever the real story here, whatever the secret in the secret scandal, it's clear we aren't getting the whole thing. Not yet, anyway. There's some bad, bad stuff in there somewhere. And it'll come out eventually.


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