Behind a nondescript door at CIA headquarters, the agency has assembled a new counterterrorism unit whose job is to find al-Qaeda targets in Yemen. A corresponding commotion has been underway in the Arabian Peninsula, where construction workers have been laying out a secret new runway for CIA drones.
When the missiles start falling, it will mark another expansion of the paramilitary mission of the CIA.
In the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the agency has undergone a fundamental transformation. Although the CIA continues to gather intelligence and furnish analysis on a vast array of subjects, its focus and resources are increasingly centered on the cold counterterrorism objective of finding targets to capture or kill.
The shift has been gradual enough that its magnitude can be difficult to grasp. Drone strikes that once seemed impossibly futuristic are so routine that they rarely attract public attention unless a high-ranking al-Qaeda figure is killed.
But framed against the upcoming 10th anniversary of the 2001 attacks — as well as the arrival next week of retired Gen. David H. Petraeus as the CIA’s director — the extent of the agency’s reorientation comes into sharper view:
●The drone program has killed more than 2,000 militants and civilians since 2001, a staggering figure for an agency that has a long history of supporting proxy forces in bloody conflicts but rarely pulled the trigger on its own.
●The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, which had 300 employees on the day of the attacks, now exceeds al-Qaeda’s core membership around the globe. With about 2,000 on its staff, the CTC accounts for 10 percent of the agency’s workforce, has designated officers in almost every significant overseas post and controls the CIA’s expanding fleet of drones.
●Even the agency’s analytic branch, which traditionally existed to provide insights to policymakers, has been enlisted in the hunt. About 20 percent of CIA analysts are now “targeters” scanning data for individuals to recruit, arrest or place in the crosshairs of a drone. The skill is in such demand that the CIA made targeting a designated career track five years ago, meaning analysts can collect raises and promotions without having to leave the targeting field.
Critics, including some in the U.S. intelligence community, contend that the CIA’s embrace of “kinetic” operations, as they are known, has diverted the agency from its traditional espionage mission and undermined its ability to make sense of global developments such as the Arab Spring.
Human rights groups go further, saying the CIA now functions as a military force beyond the accountability that the United States has historically demanded of its armed services. The CIA doesn’t officially acknowledge the drone program, let alone provide public explanation about who shoots and who dies, and by what rules.
“We’re seeing the CIA turn into more of a paramilitary organization without the oversight and accountability that we traditionally expect of the military,” said Hina Shamsi, the director of the National Security Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.
CIA officials defend all aspects of the agency’s counterterrorism efforts and argue that the agency’s attention to other subjects has not been diminished. Fran Moore, head of the CIA’s analytic branch, said intelligence work on a vast range of issues, including weapons proliferation and energy resources, has been expanded and improved.
“The vast majority of analysts would not identify themselves as supporting military objectives,” Moore said in an interview at CIA headquarters. Counterterrorism “is clearly a significant, growing and vibrant part of our mission. But it’s not the defining mission.”
Nevertheless, those directly involved in building the agency’s lethal capacity say the changes to the CIA since Sept. 11 are so profound that they sometimes marvel at the result. One former senior U.S. intelligence official described the agency’s paramilitary transformation as “nothing short of a wonderment.”
“You’ve taken an agency that was chugging along and turned it into one hell of a killing machine,” said the former official, who, like many people interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters. Blanching at his choice of words, he quickly offered a revision: “Instead, say ‘one hell of an operational tool.’ ”
The engine of that machine is the CTC, an entity that has accumulated influence, authority and resources to such a degree that it resembles an agency within an agency.
The center swelled to 1,200 employees in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and nearly doubled in size since then.
The CTC occupies a sprawling footprint at the CIA campus in Langley, including the first floor of what is known as the “new headquarters” building. The chief of the center is an undercover officer known for his brusque manner, cigarette habit and tireless commitment to the job.
A CIA veteran said he asked the CTC chief about the pace of strikes against al-Qaeda last year and got a typically profane reply: “We are killing these sons of bitches faster than they can grow them now.”
The headquarters for that hunt is on a separate floor in a CTC unit known as the Pakistan-Afghanistan Department, referred to internally as PAD. Within the past year, the agency has created an equivalent department for Yemen and Somalia in the hope that it can replicate the impact of PAD.
Inside the PAD entrance is a photographic tribute to the seven CIA employees who were killed by a suicide bomber in December 2009 at a remote base in the Afghan city of Khost. Two were former targeters who had worked in the CTC.
Beyond that marker is a warren of cubicles and offices. On the walls are maps marked with the locations of CIA bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as whiteboards with lists of pending operations and code names of spies. Every paid informant is given a unique “crypt” that starts with a two-letter digraph designating spies who are paid sources of the CTC.
PAD serves as the anchor of an operational triangle that stretches from South Asia to the American Southwest. The CIA has about 30 Predator and Reaper drones, all flown by Air Force pilots from a U.S. military base in a state that The Post has agreed, at the request of agency officials, not to name. The intelligence that guides their “orbits” flows in from a constellation of CIA bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
CIA officials insist that drone strikes are among the least common outcomes in its counterterrorism campaign.
“Of all the intelligence work on counterterrorism, only a sliver goes into Predator operations,” a senior U.S. official said. The agency’s 118 strikes last year were outnumbered “many times” by instances in which the agency provided tips to foreign partners or took nonlethal steps.
“There were investigations, arrests, debriefings . . . these are all operational acts,” the official said.
The Obama administration dismantled the CIA’s system of secret prisons, but it continues to use foreign partners to apprehend suspects in some countries, including Somalia.
The CIA also was heavily involved in the raid by U.S. Special Operations troops on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May. Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs, but the operation was carried out under CIA authority, planned in a room at agency headquarters and based on intelligence gathered over a period of years by the CTC.
The assault was the most high-profile example of an expanding collaboration between the CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the nation’s elite military teams.
Their comingling at remote bases is so complete that U.S. officials ranging from congressional staffers to high-ranking CIA officers said they often find it difficult to distinguish agency from military personnel.
“You couldn’t tell the difference between CIA officers, Special Forces guys and contractors,” said a senior U.S. official after a recent tour through Afghanistan. “They’re all three blended together. All under the command of the CIA.”
Their activities occupy an expanding netherworld between intelligence and military operations. Sometimes their missions are considered military “preparation of the battlefield,” and others fall under covert findings obtained by the CIA. As a result, congressional intelligence and armed services committees rarely get a comprehensive view.
Hybrid units called “omega” or “cross matrix” teams have operated in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen, according to senior U.S. military officials.
Those employed in Afghanistan were “mostly designed against specific high-value targets with the intent of looking across the border” into Pakistan, said a former senior U.S. military official involved in Special Operations missions. They wore civilian clothes and traveled in Toyota Hilux trucks rather than military vehicles.
“They were designed to develop sources and leads” but also to “be prepared if necessary to be the front end of a more robust lethal force.”
On at least five occasions, officials said, Special Operations units working closely with the CIA ventured into Pakistan in exercises designed to test their ability to close in on a target without being detected by Pakistani authorities. The operations, which took place between 2002 and 2006, amounted to early rehearsals of the bin Laden raid.
The CIA’s post-Sept. 11 arsenal has also included elite Afghan militias trained and led by the agency’s Special Activities Division, its paramilitary branch. In a measure of the murkiness surrounding such programs, the purpose of the Counterterror Pursuit Teams is a source of disagreement among senior officials in government.
“They can fire in self-defense, but they don’t go out to try and kill a target,” a U.S. official familiar with CIA operations in Afghanistan said. “They’re mostly arresting people and turning them over to” the Afghan security services.
But the former senior U.S. military official said the teams’ objectives were “more kill-capture” than capture-kill. “It wasn’t always high-value targets,” he said. “They were trying to pursue and kill sometimes lower-hanging fruit.”
In some cases, the pursuit teams used more indiscriminate means, including land mines, to disrupt insurgent networks, the former official said. Two current U.S. military officials said one of the CIA’s pursuit teams was disbanded after a botched assault in which it killed the wrong target.
A U.S. intelligence official disputed that account, and said none of the teams were ever shut down. The official acknowledged that Pashtun-dominated militias have been used by the CIA to gather intelligence inside Pakistan. Any need to use them to pursue targets has been diminished by the expanding lethal reach of the drones.
Given the scope of the CIA’s paramilitary activities, human rights groups say the death toll over the past decade from CIA-
directed operations undoubtedly exceeds the casualty count associated with strikes from drones.
U.S. intelligence and congressional officials insist that the number of people killed in CIA operations outside the drone campaign is negligible, but say they have never seen an agency-produced casualty count that includes other categories of operations.
“That’s a very small number — I’m struggling to come up with a single example,” said a U.S. official involved in overseeing CIA operations since 2004.
The demands of the counterterror mission have affected the organization in more subtle but pervasive ways. A U.S. official who worked closely with former CIA director Leon E. Panetta said the then-chief spent at least 30 percent of his time on counterterrorism matters.
Panetta’s predecessor, Michael V. Hayden, answered questions about his priorities with a jumble of letters, “CTCPROW,” meaning counterterrorism, counterproliferation and, finally, rest of the world.
CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood said, “While we don’t discuss the details of our counterterrorism operations, the fact that they are a top priority and effective is precisely what the American people expect.”
Yet officials describe a distortion effect in collecting intelligence. Dependence on counterterrorism cooperation from a country such as Egypt makes it more risky to engage in activities that might jeopardize that relationship, such as gathering intelligence on corruption in the government or its fragile hold on power.
Senior officials also voice concern about changes in the agency’s analytic branch, where 35 percent are now in jobs where their main function is to support operators and 10 percent are deployed abroad.
“We were originally set up with a more singular focus on policymakers,” said Moore, the head of the CIA’s analytic branch. But for a growing number of analysts, “it’s not just about writing for the president. It’s about gaining leads.”
Putting analysts alongside operators gives them a clearer view of sources and the quality of raw intelligence. In turn, the analysts can help operators vet sources and gain a complex understanding of their adversaries.
But the collaboration also carries risks, including a concern that analysts may become too invested in the outcomes of operations, too eager to be part of the agency’s counterterrorism team.
There is also a self-serving aspect to the arrangement.
“When CIA does covert action, who does the president turn to to judge its effectiveness?” a former senior U.S. intelligence official. “To the CIA.”
In this new operation-focused era, targeters play a critical role. The job is more complex than it sounds, and involves assembling vast quantities of data on terrorist networks or other organizations to pinpoint their most vulnerable points. It could be a source for the CIA to recruit or a shipment that an illicit nuclear weapons program can’t do without.
In counterterrorism operations, it also means placing militants in the remotely controlled sights of Predator and Reaper drones.
The CIA’s skill and efficiency at doing so has given the drone program a momentum of its own. More broadly, an agency that some argued should be dismantled after failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war has achieved a standing as an indispensable counterterrorism tool.
U.S. officials said President Obama’s decision to approve the agency’s new drone base in the Arabian Peninsula and begin Predator patrols over Yemen was driven by the agency’s unique authorities and capabilities.
JSOC has been flying armed drones over Yemen for much of the past year. But those flights fall under conventional military authorities that require permission or at least a level of acquiescence from Yemen. The CIA is in a better position to keep flying even if that cooperation stops.
The administration is also counting on the lethal proficiency of the targeters settling into their cubicles in the latest addition to the sprawling offices of the CTC, a department focused exclusively on Yemen and Somalia.
“The kinetic piece of any counterterror strike is the last 20 seconds of an enormously long chain of collection and analysis,” said a U.S. official involved in the creation of the new department. “Traditional elements of espionage and analysis have not been lost at the agency. On the contrary. The CT effort is largely an intelligence game. It’s about finding a target . . . the finish piece is the easy part.”