The killing of Osama bin Laden was a seminal moment for the Central Intelligence Agency. Now, with the successful completion of the mission, there is heightened public debate about the changes within the agency that led to bin Laden’s death.
Officials say it took 45 minutes to conduct the raid that killed bin Laden. Actually, his violent demise began the week after 9/11. On September 17, 2001, the White House authorised the CIA to conduct “targeted killings” of al-Qaeda personnel, overriding the ban on political assassination first approved in 1976 by President Ford. Later in 2001, the US Congress also signed off on this approach by declaring war on al-Qaeda. The dual policy shifts meant a new, violent role for the CIA. Al-Qaeda was agile and transnational, and so the hunters had to be as well.
After nearly 10 years of conflict, the CIA attacks militants wherever the White House chooses. Missile attacks by CIA-operated unmanned aerial vehicles in Pakistan are now fairly routine, and the method has been applied in Yemen and Somalia. Snatch-and-grab renditions span the globe, as do secret facilities where detainees are interrogated. This is, indeed, a new kind of war. “What you’re seeing now is an evolution, and it’s predicated on the threat environment we face,” says Frank Cilluffo, former White House special assistant to the president for homeland security. “During the Cold War, it was spy versus spy. There were some small, hot wars, but it was country on country. The threats today are very different.”
The CIA has authorisation to kill people, but it doesn’t have a deep bench of trigger pullers on its payroll. In the past the agency hired proxies, either local fighters or contractors, to conduct some operations, but there are missions too difficult and vital to delegate to hired hands. At such times, the CIA uses experts from the Joint Special Operations Command. The team that killed bin Laden, the N aval Special Warfare D evelopment Group (Team Six), was formed to rescue hostages, not conduct targeted killings. But the skill sets overlap.
The relationship between the CIA and the special-ops community has never been closer, thanks in part to shared operational experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. But this comfortable collaboration has drawbacks, especially among the supersecret military units that operate within the CIA’s more tolerant culture. In 2009 the USA’s Congressional Research Service noted that the agency’s covert operations “can often be contrary to international laws or laws of war that US military personnel are generally expected to follow”. In 2005, a Navy SEAL was court-martialled for his role in the death of a CIA detainee during interrogation in Iraq. The SEAL was acquitted. CIA personnel were not even named.
This mission was high-risk; don’t expect similar raids to end equally well. There are good reasons why the CIA handles the vast majority of its covert killings in its war on terror by firing missiles from unmanned aircraft: These attacks are lethal and onesided. They bring war to the enemy leadership hiding in ungoverned areas of Pakistan, not just footsoldiers who cross the border into Afghanistan.
But CIA airstrikes also cause civilian casualties that incite the Pakistani population and inflame domestic backlash. The alternative, face-to-face gunfights, risks operator lives and the exposure of the US government’s actions. The bin Laden operation, one of the most meticulously planned in black-ops history, was jeopardised when a helicopter crashed. “These are complex missions,” Cilluffo says. “And then there’s serendipity.”
A militarised CIA may come at a price. The Obama administration’s selection of General D avid Petraeus to head the CIA reflects the close relationship between the CIA and the military. While some say Petraeus is the right choice for that reason, others worry about an overall loss of focus. The fear is that long-term strategic analysis may be sacrificed for short-term tactical information to be used against terrorists. “You hear it from intelligence analysts when you interview them,” says Jennifer K ibbe, who studied the issue in the journals Foreign Affairs and Strategic Intelligence. “They are too busy with what’s happening right now to focus on what’s coming down the (turnpike).”
It was just such a lack of strategic thinking that blinded agency personnel to the threat of spectacular terrorist strikes against the US homeland – which bin Laden exploited in 2001.