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?”