Home / News / World /  A push to dial back CIA’s involvement in targeted killings: Mark Mazzetti

New Delhi: Mark Mazzetti is a Pulitzer Prize-winning US journalist for The New York Times. His book, The Way of the Knife, explores how after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, the American administration developed a new way of war, one that relies on covert operations by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pentagon (headquarters of the US’s department of defence)—that involves targeted killings mainly through the use of drones. It also looks at the evolution of the CIA into a paramilitary organization. Edited excerpts from an interview:

It seems that the CIA has come full circle, from covert operations to collecting intelligence to covert operations and drone attacks after 9/11. How do you see the CIA evolving now that the wars in Afghanistan and Yemen seem winding down? The war in Iraq is officially over.

I think that President Barack Obama and future American presidents will employ this model of warfare for years to come, using drones, special operations troops and other unconventional methods like private contractors and proxy armies.

But there is the beginning of a push right now to dial back the CIA’s involvement in targeted killings, and get the spies back to doing more spying—rather than manhunting and killing.

The new CIA director, John Brennan, has indicated he wants the Pentagon to take over some drone operations. But I don’t think the CIA will entirely give up drone strikes. For instance, I think that the CIA will continue to be in charge of drone operations in Pakistan for some time.

Was the hunting down of Osama bin Laden the CIA’s finest moment and biggest victory?

It’s hard to argue that the operation that identified the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad and ultimately led to bin Laden’s killing wasn’t the CIA’s biggest success since the 11 September attacks. Even after the bin Laden trail went cold, there was a group of CIA operatives who stayed on the case and managed to piece together the intelligence that led the agency to where bin Laden was hiding.

What kind of a relationship do you see emerging between the CIA and the Pentagon in the context of the US and allied forces withdrawing from Afghanistan? Is the CIA’s evolution into a paramilitary force a viable option for security structure in the US?

Even after the American military withdrawal from Afghanistan, there will continue to be a fairly large CIA presence in Afghanistan. The CIA has been deeply involved in training Afghan militias that operate throughout the country, and these irregular forces are going to be a big part of the Afghan government’s plan for security after 2014.

As for the CIA-Pentagon relationship, as long as both organizations are deeply committed to doing largely the same mission, you are going to see turf battles and fights over budgets. The relationship certainly is far better than it was in the early years after 9/11, and successes like the Osama bin Laden raid show that there can be good coordination between the CIA and Pentagon. But when you look at countries like Yemen, where the CIA and Pentagon are running parallel drone wars, there are serious questions about the expansion of these secret wars and their implications for American security.

The CIA has seen some frequent changes of chiefs in recent years—General Petraeus being the latest to leave. How does this impact the agency and its operations? What does John Brennan bring to the table? What is the direction the CIA is likely to take under his stewardship?

You are right that there has been a great deal of turnover at the CIA since the 11 September attacks.

Compare that to the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), for example, which has had the same director since 2001. Frequent leadership changes definitely create a certain amount of turmoil, although it should be said that despite the leadership changes the White House for more than a decade has told the CIA that it has a primary mission: manhunting, capturing and killing. Now that Brennan is in the job, it will be interesting to see if the agency really does go in a new direction.

Brennan—who spent several decades at the CIA—spent the first four years of the Obama administration in a job at the White House that put him at the centre of the targeted killing programme. This programme has done a great deal to transform the CIA into a paramilitary agency. On the face of it, Brennan would seem an unlikely candidate to bring the CIA back to traditional intelligence gathering and analysis, but he certainly is indicating that is his plan. We’ll have to see what happens in the next year or so.

What kind of a relationship do you see between the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) post Abbottabad (killing of bin Laden) and ahead of the 2014 Afghan drawdown, considering the history of mistrust? What kind of a bearing will this relationship—between the CIA and ISI—have on the future of Afghanistan, terrorism emanating from the region and for India?

The CIA-ISI relationship has recovered a bit from its nadir in 2011, but the two spy services have been through more than a decade of tumult and neither side really trusts the other. I don’t envision a strong relationship between the CIA and ISI, or for that matter between the United States and Pakistan, for a number of years.

A big test now will be what role Pakistan (and ISI specifically) plays in brokering the peace talks in Afghanistan. Right now, the talks have largely stalled and there is a feeling that time is running out. We’ll see if momentum picks up closer to the summer of 2014.

The United States and Pakistan will remain allies, and the marriage—however dysfunctional—won’t dissolve. But Pakistan certainly is cognizant of the fact that America and India have drawn far closer over the past decade, and worries that the US-India alliance will continue to strengthen.

Do you see the ISI emerging as a direct threat for the CIA and the Pentagon?

I don’t know if the ISI is really a threat to the CIA, but it’s certainly one of the ironies of the entire situation that, for all that the United States has criticized the ISI for its ties to militant groups, it is now relying on those ties to help end the war in Afghanistan.

How is the CIA equipped to deal with cyber crime that is emerging as a big threat?

Both cyber crime or cyber warfare are getting a great deal more attention inside the American government than they did only a few years ago. The director of national intelligence James Clapper recently identified cyber attacks as the biggest near-term threat to American security—greater than the terrorism threat. The CIA now has an entire division devoted to cyber war.

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