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How America unleashed its secret killers

April 11th, 2013
12:56 PM ET

By Samuel Burke & Ken Olshansky, CNN

The story of how America's Central Intelligence Agency got back into the killing business after September 11th has, for the most part, been kept under wraps.

The secret weapons, targets and killings have had little-to-no oversight by the U.S. Congress, the courts or the press.

Now, New York Times correspondent Mark Mazzetti has uncovered key moments of America's shadow war. In his new book, "The Way of the Knife," the Pulitzer Prize-winning author reports on how the CIA morphed from an intelligence agency to a paramilitary force, and the complicated route to get it back again.

In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday, Mazzetti said the name of the book came from analogy originally used by John Brennan – now the CIA director – formerly President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser.

Brennan gave a speech in which he compared some CIA practices to using a “scalpel,” implying a clean surgery without complications. However, Mazzetti’s book examines the very complicated risks and ramifications of this kind of warfare.

President Bush authorized drone strikes, but his use of them was minimal – at least compared to Obama’s. There were 37 targeted airstrikes in 2008, compared to 121 in 2010, according the Long War Journal.

It all began in 2004, when the CIA was trying hard to get armed drones into Pakistan. The U.S. managed to kill a militant named Nek Muhammad, using a drone in June of that year, according to Mazzetti. Despite being affiliated with al Qaeda, Mazetti reports that Muhammad was actually more of Pakistan's problem than the United States’.

“There was a deal that was cut between America and the Pakistani spies to kill Nek Muhammad,” Mazzetti told Amanpour, paving the way for these types of killings to commence.

It took a few years for the program to ramp up, but it was not until the end of the Bush administration in 2008 that the strikes really escalated.

Then President Obama took office, embraced the strikes and expanded the program even further.

“As we found in Pakistan and also in Yemen, the groups that get hit are not just al Qaeda senior leaders,” Mazzetti said. “And to be honest, in Pakistan, there are very few of the original al Qaeda leadership as it existed on 9/11.”

According to Mazzetti, the CIA is also targeting members of the Haqqani network and the Pakistani Taliban – so while Pakistan says it is against the drone program, the government is willing to bless some strikes because the U.S. is hitting enemies of Pakistan.

Now, Brennan has hinted he might move the program to the Pentagon, allowing the CIA to revert back to being an intel-gathering spy machine – though that transfer might be easier said than done.

Filed under:  Drone • Latest Episode
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. marshamarie

    This is something most of us already know, but THANK YOU for drawing a wider audience into the frame.

    April 11, 2013 at 4:25 pm | Reply
  2. Silverado

    One thing I admire the most about Obama is his focus to reduce terrorists - Even his critics must appreciate that he has never neglected one of this most important duties.

    April 11, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Reply
    • Guillaume

      Yet this Nobel "Peace" prize is nothing more than a common assassin. Murdering people on foreign soil, in countries the US is not at war with, under the pretext that they "may" pose an unproven security threat is a gross violation of human rights and a crime. And, worse of all, it does nothing to make the USA more secure. If anything, it aggravates the hatred and the justification for future retaliation against the murderer in chief.

      April 12, 2013 at 10:12 am | Reply
      • Matt

        >> it does nothing to make the USA more secure

        Neither does waging an illegal war of aggression – the stuff Obamas predecessor has done

        April 12, 2013 at 11:35 am |
  3. Martin

    The article says: “There was a deal that was cut between America and the Pakistani spies to kill Nek Muhammad”.
    These Pakistanis have been asking the US to do their dirty job for free, and then they turn around and blame us for drone strikes? Pakistanis are so duplicitous!!

    April 11, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Reply
  4. Mirrorman

    Drone cannot hit target alone, but a community, how will civilian caualities shld be reduce must b paramount any war.

    April 12, 2013 at 3:43 am | Reply
    • Asif

      Armies all over the world never care about the civilian casualties or collateral damage.........

      April 12, 2013 at 7:39 am | Reply
  5. Emmanuel

    Obama is a tactician, He has done all things perfectly including the capture and humillating execution of Osama and most of this drones have most of times been precise. Drones should be shifted to Mali and Nigeria.

    April 12, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  6. Kent

    "had little-to-no oversight "? Seriously, that's the worst misuse of hyphens I've seen in ages!

    April 13, 2013 at 10:54 pm | Reply
  7. aurelius


    April 14, 2013 at 5:14 pm | Reply
  8. Ola

    We all know the truth that this will not stop the terrorist my concern is the innocent civilian that get kill diuring attack their must be a way to protect them

    April 18, 2013 at 3:13 am | Reply
  9. doabitofhomework

    Although technically the "civilians" killed in these drone strikes are seen as being innocent, the truth is that most of them form the stability base for food, housing, clothing, services, etc. for the terrorists who are killed. They are their wives and other family members, or neighbors in full support of the terrorists, actively helping them behind the scenes.

    A person opposed to this jihadi mindset wouldn't be anywhere NEAR these people.

    It isn't very often that a truly innocent civilian is killed in a drone strike, because such people wouldn't have reason to BE in the tribal areas where the terrorists reside. They'd avidly avoid being in the vicinity.

    In our laws, these non-combatants are still auxiliaries to the crimes of the terrorists. We hold people who are "accessories" to a crime as being as guilty – almost, and sometimes more – than the active criminals themselves.

    The non-combatants near the terrorists are accessories, in the full sense of the word. Although I can wish to spare them, it doesn't put a moral burden on those who send the drones to insure that they ARE spared. They just do their best to hit the terrorists, and as few others around them as possible. They can't do it perfectly, and it is unreasonable for us to expect them to. THEY sure don't care how many innocent – truly innocent – people their acts of terrorism slaughter.

    Nor do the non-combatant "accessories" who are near them most of the time care one bit about the victims of the terrorism they're supporting. They would cheer if some jihadi killed a few thousands – or even millions – of genuinely innocent infidels.

    My sympathy for them can't help but be diminished by this knowledge.

    In case it has – somehow – escaped your notice, Islam is at WAR with us. It has been at war with every single living "infidel" for 1400 years. We are seen as infidels who are particularly hateful. Nobody can BE a Muslim without hating us. It is a mandate of the faith to hate and want to slaughter all infidels. It is basic to Islam. Nobody can choose to neglect the mandate and remain a Muslim. No matter what they say about "peace and tolerance." Their definition of those words is the opposite of ours. Peace and tolerance are for Muslim-to-Muslim interactions, and they're not even very good at that, in case you have noticed. For infidels, however, there ARE NO RULES. Even the two major sects, who hate one another and want to genocide one another, agree about slaughtering infidels.

    Also, to lie to us infidels is not only righteous and expected, it is applauded by Allah. So they do. Oh, they DO. Have you also failed to notice that Muslims lie to us like rugs?

    Got it?

    And drones are far more precise than bombs, which can take out several city blocks at a shot. Despite those who criticize the drones, they have succeeded in removing large numbers of known jihadis. And that is very much to the good.

    April 18, 2013 at 9:15 am | Reply
  10. Maple Tuzzolo

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    August 24, 2022 at 8:39 am | Reply

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