Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Demanding CIA Accountability for Drone Strikes

by Micah Zenko
May 13, 2013

Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense, during his final visit to the CIA headquarters in McLean, Virginia, on February 14, 2013. (Fawcett/Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense)


Leon Panetta had unique and unprecedented access into U.S. targeted killing programs as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (February 2009–June 2011) and secretary of defense (June 2011–February 2013). As Daniel Klaidman revealed last year, one procedural change implemented early in the Obama administration was that “the CIA director would no longer be allowed to have his deputy or the head of the counterterrorism division act as his proxy in signing off on strikes. Only the DCI would have sign-off authority.” While he was the director of the CIA, Panetta personally approved roughly two hundred drone strikes in Pakistan.

Before leaving the secretary’s suite in the E-Ring of the Pentagon, Panetta made a series of statements that were either confused or misleading about the scope of U.S. targeted killings. (See especially Marcy Wheeler for more on this.) Panetta was recently interviewed by Fareed Zakaria for a CNN special—“Beyond the Manhunts: How to Stop Terror”—in which he made the following statement:

ZAKARIA: “How do you make sure you only kill soldiers on the battlefield? Leon Panetta, the CIA director from 2009 to 2011, says that after an Al Qaeda target list had been vetted, the decision was ultimately his to take the shot.

PANETTA: At the time that I was director of the CIA, we made very clear that if there were any women and children in the shot, we were not to take it and that we were to only go after those that we knew were identified as targets and, therefore, enemies of the United States.  Was there some collateral when you’re hitting a particular target and you’re not sure of all–you know, the situation, especially when you’re going after compounds? Sure. There may have been some collateral. But it was minimal.”

This statement is puzzling on several fronts. First, the “women and children” line is false, as a U.S. official acknowledged to NPR when Panetta first made this claim in February of this year. Second, this description defies the widely-known—though never acknowledged—practice of signature strikes, which do not require the positive identification of suspected militants before they can be killed. As Mark Mazzetti wrote regarding the CIA’s classification: “If a group of young ‘military-aged males’ were observed moving in and out of a suspected militant training camp and were thought to be carrying weapons, they could be considered legitimate targets.” It was only after Panetta left the CIA that the Obama administration reportedly tightened the rules somewhat for those who could be killed with drones in Pakistan.

Finally, Panetta offers the disturbing reversal of causality, in which everyone killed by CIA missiles are “therefore, enemies of the United States.” It is one thing to claim that all military-age males were legitimate targets under the international humanitarian law criteria of distinction, but another to contend that upon their death they then met the principle of military necessity.

Remarkably, many policymakers and analysts are demanding that the White House declassify the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the CIA’s relatively minor enhanced interrogation program, yet remain silent about the glaring need for a similar study into the CIA’s vastly more expansive targeted killing program. CIA accountability, which many demand for allegations of torture, must also be expanded to include drone strikes. Such a study could begin with asking Panetta: “Who exactly did you authorize to be killed? And why?”

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  • Posted by Phil

    For years it was just Philip Alston and some lefty scholars barking ‘Accountability’…. now we got journalistic muscle on the case!!!!
    The CIA need a reality check. The names of the drone priests who took this thing and made it their own personal supra-legal tele-assassination program need dragging through the mud. That’s accountability. It’s not enough to say it’s wrong let’s fix it! You only learn from your mistakes when you face up to them – every one of these guys needs dragging through the media, through the congressional/select committee hearings – we have to find the rot! find the root and the start and the individual mistakes/crimes – point fingers – accuse and prove and drag these guys into the light! A man that green-lights blowing up a madras knowing there’s kids there needs to be in prison and out of any governmental job – that’s the reality we’re looking at. Those facts are there somewhere no matter hot ‘sanitized’ the records may be there’s a trail for every crime committed here. I’m, not talking every single drone strike – hell I agree with a lot of potential drone strike reasoning – what I don’t agree with is that the majority of these strikes were against terrorists who posed at that time an imminent threat to the United States and so if THOSE strikes included killing civilians, women or children then they need investigating, individually, and as I say DRAGGING KICKING AND SCREAMING into the light – and every single person directly involved whether taking orders or not needs to face questioning and potential punishment and in the end – ACCOUNTABILITY … as you say. It ain’t pretty and won’t be fun but there is no real accountability if somebody isn’t facing a committee and explaining why 20 or more person were obliterated in each of at least 25 different Drone Strikes with 5 of those killing 40 or more !!!! That’s 25 strikes which ABSOLUTELY REQUIRE BY ALL STANDARDS OF LOGIC to be investigated COMPLETELY 100% for WHY they were carried out, Who green-lighted them, Who did they kill? Who did they mean to kill? What are the facts? What was the threat the which this person or intended persons represented at the time? Where did that information come from and how reliable was it? etc etc etc etc etc Work needs to be done! There’s no half-assing it on this thing – if you’re going to wax lyrical and stand at the pedestal and point fingers and criticize policy and individuals decisions then you better be ready to get your hands dirty, get hold of the facts no matter what you have to risk, and take these guys down! Everyone who over stpped, over reached over-killed needs to face the music – coz the when the music stops …. and believe me it’s coming to the end of the record right now…. there ain’t gona be chairs for everyone to sit on! These guys know exactly who they are and what they did and who they’ve killed. They looked at the data, made a call – in some cases it was right! but in many many many cases they were in the wrong and now they got to pay the piper – that’s the job they took. They may have thought they were doing what was ‘right’ to them at the time – so what – I don’t care – The road to hell is paved etc… You do something bad / immoral / un-American? and you try and hide from the light – then you’re going down ! maybe not this week… but god knows there’s 1000 journalists who smell blood in the water and are just now waking up to the injustice of all the blood that’s been spilled – in the name of what? Protecting America? How in hell does blowing up 3-4000 Pakistani and Yemeni people from cowardly illegal robotic planes flown from 7000 miles away in a manner you purposefully HID from the people you supposed to serve, protect America? Were the fifty GOOD targets worth it? Who gives you that right to decide that without the backing of your Congress – YOUR LEADERS and your people. The CIA is the SIN-EATERs of America. Well it’s time to smack them back into line, remind them of their remit, they’re playing God and they have no right! Thinkers and journalists like Zenko here and right across the media are going to FORCE these drones to the ground – at least enough to save a few thousand lives, in the end. The rate of strikes has dramatically decreased already, the Pakistani’s are waking up and speaking up more and more each week. The party is almost over – and in the end there will be absolutely NO CORRELATION WHATSOEVER TO ATTACKS ON THE US and whether or not the Drone Priests get to continue shredding school children in madrases trying to get this guy or that guy. Whats wrong – is wrong then and wrong now and always will be wrong – this isn’t a pick’n choose world of morals – the CIA has stepped out of line before – god knows – – and its’ been smacked back into place before – well it’s time kick a little CIA ass and fire some people and jail some people and ruin the names of some people – if that’s what it takes for a lesson/lessons to be learned ! That’s what REAL accountability is. Evidence based investigation resulting in punishment of individuals – as opposed to shot -in-the-dark overkill with Hellfire missiles breaking fathers hearts and creating hate like there never was. It is time to get over 9/11 and take a step back and remember that winning the Cold War meant you earned the responsibility to lead, Righteously !

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