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U.S. citizen in CIA's cross hairs

The agency builds a case for putting Anwar al Awlaki, linked to the Ft. Hood shootings and Christmas bomb attempt, on its hit list. The complications involved are a window into a secretive process.

January 31, 2010|By Greg Miller
  • This Oct. 2008 file photo shows Imam Anwar al Awlaki in Yemen. The cleric, who was born in New Mexico, has been linked to recent terrorism cases.
This Oct. 2008 file photo shows Imam Anwar al Awlaki in Yemen. The cleric,… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Washington — The CIA sequence for a Predator strike ends with a missile but begins with a memo. Usually no more than two or three pages long, it bears the name of a suspected terrorist, the latest intelligence on his activities, and a case for why he should be added to a list of people the agency is trying to kill.

The list typically contains about two dozen names, a number that expands each time a new memo is signed by CIA executives on the seventh floor at agency headquarters, and contracts as targets thousands of miles away, in places including Pakistan and Yemen, seem to spontaneously explode.

No U.S. citizen has ever been on the CIA's target list, which mainly names Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, according to current and former U.S. officials. But that is expected to change as CIA analysts compile a case against a Muslim cleric who was born in New Mexico but now resides in Yemen.

Anwar al Awlaki poses a dilemma for U.S. counter-terrorism officials. He is a U.S. citizen and until recently was mainly known as a preacher espousing radical Islamic views. But Awlaki's ties to November's shootings at Ft. Hood and the failed Christmas Day airline plot have helped convince CIA analysts that his role has changed.

"Over the past several years, Awlaki has gone from propagandist to recruiter to operational player," said a U.S. counter-terrorism official.

Awlaki's status as a U.S. citizen requires special consideration, according to former officials familiar with the criteria for the CIA's targeted killing program. But while Awlaki has not yet been placed on the CIA list, the officials said it is all but certain that he will be added because of the threat he poses.

"If an American is stupid enough to make cause with terrorists abroad, to frequent their camps and take part in their plans, he or she can't expect their citizenship to work as a magic shield," said another U.S. official. "If you join the enemy, you join your fate to his."

The complications surrounding Awlaki's case provide a rare window into the highly secretive process by which the CIA selects targets.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano declined to comment, saying that it is "remarkably foolish in a war of this kind to discuss publicly procedures used to identify the enemy, an enemy who wears no uniform and relies heavily on stealth and deception."

Other current and former U.S. officials agreed to discuss the outlines of the CIA's target selection procedures on the condition of anonymity because of their sensitive nature. Some wanted to defend a program that critics have accused of causing unnecessary civilian casualties.

Decisions to add names to the CIA target list are "all reviewed carefully, not just by policy people but by attorneys," said the second U.S. official. "Principles like necessity, proportionality, and the minimization of collateral damage -- to persons and property -- always apply."

The U.S. military, which has expanded its presence in Yemen, keeps a separate list of individuals to capture or kill. Awlaki is already on the military's list, which is maintained by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command. Awlaki apparently survived a Dec. 24 airstrike conducted jointly by U.S. and Yemeni forces.

The CIA has also deployed more operatives and analysts to Yemen. CIA Deputy Director Stephen Kappes was in the country last month, just weeks before a Nigerian accused of training with Al Qaeda in Yemen boarded a jetliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day.

From beginning to end, the CIA's process for carrying out Predator strikes is remarkably self-contained. Almost every key step takes place within the Langley, Va., campus, from proposing targets to piloting the remotely controlled planes.

The memos proposing new targets are drafted by analysts in the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center. Former officials said analysts typically submit several new names each month to high-level officials, including the CIA general counsel and sometimes Director Leon E. Panetta.

Former officials involved in the program said it was handled with sober awareness of the stakes. All memos are circulated on paper, so those granting approval would "have to write their names in ink," said one former official. "It was a jarring thing, to sign off on people getting killed."

The program is governed by extensive procedures and rules, but targeting decisions come down to a single criterion: whether the individual in question is "deemed to be a continuing threat to U.S. persons or interests."

Given that standard, the list mainly comprises Al Qaeda leaders and those seen as playing a direct role in devising or executing attacks. Espousing violence or providing financial support to Al Qaeda would not meet the threshold, officials said. But providing training to would-be terrorists or helping them get to Al Qaeda camps probably would.

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