CIA Chief Leon Panetta has said the US counter terrorism polices in Pakistan are legal and highly effective and that he is acutely aware of the gravity of some of the decisions thrust upon him.
In an interview Wednesday at CIA headquarters, Panetta refused to directly address the matter of Predator strikes, in keeping with the agency’s long-standing practice of shielding its actions in Pakistan from public view.
“Any time you make decisions on life and death, I don’t take that lightly. That’s a serious decision,” he said. “And yet, I also feel very comfortable with making those decisions because I know I’m dealing with people who threaten the safety of this country and are prepared to attack us at any moment.”
Panetta had personally authorized the Drone strike that killed Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud at his fatiehr in law’s home on August 5, 2009, according to a senior intelligence official who described the sequence of events.
Since 2009, as many as 666 terrorism suspects, including at least 20 senior figures, have been killed by missiles fired from unmanned aircraft flying over Pakistan, according to figures compiled by the New America Foundation as of mid-March. According to the foundation, 177 civilians may also have been killed in the airstrikes since 2009.
Intelligence officials say their count of noncombatants killed is much lower and noted that on Aug. 5 only Mehsud and his wife were killed, despite reports that other family members and bodyguards died in the attack.
Panetta authorizes every strike, sometimes reversing his decision or reauthorizing a target if the situation on the ground changes, according to current and former senior intelligence officials.
After weathering a number of storms on Capitol Hill, including a face-off with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after the California Democrat accused the CIA of lying, Panetta has studiously cultivated his old colleagues, holding informal get-togethers with the Senate and House intelligence committees.
Another former senior intelligence official, who served under Bush, commends Panetta for his aggression but noted that the current successes are built upon agreements made with Pakistan in the final year of the previous administration. The Obama administration has “been operating along the same continuum,” the former official said.
In the interview, Panetta said he recognized that the administration’s strategy entailed risk. “You can’t just conduct the kind of aggressive operations we are conducting against the enemy and not expect that they are not going to try to retaliate,” he said.