Did the CIA's Drone Program in Pakistan Begin With a 'Bargaining Chip' Killing?

New details on the 2004 death of a tribal leader raise troubling questions

predator drone
Rob Jensen/USAF via Getty Images
A Predator drone.
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In a major story in Sunday's New York Times, national security reporter Mark Mazzetti details the troubling origins of the CIA's targeted killing program in Pakistan – which he says began in 2004 with the killing of one of that country's internal enemies, not a member of al Qaeda. The piece, which is adapted from Mazzetti's new book, The Way of the Knife, also claims that the agency switched to killing accused terrorists – rather than capturing them – because of a 2004 internal review that was highly critical of the agency's detention and interrogation program.

Targeted killing gave the CIA a way out of the prison business – but into the assassination business – and, as Mazzetti tells it, also a way to get access to Pakistani skies by taking out one of their enemies. Nek Muhammad was a tribal leader who had led a rebellion against Pakistan's army and had been declared an "enemy of the state." Pakistan wanted him dead. The CIA wanted access to airspace to conduct drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal regions, which that country had previously considered a breach of sovereignty. The two countries made a deal – a high-stakes game of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" – that resulted in the CIA killing Nek Muhammad with a Predator drone, and Pakistan opening up part of its skies for CIA use. Pakistan's military claimed responsibility for the killing, which Mazzetti notes was a lie, and to this day neither country has publicly given the real story.

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The revelation that this first target was not part of al Qaeda, but rather a target picked by an ally country, has raised serious questions for critics of the CIA's actions. "How many other killings have been carried out not pursuant to a strict legal analysis and examination of threat to the U.S., but rather as a bargaining chip, at the request of another government?" Sarah Knuckey, a lawyer and the director of NYU Law School's Project on Extrajudicial Executions, asks Rolling Stone.

The secrecy in which the targeted killing program is shrouded makes that question impossible to answer conclusively at this time, but there is reason to believe that some of the individuals on the kill list (or lists) are known as "side payment" targets – people who are enemies of a U.S. ally, not the U.S. itself. Blogger Marcy Wheeler has argued that Nek Muhammad's case "is surely" such a side-payment strike.

Some in the U.S. contest the legality of a strike like the one Mazzetti describes. "On the facts here, Mr. Muhammad's killing would have been unlawful – even under the U.S. government's own logic and controversial legal standards," says Naureen Shah, lecturer in law at the Human Rights Institute at Colombia Law School. "He apparently wasn't a fighter in the global armed conflict against the Taliban, al Qaeda or its associated forces, and he reportedly did not pose an imminent threat to the U.S."

Chris Rogers, a human rights lawyer at the Open Society Foundations, echoes those concerns. "If the U.S. killed someone who wasn't a threat to this country, in a country we're not at war with, there are huge legal questions under the laws of war and human rights law," Rogers tells RS. "And the idea that this may have been done to curry favor with another country – not because he was an actual threat – is that much more alarming."

Mazzetti's sources told him that an internal report by the CIA's Inspector General on the problems with its controversial prison program apparently worried the agency enough to change their policy from capturing accused terrorists to simply killing them. "The report kicked out the foundation upon which the CIA detention and interrogation program had rested," Mazzetti writes. "It was perhaps the single most important reason for the CIA's shift from capturing to killing terrorism suspects." One CIA operative was worried that agents could "wind up on a 'wanted list' and be tried for war crimes in an international court."

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That means, as Micah Zenko somewhat bleakly notes in Foreign Policy, that the CIA switched from capture to kill because "they did not think they were capable of detaining and interrogating individuals without also torturing them." Zenko also cites polls that show Americans support killing accused terrorists more than they support torturing them. At least part of that support is due to the invisibility of those actually affected by U.S. foreign policy. Some of that support is also due to the near-total information monopoly the government has, which allows them to shape comforting narratives about "restraint" and the "imminence" of threats on which deadly force is used.

Mazzetti's story is helpful in puncturing that narrative, and as calls for greater transparency in the targeted killing/drone program are increasing, the Obama administration would do well to heed them.