Tag Archives: CIA

Loss of drone program a momentum shift for the CIA

The Daily Beast reports that the CIA’s drone operations are being shifted to military control. That doesn’t so much mean the CIA is losing the ability to launch strikes with the remotely piloted aircraft, but that they will have to liase with the Pentagon to do so.

The move is reportedly part of a larger shift in the administration to reign in and centralize the nation’s ability to launch targeted strikes across the globe.

The policy shift is part of a larger White House initiative known internally as “institutionalization,” an effort to set clear standards and procedures for lethal operations. More than a year in the works, the interagency process has been driven and led by John Brennan, who until he became CIA director earlier this month was Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser. Brennan, who has presided over the administration’s drone program from almost day one of Obama’s presidency, has grown uncomfortable with the ad hoc and sometimes shifting rules that have governed it.

 Cutting back on the CIA’s lethal operations is a shift in an agency culture that has, in the years since 9/11, seemed to be increasingly paramilitary in nature. Ironically, the newly-appointed director of the CIA, John Brennan, was historically the mastermind of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policy – a policy that relied heavily on drones.

After the approval process for Brennan’s job as CIA director was rife with Congressional complaints about the lacking transparency of the administration’s use of drones, the executive branch seems to have received the message. With all American drone use coming out of the Pentagon, which falls under military and international law, the process for each strike will be uniform, if not more transparent.

The CIA, for its part, seems to be headed back into the shadows, serving as more of an ear and less of a fist for the American national security apparatus.

Moreover, Brennan has publicly stated that he would like to see the CIA move away from the kinds of paramilitary operations it began after the September 11 attacks, and return to its more traditional role of gathering and analyzing intelligence.

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NatSec News of the Week: Friday, Jan. 4, 2013

I didn’t get a chance to write any longer posts this week, but there were a few interesting stories from the past couple of weeks. Worth reading:

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Less cloak, more dagger for the CIA

The seal on the floor of CIA headquarters. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The seal on the floor of CIA headquarters. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The average CIA case officer at the height of the Cold War traveled alone, opting for inconspicuous movement around their area of operations over the ability to engage in combat. But now, as many CIA operations take place in combat zones – or at least areas where it isn’t a red flag to see a man with an assault rifle on a street corner – case officers are constantly surrounded by an “envelope” of security, provided by a small community of former U.S. Special Operations personell, according to a story in The Washington Post.

The CIA’s Global Response Staff (GRS), the force officially charged with CIA security around the globe, is made up of 250 or more former U.S. Navy SEALs, Delta operators and even former SWAT team members from U.S. police departments. It’s made up of a mix of contractors and CIA staff.

At least half are contractors, who often earn $140,000 or more a year and typically serve 90- or 120-day assignments abroad. Full-time GRS staff officers — those who are permanent CIA employees — earn slightly less but collect benefits and are typically put in supervisory roles.

The high pay of a contractor is countered by the minimal benefits. One GRS contractor, Glen Doherty, was killed in the Sept. 11, 2012 Benghazi attacks and received no benefits because he hadn’t set up a life insurance policy and didn’t have CIA benefits.

When Doherty died, he left debts that included loans on two houses in California, [his sister Kathleen] Quigley said. He had no life insurance. CIA officials told Doherty’s family that they had recommended companies willing to underwrite such policies, but that agency coverage was not available for contractors.

Quigley did not criticize the agency, but added: “It’s so sad for a guy like that to go out and have nothing to show for it, except, frankly, a lot of debt.”

The Post report comes amid growing concerns about the CIA’s drone program and the intelligence agency’s increasing role as a paramilitary force. The drone program, made up of between 30 and 35 armed drones, may expand by as many as 10 drones if the Obama administration approves an October request by then-CIA Director David Petraeus.

The cost of devoting increasing amounts of the CIA’s finite resources to lethality – a GRS contractor might make about $140,000 a year, which puts the total cost of the force into the tens of millions, and the drone program likely costs much more – is that those funds cannot be used for the CIA’s stated purpose: intelligence gathering.

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AP: A secret CIA prison in Romania, hidden in plain sight

One of the CIA’s most important secrets in the war on terrorism was hiding in plain sight, on a leafy residential street along a busy set of train tracks in Romania‘s capital. There, tucked in the basement of a government building, the CIA ran a clandestine prison, former U.S. intelligence officials said.

For years, the building — codenamed Bright Light — housed some of the CIA’s most important terror suspects, including Khalid Sheik Mohammad, the mastermind of the Sept. 11,2001 attacks against the U.S. Even after the detainees were shipped off to Guantanamo Bay in 2006 and reports about the prison began to surface, the Romanian government repeatedly denied any knowledge of its existence.

A joint investigation by The Associated Press and German public television, ARD Panorama, however, located the former prison and unearthed details of the facility where harsh interrogation tactics were carried out.

The Romanian prison was part of a network of so-called black sites that the CIA operated and controlled overseas in Thailand, Lithuania and Poland. All the prisons were closed by May 2006, and the CIA’s detention and interrogation program ended in 2009.

Bombshell AP investigation.


As U.S. restricts access to drone base, public loses sight of program’s humanity


As America’s aerial drones make headlines, their operators — mostly working from a base in Nevada — don’t. An increase in security at Creech Air Force base over the last two years has left reporters outside the gates. With almost zero public access to drone operators, these menacing, faceless machines have been forced to speak for themselves. And they’re not known for their charm.

Wired Danger Room explains that access to the Air Force base has been more and more restricted due to new approval protocols for press seeking the once-common interim security clearance into the base. The new protocol causes the vast majority — if not all — of press requests to be denied.

The problem with this is that it almost completely removes the most important people in the drone war from the public eye.

What was lost? In a 2009 Frontline episode, we could drive to work with the pilot who prays for strength and wisdom. 60 Minutes caught the flicker of doubt in the eyes of the pilot confronted with the question, “What if you get it wrong?” Never mind the myth of the efficient killing machine. There are people who make the decision of whether to pull the trigger. There are stories to be told about these airmen who have the power over life or death.

When the U.S. launched this program in 2007, it welcomed journalists with open arms to help spread the word about the new technology. But about two years later, this access started fading.

Press visits to Creech were all but phased out in 2010. “Creech was unable to support media requests during this timeframe because of a high operations tempo and post 9/11 security concerns,” said Creech spokesperson Lt. Katherine Roling.

The increased operations tempo is understandable. With more ground troops in Afghanistan in need of support after Obama sent thousands more troops to secure the “graveyard of empires.”

Post 9/11 security concerns? Unless there was an event on Sept. 11, 2008 or 2009, she must be talking about 9/11/01, which was six years before the program launch and nine years before the tightened security.

Perhaps there is another reason reporters aren’t getting into the base.

Ironically, just as press access to the ostensibly open military drone program wound down, the government began to speak more and more about the supposedly super-secret CIA drone war. In 2009, then-CIA chief Leon Panetta declared that drones were “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership.” By the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the Washington Post wasdescribing the whiteboards used to keep track of pending operations and informants in the region. The CIA’s former top lawyer, John Rizzo, told Newsweek about the group of 10 agency lawyers who granted “approval for targeting for lethal operation.”

Perhaps the images on operators’ screens and burned into their memories at night are ones the military and CIA would rather keep from civilian television and computer screens.

As mission secrecy and operational security are clearly paramount, restricted access to the base is understandable from a military and intelligence standpoint. The casualty is the only link in the chain of command that reminds us that behind these buzzing death machines have a human behind them. A human who sees and feels and knows that under his/her finger is a life, who must decide if that is a life worth taking and then live with their decision.

Without the flicker of doubt in a pilot’s eyes, it’s hard to be sure there really is anything human between the massive military system and those weapons high in the sky.

Photo/Creative Commons/Flickr user CliffStreetPhotography



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CIA spies caught in Lebanon, Iran, feared dead

ABC News reports the CIA has lost assets — likely their entire network — in Lebanon, where they were gathering intelligence about Hezbollah actions against Israel. In Iran, similar but unrelated events led to the Iranian government’s discovery of spies there.

Robert Baer, famous in the intelligence community as the first CIA operative to successfully infiltrate Hezbollah, said that if the reports are true, those spies were likely killed.

Robert Baer, a former senior CIA officer who worked against Hezbollah while stationed in Beirut in the 1980’s, said Hezbollah typically executes individuals suspected of or caught spying.

“If they were genuine spies, spying against Hezbollah, I don’t think we’ll ever see them again,” he said. “These guys are very, very vicious and unforgiving.”

Baer and other critics said these losses were the result of bad intelligence practices. Some said operatives were meeting with multiple sources in the same location and using overly simplistic code words.

“If you lose an asset, one source, that’s normally a setback in espionage,” said Robert Baer, who was considered an expert on Hezbollah.

“But when you lose your entire station, either in Tehran or Beirut, that’s a catastrophe, that just shouldn’t be. And the only way that ever happens is when you’re mishandling sources.”

Others said risks of such losses were inherent in intelligence gathering.

“Collecting sensitive information on adversaries who are aggressively trying to uncover spies in their midst will always be fraught with risk,” said the U.S. official briefed on the spy ring bust.

Update: The Washington Post has a great article on the exposure as well.

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