He had stood in Hyde Park and had spoken of a new America, of a ruptured world that he intended to fix and unite. Then, two days after the election, when he was still at home in Chicago, Barack Obama was asked to attend a meeting in a downtown office. He was asked to come alone, without advisers, his wife or any other witnesses.
His predecessor George W. Bush, who was still in office, had made it clear to Obama that the meeting was extremely important. It was November 2008, 75 days before Obama's inauguration as US president.
Then-Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell was expecting Obama. McConnell was also alone, and the room in which they met was soundproof, windowless and bugproof. On that Thursday, Obama was told that the US government had a secret program called "Sylvan Magnolia," which involved using unmanned aircraft, or drones, to hunt down terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The program was going well, McConnell said.
The reason it was going so well, he added, was that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had such good sources, courageous men who had the trust of the al-Qaida and Taliban leadership. These wonderful informants would provide the necessary tips, allowing the drones to do their work.
Veteran investigative reporter Bob Woodward has documented the meeting in his new book, "Obama's Wars," based on information from CIA sources. It is the story of a beginning -- because McConnell was apparently very persuasive.
Centerpiece of the War on Terror
In the 21 months since his inauguration, President Obama has ordered or approved 120 drone attacks on Pakistan. There were 22 such attacks in September 2010 alone, reportedly killing more than 100 people. In contrast, Obama's predecessor Bush ordered just 60 attacks in eight years.
Obama has made drones the centerpiece of his strategy in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida. These terrifying weapons circle over Afghanistan and Pakistan, changing the war and making it colder and more anonymous than before. They pose a constant threat, can be operated with the push of a button and, according to the CIA, are precise -- at least most of the time.
The drone war is being waged by the US Army, by the US Air Force and, most of all, by the CIA. It is taking place in a shadowy realm beyond the reach of war tribunals, public debate and the media. The only time it made headlines recently, and then only for a day, was when it resulted in the deaths of a number of German citizens. The men, who were killed in a drone attack on Oct. 4, were presumed terrorists who were passing through the town of Mir Ali in the Pakistani region of North Waziristan.
No Americans Killed
The CIA's drone war allows the government in Islamabad to act as if it had no knowledge of what is going on, and it allows Obama to wage a military campaign on the territory of an ally without having to send troops to the country.
When it comes to their support for the program, the two main American parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, are in rare agreement -- mainly because the drone war doesn't claim American lives.
The CIA doesn't release any numbers -- not about its successes and certainly not about civilian casualties. It attacked Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, 16 times. In other words, either informants or the drones' cameras identified Mehsud's location 16 times and the drones fired 16 times. The first 15 tries failed. Then, in the last attempt, when the report was correct and Mehsud was in fact at his father-in-law's house, Mehsud and 10 friends and relatives were killed. According to sources in Islamabad, CIA drones killed some 700 civilians in 2009.
The New Face of the CIA
The CIA is reinventing itself once again. It was established in 1947 to gather information about foreign countries. The reconnaissance flights over China and the Soviet Union in the 1950s, during the Cold War, are still regarded as a triumph of modern espionage by people at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. But even then, the CIA was more than that. In fact, it has always been an instrument of politics.
The agency has collaborated with former Nazis. It has supported dictators like Manuel Noriega in Panama, but only as long as the dictator in question remained useful and a strong ally in the struggle against communists. It helped bring down democratically elected leftist leaders like Chile's Salvador Allende and paved the way for dictators like Augusto Pinochet to take power.
In retrospect, it is clear that there have been times when the CIA acted and agitated in a fatally shortsighted manner. In the early 1980s, when it funded the Afghan mujaheddin and the tribal leaders now referred to as warlords, arms shipments were part of the overall package America was providing. The CIA's job was to help drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and the agency was successful -- the war became costly and miserable for the USSR. Now the US's allies in that war are today's enemies, trained and equipped by the old CIA and currently being fought by its new incarnation.
Throughout the decades, there was always a difference between official policy and the work of the intelligence agencies. It would be naïve to expect anything else, because operating in a gray zone is what intelligence agencies do. Bush's CIA developed the drone strategy and used it only sparingly. But Bush's CIA also kidnapped and tortured terror suspects.
Unconstrained by International Law
Obama promised to close Guantanamo, where many of those kidnapped and interrogated by the CIA were imprisoned after Sept. 11, 2001. He promised an end to the kidnapping and torture. But the reality had already changed. Today, Obama's CIA no longer carries out kidnappings -- it carries out killings. This means that the CIA can assume a military role and wage a war unconstrained by international law or the laws of war. It is waging that war in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan and Yemen, where officially there is no war.
The advantage of the CIA's new approach is simple. Prisoners have to be released at some point, or at least put on trial. Prisoners mean the possibility of facing investigations or having to address journalists' questions. Killing is easier.
Obama's CIA decides who lives and who dies. It spreads fear in faraway countries through its control of drones that can turn up at any time and, when they do, are sufficiently precise to hit a bed or a bathroom with their missiles.
Are the CIA's actions permissible? From the standpoint of its agents, the question is naïve. Perhaps a better question would be: Are the CIA's actions smart?
Will the drone program benefit the United States and the West, or will it merely motivate new enemies? And will it legitimize copycats, other governments that could just as easily find reasons to justify killing their enemies and instruct their intelligence agencies to use the same methods?