“You Cannot Kill Your Way Out of This”: The CIA’s Lethal Lack of Imagination

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The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs (2015) is an engaging Showtime documentary in the spirit of Errol Morris’ The Fog of War (2003) and Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers (2012). Directors Jules Naudet and Gedeot Naudet use the same technique of interviewing former government officials to determine what they take themselves to have been doing as they participated in or directed what came to be highly controversial tactics rationalized in the name of national defense. The Spymasters features former directors and officials of the CIA who share their perspectives on “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “targeted killing” carried out during the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

By telling the story of the war on terror from its beginnings, the film helpfully illuminates how the US government arrived where it is today, executing unidentified military-age men located thousands of miles away and in countries where war was never officially waged. The 2001 Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) has been held up at each stage along the way to explain why the US president is allegedly free to fire missiles on anyone he chooses and anywhere he believes there to be potential danger on the horizon—whatever his standards and evidential criteria may be.

It’s always good to find out what the perpetrators of state homicide think about what they have done, even though they have an evident interest in forging a positive image of themselves for posterity. Still, reading between the lines of their sometimes diaphanous attempts to exculpate themselves from any moral wrongdoing—even if they own that mistakes were occasionally made—one discovers a wealth of insight into what has transpired over the course of the last sixteen years.

georgetenetOne of the most significant citations, though a statement of the obvious, is former CIA director George Tenet’s frank acknowledgment that “We’re all human beings,” which serves as a blanket apology for all parties involved, for everything that they did. However, there is lots of blame to go around, and most of the directors, including Tenet, are more than willing to point the accusatory finger at somebody else once the details of the various episodes are looked at more closely. The film covers four major intelligence failures and presents a short history of what transpired in the lead up to and during the Drone Age.

Big Mistake #1: Failure to Stop the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001.

The officials interviewed in this film who were in place before the attacks of September 11, 2001, deny that what happened was due primarily to Agency intelligence failures. Cofer Black is especially adamant that it was the Bush administration which refused to act on the warnings presented to them by the CIA in a July 2001 report:

coferblackYou know what really does piss me off? When people call this an intelligence failure. We knew this was coming: American interests going to be attacked, could very well be in the United States. It’s serious, it’s coming.”

Others seem more convinced that the primary failure was the lack of communication between the CIA and the FBI. Had the two agencies only communicated with one another, then some of the suicide bombers might have been apprehended and the attacks thwarted.

The result of this mistake, no doubt the collective fault of many individuals, was the destruction of the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, and the deaths of some 3,000 Americans. Even worse, it led to the Global War on Terror, still going strong sixteen years later, destroying country after country, across the Middle East.

Big Mistake #2: Support of the 2003 War on Iraq, Waged on False Pretenses

The next big Agency blunder was to produce an intelligence briefing in support of the Bush administration’s 2003 war on Iraq. George Tenet, who infamously used the phrase “slam dunk” to George W. Bush when discussing the Agency’s confidence in the case for the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), insists that the orders for war had already been signed and the decision already made:

Now the way it was portrayed, was: this was the seminal moment in the president’s life in terms of deciding whether to go to war or not. That’s not what happened at all. The decision to go to war, orders to send troops had already been signed. I mean, we were way down the road here.”

Tenet may be right about that, but, in retrospect, everyone recognizes that the administration was publicly bolstered by the apparently enthusiastic support of the invasion by the nation’s top intelligence analysts.

The result of this colossal blunder was a brutal war in which hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Westerners—including soldiers, aid workers, and journalists—died. Part of the widespread chaos was a result of the fact that Muslim men from other lands were galvanized to travel to Iraq to take up arms against what they quite rightly regarded as the unjust invaders of Iraq. Many of those men were killed, while many survivors were radicalized, coming to ally themselves with Al Qaeda or ISIS.

Big Mistake #3: Use of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques—Later Denounced by the Senate as Torture

From 2001 to 2006, the CIA ran a secret rendition and detention program in which harsh interrogation techniques were used. The program was later denounced by a Senate committee and President Obama as unacceptable torture, both wrong and ineffective at stopping attacks in the US homeland and abroad.

michaelhaydenHowever, in The Spymasters, both former director George Tenet and former head of counterterrorism José Rodríguez vehemently reject the characterization of what they did as torture, insisting that they stopped short of torture in their use of a variety of techniques intended to, as Michael Hayden puts it, “move individuals from a zone of defiance into a zone of cooperation.”

George Tenet refuses to relent:

I’m not going to ever accept the use of the word ‘torture’ in front of what happened here. I’m not going to fall to that.”

Interestingly enough, although Rodríguez insists that he and his colleagues did nothing wrong, he explains his decision to destroy videotapes of interrogations in this way:

joserodriguezMy primary motivation in destroying the tapes was to protect the people who worked for me. They showed people naked, being waterboarded, and going through the enhanced interrogation techniques… I knew that the tape would play as if, you know, we were all, you know, psychopaths, and that’s something that we didn’t want to…”

The result of the enhanced interrogation program was to thoroughly tarnish the image of the United States, but, even more devastatingly, to produce recruiting material (such as the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison) taken up by Al Qaeda and related groups, which have continued to thrive and spread to other countries beyond Afghanistan and Iraq.

Big Mistake #4: The Lethal Turn in Intelligence. Obama’s Kill Don’t Capture Policy

Former director Leon Panetta shares his experience and grief—and feeling of guilt—for the December 30, 2009, killing of seven CIA agents at Camp Chapman, where they believed themselves leonpanettato be meeting with a new asset who would lead them to Osama bin Laden. In fact, the supposed double agent, Jordanian doctor Humam Al-Balawi, was a suicide bomber intent on retaliating against the US government for its killing of Muslims. In describing his reaction after his officers were killed, Panetta laments:

What went through my mind was the families out there, who within a few hours were going to be informed that someone who they loved had been killed.”

Panetta sheds a good deal of light on the human desire on the part of the drone killers to retaliate to terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, he does not use his own experience to comprehend what those opposing the US government’s war on terror feel. Instead, he opts to kill the suspect whom he believes to be responsible for the deaths at Camp Chapman, along with his family, who are written off as “collateral damage”. Panetta feels vindicated nonetheless:

I passed on the word, I said: If you can isolate the individual and take the shot without impacting on women and children, then do it. But if you have no alternative, and it looks like he might get away, then take the shot…. And it did involve collateral damage, but we got him.”

He then goes on to explain that he is fighting a war against the perpetrators of 9/11, but he appears not to recognize that the terrorists who went after the analysts at Camp Chapman were outraged by the CIA’s own drone strikes in Pakistan, which had killed civilians, including women and children. In fact, Humam al-Balawi makes explicit reference to his intended targets’ drone killing activities in the suicide tape he recorded before the attack:

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We will beat you CIA team. Inshallah, we will beat you down. Don’t think that you just pressing a button killing mujahideen you are safe. Inshallah, death will come to you… and you will be sent to the hell.”

Panetta, who talks repeatedly about his Catholicism and is depicted fondling a rosary during part of the interview for this film, expresses his feeling of apparent happiness when Osama bin Laden is finally hunted down and slain:

Hearing people outside of the gates of the White House, chanting USA, USA, CIA,.. it was something that will be a memory that I’ll have for the rest of my life.”

The result of all of this premeditated, intentional homicide has been arguably to radicalize even more Muslim men, ever younger, and even to extend the summary execution without trial to citizens of Western nations. Men such as Anwar Al-Awlaki, Samir Khan, Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan, and Junaid Hussain have been intentionallly hunted down and executed by their own government rather than being captured and allowed to stand trial.

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Judging by the concerns expressed repeatedly by the drone warriors in the CIA, every suspected terrorist is now regarded as potentially a future Osama bin Laden, even though many of the targets are quite young and have explicitly expressed their anger at the US war on terror, in which millions of Muslims have been killed, maimed, terrorized, or driven to flee their homeland in search of safety and security and to avoid being destroyed by missiles and bombs.

Especially noteworthy is that the officials involved in the “enhanced interrogation program” are highly skeptical of the Obama administration’s drone program and what was effectively a decision to call a halt to detention, and instead to summarily execute all military-age males suspected of possible complicity in terrorism or association with radical jihadist groups. For their part, the drone killers interviewed—above all, John Brennan and Leon Panetta—decry the enhanced interrogation program as having involved torture, which, they insist, Americans should not be perpetrating.

johnbrennanFormer director John Brennan once again repeats his familiar refrain that the Agency always attempts to capture suspects, but nothing could be further from the truth. Case in point: Anwar Al-Awlaki was released from a Yemen prison, where he was being detained without charges at the US government’s request. After being released, he was then hunted down and slain. QED. (It is worth observing here that in the three years prior to his appointment to the Obama administration as drone killing czar, Brennan was running a private company, The Analysis Corporation, which generated and analyzed intelligence for terrorist watch lists.)

A number of the earlier directors, who served before 9/11, express discomfort and even dismay that the CIA has become primarily concerned with covert lethal action, which is a paramilitary function not a part of the original Agency mission to gather and analyze intelligence in order to provide the executive with the means to forge sound policy. George Tenet expresses his profound reservations about what his successors have been doing:

Killing people, no matter how bad they are, is not something that should ever rest easily in anybody’s soul or in anybody’s brain. Sometimes I think we get ourselves into a frenzy, into believing that killing is the only answer to a problem. And the truth is it’s not.”

The Biggest Strategic Mistake of All, or: Why the Middle East is Now in Shambles

The underlying problem with the conflict in the Middle East, which is not treated in the film, can be traced back to the 1991 Gulf War on Iraq. Unfortunately, no one among the interviewees seems to know or care that Osama bin Laden explicitly claimed to be retaliating, in particular, against the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children in the aftermath of Desert Storm, when draconian sanctions prevented access to medications needed to address the illnesses caused directly by the obliteration of water treatment facilities by the US military.

Bin Laden made no secret of the source of his rage, but the US government preferred to promote soundbites such as “They hate us for our freedom,” rather than imagining what it would be like to witness the slaughter of innocent civilians by the US military.

There seems to be little awareness indeed on the part of America’s “Top Spies” that the terrorists are in fact retaliating in precisely the manner in which US officials felt the need to do so in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11. This inability to imagine what it is like to live under the constant threat of death by US bombs and missiles is shared by all of the directors but perhaps most graphic in the case of Cofer Black, who indignantly intones:

These are our people. Nobody comes to our town and messes with our people.”

All of that said, the fact that some of the directors are willing to express reservations about the US government’s current lethal and short-sighted approach to the problem of factional terrorism offers a modicum of hope that one day the Agency will be reined in again after having administered both George W. Bush’s horrific detention and torture program and Barack Obama’s revved-up drone killing machine.

This thought-provoking film, which I highly recommend, ends with an unforgettable and stunning sequence of directors each articulating this same important truth:

You can’t kill your way out of this.”

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The Drone Operator Recruitment Crisis and the Status of Women in the US Military

The Pentagon recently announced that all combat positions in the US military will henceforth be open to women. It took quite some time for “the fairer sex” to be granted this arguably dubious achievement. As offensive as some may find this suggestion, it appears that the admission of women into the ranks of military killers has come about in the Drone Age only because superior physical strength is no longer a requirement for active “combat” duty.

FemaleDroneOperator

Women are now pushing buttons to erase from the face of earth men who they have been told harbor evil intentions to destroy the people of the United States. If one accepts the definition of drone operators and sensors as “soldiers”—even though they work in trailers located thousands of miles away from the so-called battlefields where they kill—then these female drone operators are already combatant troops and have been for quite some time.

The fact that the Pentagon made a public announcement to this effect, letting young women everywhere know that they, too, are welcome to enlist as professional killers—and earn handsome salaries and benefits packages for doing so—reflects the administration’s recognition that, in the future, lethal drones will be used more and more, and ground troops less and less, in conflict zones. Why? Because in the Drone Age, politicians can paint themselves as strong on defense without having to write condolence letters to families, and without having to pay hospital visits to maimed survivors of the US government’s various military misadventures abroad.

Now that lethal drones have made it possible for women to kill just as many “unlawful combatants” as do men in uniform, I dare to ask the politically incorrect question: Is serving as a remote-control killer something which young women should aspire to do? In even articulating this question, I will no doubt be met with the ire of feminists who believe that women should be free to do anything which men are free to do. And there is a certain logic to that argument.

If women are truly equal to men, then should they not be able to do everything which men do? Should not women, too, be allowed to commit horrific mistakes such as slaughtering their fellow human beings under order when the commander-in-chief declares that “We are at war”? Don’t women have every bit as much of a “right” as do men to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? As a matter of fact, PTSD is now found as frequently among drone operators as among ground troops from wars past. Shouldn’t women be entitled to their “fair” share of the ills of war?

I am not going to try to argue that women should be protected from themselves, but I will venture boldly to propose (once again) that perhaps young women and men alike should be protected from recruiters who lure them into a profession—that of paid assassin—which some of them are sure to regret later on down the line. Because of the testimony of a few brave drone operators and sensors, we know that the vocation of remote-control killing weighs heavily on the conscience of at least some of those involved in the drone program, who now wish that they had never followed orders to kill, given that their own lives were not on the line when they pushed buttons to annihilate targets on hit lists compiled by anonymous analysts.

That heavy drinking has been widespread among drone killing squadrons, having become necessary for them to be able to carry on with their jobs for as long as they do, is another clue that something is morally awry. If employees must drown their sorrows every night after work, then is this not an unequivocal sign that they know, deep down inside, that what they are doing is not right?

It requires no more physical strength to work as a push-button killer than it does to play a video game—or to send email or shop online. And yet, the drone program has had difficulty holding onto its recruits, many of whom opt not to reenlist once their initial contract has expired. One solution hit upon has been to offer operators more and more lucrative bonuses, also known as “bribes”.

Faced with the drone operator recruitment crisis, the question arises: why has the Pentagon not tapped into an obvious source of employable persons: senior citizens? Why not enlist retirees who are still of sound mind? They may be too frail to fight in hand-to-hand combat, but the average sixty-year-old—or even seventy-year-old—is certainly sturdy enough to push a few buttons and manipulate a joystick while sitting in an air conditioned trailer within driving distance of Las Vegas.

The most obvious reason for not recruiting—or even attempting to recruit—older persons as remote-control killers is that they cannot be hoodwinked into committing moral atrocities in the name of the state. Senior citizens and recent retirees remember from the twentieth century, before the Drone Age, lofty concepts such as the Geneva Conventions and the post-World War II reasons which drove the leaders of states to craft documents such as the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In contrast, young people fresh out of high school and looking for a job are highly vulnerable to the marketing campaigns of military recruiters, and they may know absolutely nothing about international law. Shouldn’t they be able to trust a commander-in-chief who holds a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Harvard University?

LyndieEngland

It isn’t often that I am reminded of Lyndie England, the ignominious young woman whose eternal claim to fame is to have participated in the inhumane treatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The proof that she believed that there was nothing wrong with what she and her comrades were doing was captured for posterity on film: Lyndie England exultantly posed for photographs while holding a prisoner on a leash and standing next to a body pyramid of naked detainees. The general revulsion to the images disseminated swiftly around the globe served to intensify anti-American sentiment among those who had opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but it also caused even staunch military supporters to pause.

Now that the Drone Age is well underway, young women not unlike Lyndie England are being asked, not to torture, but to incinerate suspects, and some of them appear to be doing so, too, in good conscience, at least judging by a recent feature on “Sparkle”, a female drone sensor operator who works out of Creech Air Force Base. Here’s what Sparkle says about the “bejeweled” headset she wears while dispatching targets:

“I use it to emasculate the enemy in the afterlife. Many radical jihadists believe that being killed by a woman means they will not enter heaven.”

She then adds a bit of a feminist twist:

“Considering how they treat their women, I’m OK with rubbing salt in the wound.”

One can only wonder how many radical jihadists Sparkle has ever conversed with, given that she works in a trailer located in Nevada.

Comparing the case of Lyndie England to that of drone operators killing in lands where there are no soldiers on the ground (rightly or wrongly) to protect, one must ask: is it really worse to torture people than to strip them of their lives, and at the same time all of their rights? This is puzzling, to say the least, and yet that is precisely what is transpiring in the Drone Age.

Very few prisoners have been captured abroad under President Barack Obama, and anyone who is not being detained is obviously not being tortured. Instead, suspects are summarily executed, as though they were all guilty, and in spite of the documented fact that 86% of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba had no connections whatsoever to terrorist organizations.

The modes of intelligence used to round up suspects (HUMINT derived from bribed informants, and SIGINT from electronic sources such as cell phones) are the same as those used in hunting down targets and ending their lives. Nonetheless, the drone operators such as Sparkle who carry on do not appear to bat an eye at the fact that they have no access to the intelligence used to add names to the list of people whom they are ordered to dispatch. Here is how she describes how she must steel herself for her role in the drone program:

“When you hit a truck full of people, there are limbs and legs everywhere. I watched a guy crawl away from the wreckage after one shot with no lower body. He slowly died. You have to watch that. You don’t get to turn away. You can’t be that soft girly traditional feminine and do the job. Those are the people who are going to have the nightmares.”

I submit that Sparkle is morally equivalent to Lyndie England. Both of them were persuaded by agents of their government to believe that what they did and are doing is perfectly just. One hopes that, in the fullness of time, Sparkle and all of the drone sensors and operators like her—men and women alike—will be forced to find alternative employment, when US taxpayers finally wake up to the moral atrocity of what is being done in their name.

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For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 7: The Operators; Chapter 8: From Conscience to Oblivion; and Chapter 9: Death and Politics