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The New Yorker
by SEYMOUR M. HERSH
The Bush Administration's new strategy in the war against terrorism.
Issue of 2002-12-23 and 30
Sometime on Sunday, November 3rd, an unmanned American Predator reconnaissance aircraft, flying out of a base in Djibouti, fired a Hellfire missile at an automobile in Yemen that was believed to be carrying an Al Qaeda leader named Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi. A joint American and Yemeni intelligence team had been tracking al-Harethi, and the order to fire was not given until the car was isolated, far from any other traffic—and from any witnesses—as it sped through a vast tract of desert in Marib province. Al-Harethi was in the car, along with five other men. All of them were killed.
The operation entailed a high level of technical coöperation and trust between the Americans and the Yemenis. The joint intelligence team, working out of a situation room in Yemen—a Yemeni official would say only that the site was not visible from the air—had been tracing al-Harethi's satellite telephone calls for weeks. Al-Harethi clearly was aware of the danger and frequently changed telephones and numbers; five cell phones were found on his body. Yemeni security officials arrived at the scene shortly after the blast—a helicopter had been standing by—and removed the bombed-out car. They took the bodies to a military hospital in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, where American officials collected DNA samples for processing at a military laboratory in the United States.
By the next day, Bush Administration officials had begun informing journalists that the Predator had made its first Al Qaeda kill outside Afghanistan. Some journalists were also told that al-Harethi, long sought for a role in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden harbor, in the fall of 2000, was on a list of "high-value" targets whose elimination, by capture or death, had been called for by President Bush. (A Defense Department consultant told me that, as of this fall, seven high-value Al Qaeda targets—"top guys that they're really after"—have been designated for elimination by the Bush Administration. According to the Yemeni official, there are still two high-value targets in Yemen.)
The Hellfire was meant for al-Harethi, but, Yemeni and American officials told reporters, the five passengers in the car had terrorist ties as well. Four of them belonged to the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, an outlawed terrorist sect that had links to Al Qaeda, and the fifth had been identified as Kamal Derwish, an Arab-American who grew up near Buffalo and, according to the F.B.I., recruited American Muslims to attend Al Qaeda training camps. There is no indication that American or Yemeni officials knew in advance who was in the car with al-Harethi. The Yemeni official told me that there was no thought of blockading the highway and attempting to capture al-Harethi and his passengers, because he had evaded earlier attempts and because "it was suspected that they were going to a target." The official said, "From past experience, this was the most effective way."
The intelligence about al-Harethi that day had been superb. The Yemeni official told me, however, that earlier there had been two intelligence "mistakes" that almost resulted in targeting innocent Bedouins. In one case, the joint-intelligence center found a group of Bedouins whose armed pickup trucks—pickups are the main mode of travel in the desert—included at least one vehicle that was mounted with a heavy machine gun. The Americans were about to hit the truck with a Predator, the Yemeni official said, "but we had someone tracking it, too. He was asked by phone, 'Who are those people?' He said, 'Bedouins. Not Al Qaeda.' "
The Yemeni official also said that the al-Harethi operation had produced valuable diplomatic information. For example, the car bearing al-Harethi and his colleagues had Saudi plates, which led investigators to believe that al-Harethi had been shuttling back and forth along Yemen's border with Saudi Arabia. According to the official, al-Harethi had obtained operating funds from Saudis. Apparently, they weren't the only suppliers of cash for the terrorists. Al-Harethi's last known satellite telephone call, an hour before the Predator struck, was to a number in the United Arab Emirates, an American ally that is also known to be a center of support for Muslim extremists. "Lots of money comes from the U.A.E.," the Yemeni official said.
The killing of al-Harethi represented a dividend in the drive to track down suspected Al Qaeda terrorists who have fled Afghanistan and moved to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia, and other countries, a goal that has preoccupied American intelligence since the fall of the Taliban. Administration officials praised the Predator attack for its precision and effective use of on-the-spot intelligence. "We've just got to keep the pressure on everywhere we're able to and we've got to deny the sanctuaries," Paul D. Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, told CNN. The Hellfire strike, he added, was "a very successful tactical operation."
The al-Harethi operation also marked a dramatic escalation of the American war on terrorism. For more than a generation, state-endorsed assassination has been anathema in the United States. In 1975, after revelations of C.I.A. efforts in the nineteen-sixties to kill Fidel Castro and other hostile foreign leaders, a Senate committee led by Frank Church concluded that such plotting "violates moral precepts fundamental to our way of life. . . . We reject absolutely any notion that the United States should justify its actions by the standards of totalitarians. . . . Of course, we must defend our democracy. But in defending it, we must resist undermining the very virtues we are defending." In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed an executive order banning political assassination, and that order remains in force.
In the aftermath of September 11th, however, the targeting and killing of individual Al Qaeda members without juridical process has come to be seen within the Bush Administration as justifiable military action in a new kind of war, involving international terrorist organizations and unstable states. Defense Department lawyers have concluded that the killing of selected individuals would not be illegal under the Army's Law of War if the targets were "combatant forces of another nation, a guerrilla force, or a terrorist or other organization whose actions pose a threat to the security of the United States."
On July 22nd, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld issued a secret directive ordering Air Force General Charles Holland, the four-star commander of Special Operations, "to develop a plan to find and deal with members of terrorist organizations." He added, "The objective is to capture terrorists for interrogation or, if necessary, to kill them, not simply to arrest them in a law-enforcement exercise." The manhunt would be global in its reach, Rumsfeld wrote, and Holland was to cut through the Pentagon bureaucracy and process deployment orders "in minutes and hours, not days and weeks."
When I asked Rumsfeld's office for comment, I was referred to a December 3rd press briefing in which the Defense Secretary had been questioned about the Pentagon's policy on the use of the Predator "to assassinate or to kill an Al Qaeda." Rumsfeld initially responded with a characteristic joke: "I'm working my way over to figuring out how I won't answer that." He then turned serious, and said that the policy "is what you all know it to be. There is really no mystery to it. We recruit, organize, train, equip, and deploy young men and women, in uniform, to go out and serve as members of our military. They are not trained to do the word you used"—assassinate—"which I won't even repeat. That is not what they're trained to do. They are trained to serve the country and to contribute to peace and stability in the world."
Nonetheless, many past and present military and intelligence officials have expressed alarm at the Pentagon policy about targeting Al Qaeda members. Their concerns have less to do with the legality of the program than with its wisdom, its ethics, and, ultimately, its efficacy. Some of the most heated criticism comes from within the Special Forces.
Rumsfeld began complaining to his deputies about General Holland's caution soon after September 11th. A few days after the attacks, he asked Holland to compile a list of terrorist targets for immediate retaliation. Holland returned two weeks later with four possible targets—suspected Islamic-fundamentalist redoubts in Somalia, Mauritania, the Philippines, and the Triple Frontier, the point where Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina meet. But the General also told Rumsfeld that an immediate attack wasn't possible, because the military did not have "actionable intelligence" on the proposed targets, according to a defense consultant. The retaliation would have to wait until the war in Afghanistan got under way. The Defense Secretary was not pleased. In the following months, "actionable intelligence" became a derisive catchphrase among civilian Pentagon officials, and Rumsfeld and his aides spoke of Holland's case of "the Slows," the complaint President Lincoln made before relieving General George McClellan of his Union Army command.
Some senior officers attached to the Joint Chiefs of Staff have argued that Rumsfeld's plans would turn the military's most élite forces, the Special Operations Command—which includes the Navy's SEALs and the Army's Delta Force—and the United States government's secret undercover team, known as Gray Fox, into hunter-killer teams. Currently, these forces train heavily in a wide range of specialties, among them strategic reconnaissance, direct action, unconventional warfare, and psychological operations. (Units of Delta Force and Gray Fox are now deployed in the Gulf region.) Questions of turf are involved. A defense consultant who has maintained close ties to the Special Forces said, "There is concern that emphasis on a target list will turn the Special Operations Forces into a counter-terror force and atrophy other attributes."
"They want to turn these guys into assassins," a former high-level intelligence officer told me. "They want to go on rumors—not facts—and go for political effect, and that's what the Special Forces Command is really afraid of. Rummy is saying that politics is bigger than war, and we need to take guys out for political effect: 'You have to kill Goebbels to get to Hitler.' " With regard to Rumsfeld, he added, "The military is saying, 'Who is this guy?' There's a major clash of wills as to what is the future of Special Forces."
A senior Administration official acknowledged that Rumsfeld's plans for Special Operations run "counter to conventional military doctrine." He may succeed, nevertheless, the official said, because the senior military leadership suffers from a lack of will. The official noted that Rumsfeld was able to get what he wanted in large measure because he made it a personal issue. "He's the strangest guy I've ever run into," the official said. "He doesn't delegate."
Speaking to journalists in September about the uses of preëmptive military actions in Iraq and elsewhere, Rumsfeld said, "We all would like perfection; we'd like all the dots connected for us with a ribbon wrapped around it." Americans, he added, "want evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. You want to be able to be certain that you know before anyone's punished." But, he continued, "this isn't punishment. We've got the wrong model in our minds if we're thinking about punishment. We're not. This isn't retaliation or retribution."
In internal Defense Department memos, Rumsfeld and the civilian officials close to him laid out the case for a new approach to the war on terrorism, one that would rely, in part, on the killing of selected individuals. The documents reflect their skepticism toward the generals and admirals who run the armed forces. One paper noted, "The worst way to organize for the manhunt . . . is to have it planned in the Pentagon. . . . Our prerequisite of perfection for 'actionable intelligence' has paralyzed us." In another paper Rumsfeld was told, "We 'over-plan' for every contingency. . . . This denies us the agility and tactical surprise so necessary for manhunts, snatches, and retribution raids. We must be willing to accept the risks associated with a smaller footprint."
The paper urged the Secretary to "ensure that the military leadership understands fully the cultural change you seek." The manhunting teams must be kept "small and agile," the paper noted, and "must be able to operate clandestinely, using a full range of official and non-official cover arrangements to travel and to enter countries surreptitiously."
At a press conference in September, one journalist noted the military's growing involvement in police and intelligence activities inside Afghanistan, and asked Rumsfeld whether tracking down Al Qaeda was still the mission. "Well, a manhunt is certainly not what the armed forces of the United States are organized, trained, and equipped to do," Rumsfeld answered. "We may have to learn to do that, and we are indeed learning to do it." Paul Wolfowitz, in a discussion of future military operations during an interview with Bill Keller in the New York Times Magazine, in September, also noted obliquely that "maybe somewhere along the way we should have a volunteer force that is specifically volunteering for missions other than defending the country." Wolfowitz's idea was characterized by Keller as "the opposite of the Peace Corps, you might say."
The Hellfire attack in Yemen was applauded by many Americans, and also by the media, as progress in the war against terrorism. There were only a few public complaints. Anna Lindh, the Swedish foreign minister, declared that the American military attack, even with Yemeni approval, "is nevertheless a summary execution that violates human rights." She added, "Even terrorists must be treated according to international law. Otherwise, any country can start executing those whom they consider terrorists." Amnesty International also questioned "the deliberate killing of suspects in lieu of arrest, in circumstances in which they did not pose an immediate threat."
However, even American legal experts who were critical of the attacks did not challenge their legality. "It's not a question of law," Michael Glennon, a professor of international law at Tufts University, said. "It's a matter of policy. Is it wise? Do such attacks increase the possibility of retaliation at home and abroad on the American political and military leadership?" A similar point was made by Philip Heymann, a professor at Harvard Law School. "I don't think Richard Nixon signed the treaty outlawing biological warfare just because he had a deep aversion to biologicals," Heymann told me. "He signed it because it was against U.S. national interests to have a lot of little guys running around with biological agents that could not be deterred by our nuclear arsenal. Assassination is in the same ballpark—it doesn't take much to assassinate a U.S. Secretary of State or another Cabinet member." The American goal, he added, should be to outlaw "any weapon that even a small country can use against the big guys." Jeffrey H. Smith, a West Point graduate who served as the C.I.A.'s general counsel during the Clinton Administration, said, "I'm not opposed to shooting people, but it ought to be a last resort. If they're dead, they're not talking to you, and you create more martyrs."
Other military officials I spoke with had similar concerns. "You might be able to pull it off for five or six months," a Pentagon consultant said. "We've created a culture in the Special Forces—twenty- and twenty-one-year-olds who need adult leadership. They're assuming you've got legal authority, and they'll do it"— eagerly eliminate any target assigned to them. Eventually, the intelligence will be bad, he said, and innocent people will be killed. "And then they'll get hung." As for Rumsfeld and his deputies, he said, "These guys will overextend themselves, and they'll self-destruct."
A fatal mistake involving the Predator is known to have taken place at least once before, in Afghanistan. In February, C.I.A. officers and officers attached to the U.S. Central Command watched as a Predator, thousands of feet above ground, captured images of a very tall man being greeted effusively, or so it seemed, by a small group of colleagues. It was quickly agreed that the tall man could be Osama bin Laden, and a request was made through the chain of command to launch a Hellfire. Minutes went by before permission was granted. By then, the men on the ground had disbanded and, shortly afterward, the Predator captured what seemed to be the tall man and two others emerging from a wooded area.The Hellfire was launched, and devastated the area, killing three people—a terrible scene vividly depicted by the Predator's infrared cameras. Journalists later reported that the victims were three local men who had been scavenging in the woods for scrap metal.
One recently retired Special Forces operative, a colonel who served on high-level planning staffs at the Pentagon, warned that the civilians running the Pentagon are no longer trying to "avoid the gray area." He went on, "It is not unlawful, but ethics is about what we ought to do in our position as the most powerful country in human history. Strategic deception plans, global assassinations done by the military—all will define who we are and what we want to become as a nation. Unintended consequences are huge." He added, "The perception of a global vigilante force knocking off the enemies of the United States cannot be controlled by any strategic deception plan."
The military's previous experience with assassination programs suggests some of the difficulties involved. In the late nineteen-sixties, during the Vietnam War, American Special Forces units worked with the C.I.A. in what became known as the Phoenix Program. The program started small: targets believed to be working for the North—based on intelligence from informers—were culled, one by one, from South Vietnamese hamlets. By 1970, the program had mushroomed: more than eight thousand suspected Communist sympathizers were assassinated in that year alone. The military command began setting high quotas for targets to be eliminated or neutralized. Subsequent investigations determined that some of the victims had been put on target lists by South Vietnamese officials not because of their political beliefs but for personal reasons—to erase a gambling debt, for example, or to resolve a family quarrel. "The whole thing just kind of slid in one direction," Patrick McGarvey, a C.I.A. agent who had been involved in the program, explained to me in an interview in 1971. "I mean, you can't prove that anybody ever said, 'O.K., we're going to go out and start killing people,' because it just started happening." That year, Congress was told by William E. Colby, the C.I.A. official who ran the Phoenix Program (and later became the director of the C.I.A.), that the early days of the operation had been a "wild and unstable period and a lot of things were done that should not have been done."
A Pentagon adviser who worked closely with the Rumsfeld team vigorously defended its position, saying, "We have a peacetime military leadership that was Clintonized. And now we're in a war that it doesn't understand. What Rumsfeld wants them to do is to fight it differently, but his way makes most of our senior military leadership's understanding of war fighting irrelevant. He is saying to the military leadership, 'You don't have the answers,' and they don't want to hear that. The argument that Rumsfeld is mean to the chiefs and treats them poorly is, I think, a political operation to make him look like a hip shooter."
Rumsfeld's purpose in authorizing a high-value list of terrorists, the adviser said, is "obviously to go after the command structure of Al Qaeda." He went on, "Capture them? You would if you could. But suppose you had isolated an Al Qaeda group in the Bekaa Valley"—in Lebanon. "It would be hard to capture them." Taking them into custody would probably require ground forces and a major firefight; eliminating them, on the other hand, requires only a Hellfire missile. Referring to criticism of Rumsfeld's insistence on targeting individual Al Qaeda members, the adviser said, "I know you've been getting this from the Joint Staff. Some of the snake eaters in Special Forces are against it, too. Of course, I've heard this—'It's not American'—from the military leadership. But it's not because of legality. It's because they don't want to do it." He added, "The idea of not wanting to go after the senior leadership of a paramilitary group that has declared war on you is such a perversion that it's mind-boggling. The problem of a peacetime military is that they cannot conceive of doing what they are paid to do. 'Going after the leadership of Al Qaeda—that's a serious problem.' My God!"
Earlier this year, the adviser went on, Rumsfeld proposed that the Special Operations Command be made a "global command" and that it become the dominant agency for all military antiterrorist activities worldwide. Far from seizing the opportunity to be aggressive and "leaning forward," General Holland, the Special Operations commander, "didn't want to do it," the adviser said. He said that civilians in the Defense Department are now convinced that "there are few four-stars leaning forward in the Special Operations Command." The adviser added, "We'll have to have a dirty nuke go off to realize how serious this is." What's needed, he said, is a reassessment of all the senior generals and admirals who rose to the top during the Clinton Presidency. "We need to find some more fighting generals."
Rumsfeld, in addition to his conflicts with the military, began what amounted to a public fight with the C.I.A. this fall, over the agency's inability to document significant direct ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq. It was widely reported that Rumsfeld had set up an alternative intelligence-analysis shop under Douglas J. Feith, the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy. Part of Feith's mission was to find evidence of a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. Feith also oversees the vaguely named Office of Special Plans, which is directed by William J. Luti, and is the center of some of the most aggressive strategizing taking place in the Pentagon today.
"Feith and Luti see everybody not one hundred per cent with them as one hundred per cent against them—it's a very Manichaean world," a defense consultant said. A former high-level intelligence officer told me, "Rumsfeld's got to discredit the C.I.A.'s analyses to make his intelligence more reliable." Another former C.I.A. officer said that Rumsfeld "wants his own G.R.U."—a reference to the former Soviet military intelligence agency. "He does not want to be dependent on the C.I.A. for intelligence to prepare the battlefield for his troops."
One recommendation to Rumsfeld called for restructuring Special Operations as a specific agency under the personal command of the Defense Secretary. The new agency, which would have to be approved by Congress, would take orders only from the Secretary and thus, the memorandum to Rumsfeld said, overcome internal bureaucratic inertia "to implement the changes you want."
One of Rumsfeld's goals has been to give the Pentagon the capability to carry out the kind of clandestine operations that have traditionally been left to the C.I.A. Rumsfeld and his senior staff are known to be disenchanted with the C.I.A.'s director, George Tenet. The C.I.A., in turn, a former C.I.A. official said, is "very nervous about what's going on that they don't know about." In fact, he added, "They're absolutely terrified." (However, one Pentagon consultant told me, with regard to the C.I.A., that "George Tenet has tried to make that organization do more than it's capable of doing. At least he knows we're at war.")
Internal Pentagon memorandums include scathing commentary on the intelligence community. In one, the Secretary was urged to keep the Gray Fox unit "out of the hands" of the intelligence community. The paper noted, "Alone, of all organizations within DoD, Gray Fox has the potential, if nurtured, to fight the kind of war the Secretary envisions fighting. . . . Let the intel people get their hooks into Gray Fox and intel will then control what operations can and cannot do."
Rumsfeld's ability to get his way both with the President, who has supported him, and within the defense establishment provokes awe inside the Pentagon. Commenting on Rumsfeld's influence over the Defense Intelligence Agency, which coördinates and analyzes all military intelligence, one former senior official said, "If it became known that Rummy wanted them to link the government of Tonga to 9/11, within a few months they would come up with sources who'd do it."
In recent months, some of Rumsfeld's most trusted aides have staged private meetings with past and present military and intelligence officials to discuss the expanding war on terrorism. "There are five hundred guys out there you have to kill," a former C.I.A. official said. "There's no way to sugarcoat it—you just have to kill them. And you can't always be one hundred per cent sure of the intelligence. Sometimes you have to settle for ninety-five per cent."
The reality remains that action causes reaction, and last month's Predator raid in Yemen was not without consequences. The Yemeni government had planned to delay an announcement of the attack until it could issue a joint statement with Washington. When American officials released the story unilaterally, in time for Election Day, the Yemenis were angry and dismayed. Yahya al-Mutawakel, the deputy secretary-general for the ruling General People's Congress Party, complained bitterly that the Administration was far too eager to talk about its success. "This is why it is so difficult to make deals with the United States," al-Mutawakel told the Christian Science Monitor. "This is why we are reluctant to work closely with them. They don't consider the internal circumstances in Yemen."
On November 29th, a powerful explosion shook government buildings in Marib province, the Yemen Times reported, leaving an unmistakable message. "This blast is more than just an explosion," a tribal sheikh told the newspaper. "It must be a message from Al Qaeda saying, 'We are here, and we can strike.' This is serious."
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