Why CIA failed to kill a single terrorist

Dropping missiles from unmanned aircraft has proven much simpler


The movies make it look so easy: the sniper’s crosshairs on a terrorist’s forehead; the plastic explosive taped beneath a foreign spy’s car; the lethal potion slipped into a dictator’s morning coffee.

So perhaps the biggest surprise about the Central Intelligence Agency’s furor du jour — the secret programme, hidden from Congress, to kill the leaders of al-Qaeda — is not that there was such a programme, which many Americans assumed.

The real surprise is that in eight years of off-again, on-again brainstorming, planning and training, the programme did not kill a single terrorist. It did not even mount an attempt, CIA officials say. Killing a specific terrorist in a faraway country, using the up-close-and-personal methods that the secret programme was created to explore, turns out to be considerably more complicated than the cinematic fantasy.

Dropping missiles from unmanned aircraft has proven logistically and politically so much simpler that the alternatives have never been tried, intelligence officers say. al-Qaeda has obliged by hiding out not in cities but in the rugged mountains of Pakistan, where missile attacks are feasible.

Hence US President Obama has not only continued the drone strikes begun under President George W Bush, but even stepped them up. Despite the collateral killings of terrorist suspects’ families and neighbours, and the broader political backlash such missile strikes produce, the drones keep American intelligence officers thousands of miles from the deaths, which clearly has made this approach attractive to both administrations.

Few operations are riskier than a targeted killing, but the idea of eliminating a very bad guy has an alluring simplicity. Had the Clinton administration found a way to kill Osama bin Laden, might that have scuttled the 9/11 plot?

Yet the reasons the CIA might have hesitated before dispatching a team of killers are easily imagined by anyone who has followed the gyrations of the agency’s history. Time and again in recent decades, the CIA has been pressured by a president to take risky actions, only to face investigations and condemnation when the actions are exposed.

This pattern reflects a deep American ambivalence about the secret power of the intelligence agencies, which often seems at odds with the democratic ideals of openness and fairness.

The CIA’s biggest worries as it contemplated ordering an attack on a terrorist overseas may not have been about the law, said William C Banks, a law professor at Syracuse who has studied targeted killings.

At least by American government calculations, the killing of a Qaeda member is an act of war, not assassination. To be a lawful target, a terrorist must be “engaged in armed combat with the US,” Banks said.

Killing such a target would arguably be permissible, Banks said, if he were in hostile territory where capture was infeasible. But if the target were in Paris, for instance, the US would be obligated under the law of war to work with French authorities to seize the suspect.

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