Inside the Killing Machine
Mckelvey, Tara, Newsweek
Byline: Tara Mckelvey
President Obama is ordering a record number of Predator strikes. An exclusive interview with a man who approved 'lethal operations.'
It was an ordinary-looking room located in an office building in northern Virginia. The place was filled with computer monitors, keyboards, and maps. Someone sat at a desk with his hand on a joystick. John A. Rizzo, who was serving as the CIA's acting general counsel, hovered nearby, along with other people from the agency. Together they watched images on a screen that showed a man and his family traveling down a road thousands of miles away. The vehicle slowed down, and the man climbed out.
A moment later, an explosion filled the screen, and the man was dead. "It was very businesslike," says Rizzo. An aerial drone had killed the man, a high-level terrorism suspect, after he had gotten out of the vehicle, while members of his family were spared. "The agency was very punctilious about this," Rizzo says. "They tried to minimize collateral damage, especially women and children."
The broad outlines of the CIA's operations to kill suspected terrorists have been known to the public for some time--including how the United States kills Qaeda and Taliban militants by drone aircraft in Pakistan. But the formal process of determining who should be hunted down and "blown to bits," as Rizzo puts it, has not been previously reported. A look at the bureaucracy behind the operations reveals that it is multilayered and methodical, run by a corps of civil servants who carry out their duties in a professional manner. Still, the fact that Rizzo was involved in "murder," as he sometimes puts it, and that operations are planned in advance in a legalistic fashion, raises questions.
More than a year after leaving the government, Rizzo, a bearded, elegant 63-year-old who wears cuff links and pale yellow ties, discussed his role in the CIA's "lethal operations" with me over Cotes du Rhone and steak in a Washington restaurant. At times, Rizzo sounded cavalier. "It's basically a hit list," he said. Then he pointed a finger at my forehead and pretended to pull a trigger. "The Predator is the weapon of choice, but it could also be someone putting a bullet in your head."
The number of such killings, carried out mostly by Predators in Pakistan, has increased dramatically during the Obama administration, and these covert actions have become an integral part of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
How CIA staffers determine whether to target someone for lethal operations is a relatively straightforward, and yet largely unknown, story. The president does not review the individual names of people; Rizzo explains that he was the one who signed off. People in Washington talk about a "target list," as former undersecretary of state Richard Armitage described the process at a recent event in Washington. In truth, there is probably no official CIA roster of those who are slated to die. "I never saw a list," says a State Department official who has been involved in discussions about lethal operations, speaking without attribution because of the nature of the subject. Officials at the CIA select targets for "neutralization," he explains. "There were individuals we were searching for, and we thought, it's better now to neutralize that threat," he says.
The military and the CIA often pursue the same targets--Osama bin Laden, for example--but handle different regions of the world. Sometimes they team up--or even exchange jobs. When former CIA officer Henry A. Crumpton was in Afghanistan after 9/11, he and Gen. Stanley McChrystal--the former head of Joint Special Operations Command, a secretive military unit--worked closely together, and so did their subordinates. "Some of the people I knew and who worked for me went to work for him--and vice versa," recalls Crumpton. Some counterterrorism experts say that President Obama and his advisers favor a more aggressive approach because it seems more practical--that administration officials prefer to eliminate terrorism suspects rather than detain them. …