Assassins in Suits | Former CIA Lawyer Speaks on Agency’s Assassination Program

The CIA and Assassinations


Bruce Schneier| Schneier.com

How CIA staffers determine whether to target someone for lethal operations is a relatively straightforward, and yet largely unknown, story.

The former CIA general counsel, John A. Rizzo, talks about his agency’s assassination program, which has increased dramatically under the Obama administration:

The hub of activity for the targeted killings is the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, where lawyers ­there are roughly 10 of them, says Rizzo — write a cable asserting that an individual poses a grave threat to the United States. The CIA cables are legalistic and carefully argued, often running up to five pages. Michael Scheuer, who used to be in charge of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, describes “a dossier,” or a “two-page document,” along with “an appendix with supporting information, if anybody wanted to read all of it.” The dossier, he says, “would go to the lawyers, and they would decide. They were very picky.” Sometimes, Scheuer says, the hurdles may have been too high. “Very often this caused a missed opportunity. The whole idea that people got shot because someone has a hunch­ I only wish that was true. If it were, there would be a lot more bad guys dead.”

Sometimes, as Rizzo recalls, the evidence against an individual would be thin, and high-level lawyers would tell their subordinates, “You guys did not make a case.” “Sometimes the justification would be that the person was thought to be at a meeting,” Rizzo explains. “It was too squishy.” The memo would get kicked back downstairs.

The cables that were “ready for prime time,” as Rizzo puts it, concluded with the following words: “Therefore we request approval for targeting for lethal operation.” There was a space provided for the signature of the general counsel, along with the word “concurred.” Rizzo says he saw about one cable each month, and at any given time there were roughly 30 individuals who were targeted. Many of them ended up dead, but not all: “No. 1 and No. 2 on the hit parade are still out there,” Rizzo says, referring to “you-know-who and [Ayman al-] Zawahiri,” a top al Qaeda leader.

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