Created in 1947 as a Cold War-era espionage agency, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has a long history of secret activities that range from attempted assassinations and regime change in foreign countries to the support of death squads and fascist coups up to the wholesale buying-off of puppet politicians.
Top U.S. officials have for decades attempted to exert some modicum of control over the covert agency’s activities to little effect. The most prominent efforts came after the 1975 Congressional committee chaired by Senator Frank Church, which led to President Gerald Ford’s 1976 ban on political assassinations. Ford followed this effort in 1981 with the creation of the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board, meant to be a civilian watchdog over the CIA tasked with identifying the Agency’s violations of the law.
Despite these token gestures, in the post-9/11 era the CIA has grown into a full-blown shadow paramilitary outside of any semblance of legality or accountability for its crimes. In the nearly six years after 9/11 the Intelligence Oversight Board found exactly zero CIA violations worth investigation. This was during a period that saw the simultaneous birth of extrajudicial drone killings, dragnet surveillance on all domestic communications, and a kidnapping/torture regime that spanned 54 countries.
Recent revelations by government whistleblowers shine new light on the Agency’s abuses over the past decade.
Last week, McClatchy Newspapers obtained top-secret intelligence documenting how “contrary to assurances it has deployed US drones only against known senior leaders of al-Qaida and allied groups, the Obama administration has targeted and killed hundreds of suspected lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified ‘other’ militants in scores of strikes in Pakistan’s rugged tribal area.” Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations has reflected on the report, writing it “plainly demonstrates that the claim repeatedly made by President Obama and his senior aides – that targeted killings are limited only to officials, members, and affiliates of al-Qaida who pose an imminent threat of attack on the US homeland – is false.”
The CIA’s documented practice of “signature strikes” on unnamed targets based on secret “pattern of life analysis” has long contradicted claims from top Obama Administration officials that drones only target specific individuals characterized as “senior operational” and “high-level al-Qaeda leaders.” Last week’s report showcases just how extreme the Agency’s ignorance of its drone targets is, however. In many cases, the CIA cannot determine who it has killed, forcing it to rely on fuzzy categories like “other militants” and “foreign fighters.”
Such nebulous designations have allowed for the murder of three U.S. citizens without legal justification, as well as unnamed thousands in as many as six Muslim countries that have suffered significant social degradation as a result.
The newly-revealed case of Nek Muhammad again highlights the rogue nature of the assassinations program. In its first-ever drone killing inside Pakistan, the CIA secretly bargained to kill Muhammad — a militant tribal leader and Pakistani (but not U.S.) target — in exchange for permission to use Pakistani airspace for its own assassinations. Claiming “covert action authority,” the Agency arranged to never acknowledge drone strikes inside Pakistan while the Pakistani government “would either take credit for individual killings or remain silent,” choosing the former in Muhammad’s case. The Agency has applied similar reasoning in its refusal to disclose whether or not the drone program even exists in federal courts.
The extreme veil of secrecy over which all CIA activities, and drone killings in particular, are draped leads to a toxic unaccountability when abuses are uncovered. The contractual shelling of Muhammad’s compound in 2004 also killed several others, including two boys aged 10 and 16. CIA internal reports show a single civilian casualty in an April 2011 strike that actually killed “five women and four children” after which John Brennan — Obama’s “assassinations czar” and newly-confirmed CIA Director — knowingly lied to the public to claim zero civilian drone casualties had ever occurred.
Throughout its history the CIA has treated civilian populations as mere collateral. A recent episode with still-stinging repercussions was the plot to assassinate bin Laden, disguised as a polio vaccination campaign in one of the three countries that never eradicated polio. Hundreds of thousands of Pakistani children now face the risk of exposure in a deeply suspicious climate that has already seen a dozen polio vaccinators assassinated in retaliation. Pakistanis still hold bitter resentment over the case of Ray Davis, a CIA contractor and ex-Blackwater employee that killed three men on the streets of Lahore before forcing the victims’ families to accept “blood money” and fleeing the country.
Complementing the CIA’s redoubled illegality and inhumanity has been the Obama Administration’s unprecedented crackdown on the government whistleblowers supplying us with what little we do know about the Agency’s abuses. As the CIA continues to destroy communities outward, inward our feeble democracy wilts under the weight of surveillance and censorship.
The justification for the CIA’s existence, if ever appropriate, has in the post-9/11 era been fully overshadowed by its storied abuses. Our society cannot and should not bear the burden of this globally despised shadow paramilitary.