The drones hit hardest in northwest Pakistan, partly because the CIA obtained White House approval to carry out missile strikes there even if it didn’t know whom it was killing. So-called signature strikes targeted patterns of activity, such as clusters of “military-aged males” at a suspected militant camp. It’s one reason the CIA claims it has killed almost no civilians: It lists everyone as a combatant unless explicit intelligence posthumously proves him innocent. Needless to say, most Pakistanis don’t agree.
In the meantime, the CIA — which famously learned about the toppling of the Berlin Wall on CNN — was caught flat-footed by the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 that ousted pro-Western autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and ultimately drew America into a war in Libya. Later that year, America’s estimated $80-billion-a-year spy system failed to learn for several days that Kim Jong Il, leader of nuclear-armed North Korea, had died.
The military, in turn, “has been dispersed into the dark spaces of American foreign policy,” Mazzetti writes, and is running more spying missions than ever before. It’s a tricky business because spies operate under a U.S. law that allows secrecy and lying, and the military fights under a separate legal code. So the Pentagon has relied chiefly on private contractors, one more colorful than the next, and the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. Operating in almost total secrecy, JSOC got its own stealth air force, its own communications satellites, its own drones. Most Americans learned of JSOC only after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011 in Pakistan. The CIA ran the assault to give the Navy SEALs legal cover for the covert mission. A CIA operation is one thing; a military raid could be an act of war.
Soon after, Obama reshuffled his senior national security team. The results symbolized how intertwined U.S. military and intelligence operations have become. He moved the CIA director, Leon Panetta, over to the Pentagon. And he named Army Gen. David Petraeus, the most lauded general of his generation (until a sex scandal brought him down) to head the CIA. During his brief tenure, Petraeus expanded the drone fleet and told Congress that the CIA was conducting more covert action operations than at any time in its history.
Petraeus oversaw the first targeted killing by the CIA of a U.S. citizen, an al-Qaida operational leader named Anwar Awlaki, in Yemen. The same drone strike (two CIA Predators locked onto the vehicles with lasers and a Reaper drone fired the missiles) killed another American, Samir Khan, who was not on the U.S. kill list. Two weeks later, a JSOC drone launched a missile at an open-air restaurant. Among the dead — and also not a target — was Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, born in Denver. The CIA and JSOC were running two distinct, competing drone wars in Yemen and killed three Americans in short order.
Most Americans, fatigued by the grinding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seem little concerned about the shadow wars. They should concerned. As a former CIA officer explains, “Every drone strike is an execution. And if we are going to hand down death sentences, there ought to be some public accountability and some public discussion about the whole thing.” Except for books like this, there is neither.
Bob Drogin reviewed this book for The Los Angeles Times.