Bush widens authority of CIA to kill terrorists
New York Times
Published Dec. 15, 2002
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Bush administration has prepared a list of about two dozen terrorist leaders whom the CIA is authorized to kill if capture is impractical and civilian casualties can be minimized, senior military and intelligence officials said.
The previously undisclosed CIA list of targets includes Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other principal figures from Al-Qaida and affiliated terrorist groups, the officials said.
"It's the worst of the worst," one official said.
President Bush has provided written legal authority to the CIA to hunt down and kill the terrorists without seeking further approval each time the agency is about to launch an operation.
A White House spokesman declined to discuss the list or issues involving the use of lethal force against terrorists. A CIA spokesman also declined to comment.
Despite the authority given to the CIA, Bush has not waived the executive order banning assassinations, officials said. The presidential authority to kill terrorists defines operatives of Al-Qaida as enemy combatants and thus legitimate targets.
Bush issued a presidential finding last year, after the Sept. 11 attacks, providing the basic executive and legal authority for the CIA to kill or capture terrorist leaders. Initially, the CIA used that authority to search for Al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan.
That authority was the basis for the CIA and military effort to kill Bin Laden and other Al-Qaida leaders and several Taliban leaders. The newer list represents an expanded CIA effort against a larger number of Al-Qaida operatives outside of Afghanistan in countries such as Yemen.
The president is not legally required to approve each name added to the list, nor is the CIA required to obtain presidential approval for specific attacks, although officials said Bush has been kept informed about the CIA's operations.
On the list
In November, the CIA killed an Al-Qaida leader in a remote region of Yemen. A pilotless Predator aircraft operated by the CIA fired an antitank missile at a car in which Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, also known as Abu Ali, was riding. Harethi and five other people, including one suspected Al-Qaida operative with U.S. citizenship, were killed.
Harethi is believed to have been on the list of Al-Qaida leaders that the CIA had been authorized to kill. After the operation in Yemen, U.S. officials said Bush was not required to approve the mission immediately before the attack was launched, nor was he specifically consulted.
Intelligence officials said the presidential finding authorizing the CIA to use lethal force against terrorists was not limited to those included on the list. Bush has given broad authority to the CIA to kill or capture operatives of Al-Qaida around the world, the officials said. But officials said the group's most senior leaders on the list are the primary focus of the agency's efforts.
Officials said the CIA, working with the FBI, the military and foreign governments, will seek to capture terrorists when possible and then bring them into the custody of the United States or another nation willing to work with the United States in the campaign against terrorism.
Counterterrorism officials prefer to capture Al-Qaida leaders for interrogation. They regard killing as a last resort in cases in which the location of an Al-Qaida operative is known but capture would be too dangerous or logistically impossible, the officials said.
Under intelligence law dating back to the mid-1970s, the president must sign a finding to provide the legal basis for CIA covert actions. In response to past abuses, the decisionmaking process has grown into a highly formalized review in which the White House, Justice Department, Pentagon and CIA take part.
The administration must notify congressional leaders of any covert-action finding signed by the president. In past cases of lethal force against members of Al-Qaida, congressional leaders have been notified as required, the officials said.
The new emphasis on covert action is an outgrowth of more aggressive attitudes regarding the use of lethal force in the campaign against terrorism. Such operations have become easier to launch because of technological advances such as the development of the Predator, which has evolved from a camera-carrying surveillance drone into an armed plane controlled by operators safely stationed thousands of miles from any attack.
The development of the armed Predator has made it much easier for the CIA to pursue and kill terrorists in ways that would almost certainly have not been tried in the past for fear of U.S. casualties. In the strike in Yemen, Harethi was living in a remote, lawless region where the Yemeni government has little control. Just weeks earlier, Yemeni forces attacked Al-Qaida operatives in that area and were beaten back with many casualties.
CIA Director George Tenet said in a speech last week that more than one-third of the leadership of Al-Qaida identified before the war in Afghanistan had since been killed or captured.
One recent success, he said, came with the capture of Al-Qaida's operations chief for the Persian Gulf region who had been involved in the planning of the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa as well as the bombing of the destroyer Cole in 2000. Since September 2001, Tenet said, more than 3,000 suspected Al-Qaida operatives or their associates have been detained in more than 100 countries.
The Bush administration's decision to kill people suspected of being terrorists threatens to thrust it into a murky area of national security and international law that is almost never debated in public, because the covert operations at issue are known only to a small circle of executive branch and congressional officials.
In the past, the Bush administration has criticized the targeting of Palestinian leaders by Israeli forces. But one former senior official said that such criticism had diminished as the administration had sought to move aggressively against Al-Qaida.
Still, some national security lawyers said the practice of drawing up lists of people who are subject to lethal force might blur the lines drawn by the government's ban on assassinations. That prohibition was first ordered by President Gerald Ford, and in the view of some lawyers, it applies not only to foreign leaders but also to civilians. (U.S. officials have said that Saddam Hussein would be a legitimate target in a war, because he is a military commander as well as Iraq's president.)