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Under Panetta, a more aggressive CIA

By Peter Finn and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010; A01

The plan was a standard one in the CIA's war against extremists in Pakistan: The agency was using a Predator drone to monitor a residential compound; a Taliban leader was expected to arrive shortly; a CIA missile would kill him.

On the morning of Aug. 5, CIA Director Leon Panetta was informed that Baitullah Mehsud was about to reach his father-in-law's home. Mehsud would be in the open, minimizing the risk that civilians would be injured or killed. Panetta authorized the strike, according to a senior intelligence official who described the sequence of events.

Some hours later, officials at CIA headquarters in Langley identified Mehsud on a feed from the Predator's camera. He was seen resting on the roof of the house, hooked up to a drip to palliate a kidney problem. He was not alone.

Panetta was pulled out of a White House meeting and told that Mehsud's wife was also on the rooftop, giving her husband a massage. Mehsud, implicated in suicide bombings and the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was a major target. Panetta told his officers to take the shot. Mehsud and his wife were killed.

Panetta, an earthy former congressman with exquisitely honed Washington smarts, was President Obama's surprise choice to head the CIA. During his 13 months in the job, Panetta has led a relentless assault on al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Pakistan, delivering on Obama's promise to target them more aggressively than his predecessor.

Apart from a brief stint as a military intelligence officer in the 1960s, little in Panetta's résumé appeared to merit his nomination to become the 19th director of the CIA, but his willingness to use force has won over skeptics inside the agency and on Capitol Hill. Said one former senior intelligence official: "I've never sensed him shirking from it."

The stepped-up drone strikes, Panetta's opposition to the release of information about CIA interrogation practices, and his resistance to greater oversight of the agency by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have prompted criticism that he is a thrall of the agency's old guard. In the meantime, the strikes have begun to draw greater scrutiny, with watchdog groups demanding to know more about how they are carried out and the legal reasoning behind the killings.

In an interview Wednesday at CIA headquarters, Panetta refused to directly address the matter of Predator strikes, in keeping with the agency's long-standing practice of shielding its actions in Pakistan from public view. But he said that U.S. counterterrorism policies in the country are legal and highly effective, and that he is acutely aware of the gravity of some of the decisions thrust upon him.

"Any time you make decisions on life and death, I don't take that lightly. That's a serious decision," he said. "And yet, I also feel very comfortable with making those decisions because I know I'm dealing with people who threaten the safety of this country and are prepared to attack us at any moment."

Mehsud's followers and their al-Qaeda allies vowed to avenge his death, and within months they put into motion a plan that culminated in a Dec. 30 suicide bombing that killed seven CIA officers and contractors at a base in eastern Afghanistan.

On the Monday after the bombing, the regular 8:30 a.m. meeting of senior staff members at CIA began with a minute of silence. Then the director spoke.

"We're in a war," Panetta said, according to one participant. "We cannot afford to be hesitant. . . . The fact is we're doing the right thing. My approach is going to be to work that much harder . . . that we beat these sons of bitches."

Drone strikes scrutinized

At the end of the George W. Bush administration, the CIA could keep seven Predators in the air round-the-clock, but the number will double by the end of this year, according to the senior intelligence official. Like other current and former officials interviewed for this report, this source spoke on the condition of anonymity because the agency does not acknowledge its actions in Pakistan.

Since 2009, as many as 666 terrorism suspects, including at least 20 senior figures, have been killed by missiles fired from unmanned aircraft flying over Pakistan, according to figures compiled by the New America Foundation as of mid-March. From 2004 to 2008, the number was 230. According to the foundation, 177 civilians may also have been killed in the airstrikes since 2009. Intelligence officials say their count of noncombatants killed is much lower and noted that on Aug. 5 only Mehsud and his wife were killed, despite reports that other family members and bodyguards died in the attack.

Panetta authorizes every strike, sometimes reversing his decision or reauthorizing a target if the situation on the ground changes, according to current and former senior intelligence officials. "He asks a lot of questions about the target, the intelligence picture, potential collateral damage, women and children in the vicinity," said the senior intelligence official.

Killing by drone has drawn increased scrutiny from human rights activists, who say such strikes raise legal questions when used outside the traditional battlefield. Some critics worry that the antiseptic quality of drone attacks, in which targets are identified on a video screen and killed with the press of a button, is anesthetizing policymakers and the public to the costs of war. The ACLU sued the government this month to compel the disclosure of the legal basis for its use of unmanned aircraft overseas.

"The government's use of drones to conduct targeted killings raises complicated questions -- not only legal questions, but policy and moral questions as well," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's National Security Project. "These kinds of questions ought to be discussed and debated publicly, not resolved secretly behind closed doors."

After weathering a number of storms on Capitol Hill, including a face-off with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after the California Democrat accused the CIA of lying, Panetta has studiously cultivated his old colleagues, holding informal get-togethers with the Senate and House intelligence committees.

"It's Krispy Kremes and coffee," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee. "People are relaxed, the conversation is free-flow, and I think that is very useful. "

Last summer, Panetta shut down a still-embryonic Bush-era plan to create an assassination team that would target terrorism suspects and was irritated that Congress had never been informed of the plan. "He found it offensive," said the former senior intelligence official, recalling that it was one of the few times he had seen Panetta visibly angry.

Panetta has impressed the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee. "I'm from the Show-Me State. He's done a pretty good job of showing me," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), an early doubter of Panetta's ability to lead the CIA. "I think the CIA knows . . . at least their director is supporting them even though other elements of the administration [are] causing them pain and grief."

Another former senior intelligence official, who served under Bush, commends Panetta for his aggression but noted that the current successes are built upon agreements made with Pakistan in the final year of the previous administration. The Obama administration has "been operating along the same continuum," the former official said.

Retired CIA officer Henry Crumpton, who pioneered the use of armed Predator drones in Afghanistan and was a top counterterrorism official at the State Department under Bush, said the number of strikes tells only part of the story.

"You have to know where to put the bird to begin with," Crumpton said. "It's a dynamic process. . . . Once you have a strike, you have disruptions and you have more intelligence to collect. It's a wonderful cycle that involves all-source collection and analysis, and the Predator is only part of it."

Advocate for his agency

Expectations were low when Panetta arrived at CIA headquarters in February 2009. One recently retired officer recalled that some of his colleagues were initially angered by the appointment of a liberal politician who lacked extensive experience in the intelligence world and had publicly equated waterboarding with torture.

But almost from the first week, Panetta positioned himself as a strong advocate for the CIA, even when it put him at odds with the White House and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Panetta lobbied fiercely against the release of Justice Department memos that spelled out how the Bush administration had authorized the use of waterboarding and other coercive interrogation measures. He famously unleashed an epithet-laden tirade at a White House meeting over Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.'s decision to investigate CIA officers who participated in the interrogations.

Panetta has refused to yield to the ODNI over the CIA's independence and preeminence in overseas intelligence-gathering. The long-simmering conflict came to a head last spring when Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair asserted that his agency should directly oversee the CIA's covert operations, while also deciding who would serve as the chief U.S. intelligence officer in overseas locations. Traditionally, the top CIA officer in each country automatically assumed that title.

Vice President Biden, Panetta's longtime friend, was summoned to referee the dispute, which was resolved mostly in the CIA's favor: The CIA station chief would continue to be the top intelligence officer, and the agency would be required only to consult with the ODNI about its covert missions.

"Panetta was not only standing up for the agency, but he was seen as a guy who could just go and talk to the president," the recently retired officer said. "He doesn't have to bow 18 times. It's really valuable for the CIA to have someone who can do that."

Since becoming director, Panetta has visited more than 20 CIA stations worldwide, where he holds all-hands meetings and works the room with his easy charm, according to insiders. "Morale is good, especially downrange" in forward areas, Crumpton said.

Critics worry that Panetta has become a captive of the agency he leads.

"To survive in the CIA, he had to become more Catholic than the pope," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU. "He opposed important public disclosure of past use of torture and abuse, and has worked to limit the scope of criminal investigations into any crimes committed by CIA officials."

In the worst of times

On Dec. 30, a couple of hours before dawn, Panetta was awakened by his security detail at his home in California and informed that something had gone wrong at a CIA base in eastern Afghanistan. By about 8 a.m., Panetta was told that nine people had been killed there: seven CIA officers and contractors, including the base chief, one of the agency's leading al-Qaeda experts; a Jordanian intelligence officer; and an Afghan driver. The attack also wounded several others.

Panetta has launched an internal review of the episode, in which, Feinstein said, "clearly tradecraft wasn't followed." A report is expected next month.

In the interview, Panetta said he recognized that the administration's strategy entailed risk. "You can't just conduct the kind of aggressive operations we are conducting against the enemy and not expect that they are not going to try to retaliate," he said.

Panetta has led the mourning at the CIA, holding a service at headquarters attended by more than 1,000 people, including the president. The tenor John McDermott sang the wistful ballad "Danny Boy."

"The workforce takes a shot like this in the stomach, it takes the wind out of them," said John O. Brennan, Obama's principal counterterrorism adviser. "Leon showed his leadership by engaging the workforce from the very beginning and overseeing the mourning that goes on."

On Feb. 3, at a snow-blanketed Arlington National Cemetery, Panetta attended the funeral of the base chief, a 45-year-old mother of three. Just before the playing of taps, he handed a folded American flag to the family and later watched one of the woman's young sons carry it away from the grave.

As Panetta took his seat in his car after the service, an aide said, he exhaled deeply.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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