CIA's untold deal to kill


April 7: Nek Muhammad knew he was being followed.

On a hot day in June 2004, the Pashtun tribesman was lounging inside a mud compound in South Waziristan, speaking by satellite phone to one of the many reporters who regularly interviewed him on how he had fought and humbled Pakistan's army in the country's western mountains. He asked one of his followers about the strange, metallic bird hovering above him.

Less than 24 hours later, a missile tore through the compound, severing Muhammad's left leg and killing him and several others, including two boys aged 10 and 16.

A Pakistani military spokesperson was quick to claim responsibility for the attack, saying that Pakistani forces had fired at the compound.

That was a lie.

Muhammad and his followers had been killed by the CIA, the first time it had deployed a Predator drone in Pakistan to carry out a "targeted killing". The target was not a top operative of al Qaida, but a Pakistani ally of the Taliban who led a tribal rebellion and was marked by Pakistan as an enemy of the state.

In a secret deal, the CIA had agreed to kill Muhammad, who was a car thief before he became a Taliban fighter who cut a striking figure on the battlefield, in exchange for access to airspace it had long sought so it could use drones to hunt down its own enemies.

In secret negotiations, the terms of the bargain were set. Pakistani intelligence officials insisted that they be allowed to approve each drone strike, giving them tight control over the list of targets.

The Pakistani officials insisted that drones fly only in narrow parts of the tribal areas ' ensuring that they would not venture where Islamabad did not want the Americans going: Pakistan's nuclear facilities and the mountain camps where Kashmiri militants were trained for attacks in India.

The ISI and the CIA agreed that all drone flights in Pakistan would operate under the CIA's covert action authority ' meaning that the US would never acknowledge the missile strikes and that Pakistan would either take credit for the individual killings or remain silent.

Pervez Musharraf, the then President of Pakistan, did not think that it would be difficult to keep up the ruse. As he told one CIA officer: "In Pakistan, things fall out of the sky all the time."

The backroom bargain, described in detail for the first time in interviews with more than a dozen officials in Pakistan and the US, is critical to understanding the origins of a covert drone war that began under the Bush administration, was embraced and expanded by President Barack Obama, and is now the subject of fierce debate.

The deal, a month after a blistering internal report about abuses in the CIA's network of secret prisons, paved the way for the CIA to change its focus from capturing terrorists to killing them, and helped transform an agency that began as a cold war espionage service into a paramilitary organisation.

The CIA has since conducted hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan that have killed thousands of people, Pakistanis and Arabs, militants and civilians alike. While it was not the first country where the US used drones, it became the laboratory for the targeted killing operations that have come to define a new American way of fighting, blurring the line between soldiers and spies and short-circuiting the normal mechanisms by which the US as a nation goes to war.

Neither American nor Pakistani officials have ever publicly acknowledged what really happened to Muhammad -- details of the strike that killed him, along with those of other secret strikes, are still hidden in classified government databases.

Ross Newland, who was a senior official at the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, when the agency was given the authority to kill al Qaida operatives, says he thinks that the agency had grown too comfortable with remote-control killing, and that drones have turned the CIA into the villain in countries like Pakistan, where it should be nurturing relationships in order to gather intelligence.

As he puts it, "this is just not an intelligence mission".

By 2004, Muhammad had become the undisputed star of the tribal areas, the fierce mountain lands populated by the Wazirs, Mehsuds and other Pashtun tribes who for decades had lived independent of the writ of the central government in Islamabad.

A brash member of the Wazir tribe, Muhammad had raised an army to fight government troops and had forced the government into negotiations. He saw no cause for loyalty to the directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Pakistani military spy service that had given an earlier generation of Pashtuns support during the war against the Soviets.

When the Americans invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Muhammad seized an opportunity to host the Arab and Chechen fighters from al Qaida who crossed into Pakistan to escape the American bombing.

For Muhammad, it was partly a way to make money, but he also saw another use for the arriving fighters. With their help, over the next two years he launched a string of attacks on Pakistani military installations and on American firebases in Afghanistan.

CIA officers in Islamabad urged Pakistani spies to lean on the Waziri tribesman to hand over the foreign fighters, but under Pashtun tribal customs that would be treachery. Reluctantly, Musharraf ordered his troops into the forbidding mountains.

A ceasefire was negotiated in April during a hastily arranged meeting in South Waziristan, during which a senior Pakistani commander hung a garland of bright flowers around Muhammad's neck. The two men sat together and sipped tea.

Both sides spoke of peace, but there was little doubt who was negotiating from strength. Muhammad would later brag that the government had agreed to meet inside a madarsa rather than at a public location where tribal meetings are traditionally held.

The peace arrangement propelled Muhammad to new fame, and the truce was soon exposed as a sham. He resumed attacks against Pakistani troops.

Pakistani officials had, for several years, balked at the idea of allowing armed CIA Predators to roam their skies. They considered drone flights a violation of sovereignty and worried that they would invite further criticism of Musharraf as being Washington's lackey. But Muhammad's rise to power forced them to reconsider.

The CIA had been monitoring the rise of Muhammad, but officials considered him to be more Pakistan's problem than America's.

In Washington, officials were watching with growing alarm the gathering of al Qaida operatives in the tribal areas, and George J. Tenet, the CIA director, authorised officers in the agency's Islamabad station to push Pakistani officials to allow armed drones.

As the battles raged in South Waziristan, the station chief in Islamabad paid a visit to Gen. Ehsan ul Haq, the ISI chief, and made an offer: if the CIA killed Muhammad, would the ISI allow regular armed drone flights over the tribal areas?

By then, the CIA's inspector general, John L. Helgerson, had finished a searing report about the abuse of detainees in the CIA's secret prisons. The report kicked out the foundation upon which the CIA detention and interrogation programme had rested. It was perhaps the single most important reason for the CIA's shift from capturing to killing terrorism suspects.

Helgerson raised questions about whether CIA officers might face criminal prosecution for the interrogations carried out in the secret prisons, and he suggested that interrogation methods like waterboarding, sleep deprivation and the exploiting of the phobias of prisoners ' like confining them in a small box with live bugs ' violated the UN Convention Against Torture.

At Langley, senior CIA officers began looking for an endgame to the prison programme. The ground had shifted, and counter-terrorism officials began to rethink the strategy for the secret war.

Armed drones, and targeted killings in general, offered a new direction. Killing by remote control was the antithesis of the dirty, intimate work of interrogation.

Before long, the CIA would go from being the long-term jailor of America's enemies to a military organisation that erased them.

New York Times News Service