Inside the Killing Machine

Eugen Leitl eugen at
Tue Apr 12 07:35:01 PDT 2011

Inside the Killing Machine

President Obama is ordering a record number of Predator strikes. An exclusive
interview with a man who approved blethal operations.b

Ethan Miller / Getty Images

It was an ordinary-looking room located in an office building in northern
Virginia. The place was filled with computer monitors, keyboards, and maps.
Someone sat at a desk with his hand on a joystick. John A. Rizzo, who was
serving as the CIAbs acting general counsel, hovered nearby, along with other
people from the agency. Together they watched images on a screen that showed
a man and his family traveling down a road thousands of miles away. The
vehicle slowed down, and the man climbed out.

A moment later, an explosion filled the screen, and the man was dead. bIt was
very businesslike,b says Rizzo. An aerial drone had killed the man, a
high-level terrorism suspect, after he had gotten out of the vehicle, while
members of his family were spared. bThe agency was very punctilious about
this,b Rizzo says. bThey tried to minimize collateral damage, especially
women and children.b

The broad outlines of the CIAbs operations to kill suspected terrorists have
been known to the public for some timebincluding how the United States kills
Qaeda and Taliban militants by drone aircraft in Pakistan. But the formal
process of determining who should be hunted down and bblown to bits,b as
Rizzo puts it, has not been previously reported. A look at the bureaucracy
behind the operations reveals that it is multilayered and methodical, run by
a corps of civil servants who carry out their duties in a professional
manner. Still, the fact that Rizzo was involved in bmurder,b as he sometimes
puts it, and that operations are planned in advance in a legalistic fashion,
raises questions.  Nick Ut

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More than a year after leaving the government, Rizzo, a bearded, elegant
63-year-old who wears cuff links and pale yellow ties, discussed his role in
the CIAbs blethal operationsb with me over CC4tes du Rhone and steak in a
Washington restaurant. At times, Rizzo sounded cavalier. bItbs basically a
hit list,b he said. Then he pointed a finger at my forehead and pretended to
pull a trigger. bThe Predator is the weapon of choice, but it could also be
someone putting a bullet in your head.b

The number of such killings, carried out mostly by Predators in Pakistan, has
increased dramatically during the Obama administration, and these covert
actions have become an integral part of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

How CIA staffers determine whether to target someone for lethal operations is
a relatively straightforward, and yet largely unknown, story. The president
does not review the individual names of people; Rizzo explains that he was
the one who signed off. People in Washington talk about a btarget list,b as
former undersecretary of state Richard Armitage described the process at a
recent event in Washington. In truth, there is probably no official CIA
roster of those who are slated to die. bI never saw a list,b says a State
Department official who has been involved in discussions about lethal
operations, speaking without attribution because of the nature of the
subject. Officials at the CIA select targets for bneutralization,b he
explains. bThere were individuals we were searching for, and we thought, itbs
better now to neutralize that threat,b he says.

The military and the CIA often pursue the same targetsbOsama bin Laden, for
examplebbut handle different regions of the world. Sometimes they team upbor
even exchange jobs. When former CIA officer Henry A. Crumpton was in
Afghanistan after 9/11, he and Gen. Stanley McChrystalbthe former head of
Joint Special Operations Command, a secretive military unitbworked closely
together, and so did their subordinates. bSome of the people I knew and who
worked for me went to work for himband vice versa,b recalls Crumpton. Some
counterterrorism experts say that President Obama and his advisers favor a
more aggressive approach because it seems more practicalbthat administration
officials prefer to eliminate terrorism suspects rather than detain them.
bSince the U.S. political and legal situation has made aggressive
interrogation a questionable activity anyway, there is less reason to seek to
capture rather than kill,b wrote American Universitybs Kenneth Anderson,
author of an essay on the subject that was read widely by Obama White House
officials. bAnd if one intends to kill, the incentive is to do so from a
standoff position because it removes potentially messy questions of

In defense of a hard-nosed approach, administration officials say the
aerial-drone strikes are wiping out Qaeda militants and reducing the chances
of another terrorist attack. They have also been careful to reassure the
public that the killings are legal. When NEWSWEEK asked the administration
for comment, a U.S. official who declined to be identified addressing such a
sensitive subject said: bThese CT [counterterrorism] operations are conducted
in strict accordance with American law and are governed by legal guidance
provided by the Department of Justice.b

Explains Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer, bWebre not in kindergarten on
this anymore: webve been doing this since 2001, and therebs a
well-established protocol.b

A Los Angeles Times article once described John Rizzo as bthe most
influential career lawyer in CIA history,b and he arguably knows more than
anyone else in the government about the legal aspects of the CIAbs targeted
killings. But he stumbled into the world of espionage almost by accident. He
graduated from George Washington University Law School and was living in D.C.
in the 1970s when the Church committee released its report on the CIAbs
attempts to assassinate foreign leaders. Rizzo sensed an opportunity: bWith
all that going on, theybd need lawyers.b He got a CIA job soon afterward.

Decades later, as the CIAbs interrogations and lethal operations were ramped
up after 9/11, Rizzo found himself at the center of controversy. He was, as
he puts it, bup to my eyeballsb in President Bushbs program of enhanced
interrogations in the so-called black sites, or secret prisons, located in
Afghanistan and in other countries. Justice Department lawyer John C. Yoo
wrote the infamous btorture memob of August 2002 because Rizzo had asked for
clarification about techniques that could be used on detainees. Rizzo had
once hoped to become the CIAbs general counsel, but members of the Senate
intelligence committee balked because of the role he played in authorizing
the interrogations. Rizzo retired in 2009.

Today, Rizzo can sometimes sound boastful. bHow many law professors have
signed off on a death warrant?b he asks. He is quick to emphasize that the
groundwork was prepared in a judicious manner, and felt it important that he
observe the killing of some of the high-level terrorism suspects via live
footage shown in CIA offices. bI was concerned that it be done in the
cleanest possible way,b he explains.

Clean, but always morally complex. Rizzo would sometimes find himself sitting
in his office on the seventh floor of the CIA building with a cable about a
terrorism suspect in front of him, and he would wonder how his Irish-Italian
parents would feel about his newly assigned duties.

After President Bush authorized the CIA to hunt down Qaeda fighters in the
wake of 9/11, bthe attorneys were always involved, but they were very
goodbvery aggressive and helpful, in fact,b says Crumpton. bThey would help
us understand international law and cross-border issues, and they would
interpret specific language of the presidential directive.b

Under another Bush order, signed several years later, a variety of people who
worked in terrorist camps could be targeted, and not just named terrorism
suspects; at that point, the pool of potential candidates reviewed by CIA
lawyers became much larger. Despite the secrecy surrounding these orders,
their scope has become clear. bThe authority given in these presidential
findings is surely the most sweeping and most lethal since the founding of
the CIA,b William C. Banks, director of Syracuse Universitybs Institute for
National Security and Counterterrorism, told a House committee.

The hub of activity for the targeted killings is the CIAbs Counterterrorist
Center, where lawyersbthere are roughly 10 of them, says Rizzobwrite a cable
asserting that an individual poses a grave threat to the United States. The
CIA cables are legalistic and carefully argued, often running up to five
pages. Michael Scheuer, who used to be in charge of the CIAbs Osama bin Laden
unit, describes ba dossier,b or a btwo-page document,b along with ban
appendix with supporting information, if anybody wanted to read all of it.b
The dossier, he says, bwould go to the lawyers, and they would decide. They
were very picky.b Sometimes, Scheuer says, the hurdles may have been too
high. bVery often this caused a missed opportunity. The whole idea that
people got shot because someone has a hunchbI only wish that was true. If it
were, there would be a lot more bad guys dead.b

Sometimes, as Rizzo recalls, the evidence against an individual would be
thin, and high-level lawyers would tell their subordinates, bYou guys did not
make a case.b bSometimes the justification would be that the person was
thought to be at a meeting,b Rizzo explains. bIt was too squishy.b The memo
would get kicked back downstairs.

The cables that were bready for prime time,b as Rizzo puts it, concluded with
the following words: bTherefore we request approval for targeting for lethal
operation.b There was a space provided for the signature of the general
counsel, along with the word bconcurred.b Rizzo says he saw about one cable
each month, and at any given time there were roughly 30 individuals who were
targeted. Many of them ended up dead, but not all: bNo. 1 and No. 2 on the
hit parade are still out there,b Rizzo says, referring to byou-know-who and
[Ayman al-] Zawahiri,b a top Qaeda leader.

As administration critics have pointedout, government officials have to go
through a more extensive process in order to obtain permission to wiretap
someone in this country than to make someone the target of a lethal operation

Rizzo seems bitter that he and other CIA officials have been criticized for
authorizing harsh interrogations under Bush, and yet there has been little
outcry over the faster pace of lethal operations under Obama. (From 2004 to
2008, Bush authorized 42 drone strikes, according to the New America
Foundation. The number has more than quadrupled under President Obamabto 180
at last count.)

The detainees, by and large, survived, Rizzo observes; today, high-level
terrorism suspects often do not.

And for all the bureaucratic review, itbs not always precise in the real
world. In December people took to the streets of Islamabad to protest the
strikes and to show support for a Waziristan resident, Karim Khan, whose son
and brother were killed in a strike in 2009 and has filed a lawsuit against
the U.S., charging a CIA official for their deaths.

Administration officials insist that the targeted killings rest on a solid
legal foundation, but many scholars disagree. Georgetown Universitybs Gary
Solis, the author of The Law of Armed Conflict, says people at the CIA who
pilot unmanned aerial vehicles are civilians directly engaged in hostilities,
an act that makes them bunlawful combatantsb and possibly subject to

These days, Rizzo is working on a memoir. He does not talk about the morality
of what he didbhe is not that kind of guybbut lately has been trying to come
to terms with the implications of the deadly task he performed, and which
others are now performing in that office building in Virginia.

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