The details of the bloody back-room deal between Pakistani and American officials that led to the U.S. regularly carrying out unmanned strikes in Pakistan have been shrouded in secrecy, until now, and the reports of the first strike are strange to read now, in retrospect. But what does retrospect mean in America's drone war, anyway?
It was all the way back in June 2004, before Obama was elected, before he started to wind down the wars Iraq and Afghanistan, before people like Rand Paul started to ask a lot of questions. As detailed in The New York Times's Sunday front-page excerpt of Mike Mazzetti's new book, The Way of the Knife: The C.I.A., a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, out on Tuesday, the Central Intelligence Agency struck a deal with Pakistani officials to kill Nek Muhammad in exchange for the opportunities to carry out drone strikes on Pakistani soil. The agency assassinated a person to get the airspace to assassinate more people. The U.S. acted as a hired gun, so it could build up its "targeted killing" program. And then the U.S. covered up its first Predator strike in Pakistan, the first of many, many more in a new kind of secret war. "The C.I.A. has since conducted hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan that have killed thousands of people, Pakistanis and Arabs, militants and civilians alike," Mazetti writes.
The 27-year-old Muhammad was an enemy of the state in Pakistan. He had organized a tribal rebellion against the government and gave them fits. His clashes with the Pakistani government had come to a tipping point, so then-C.I.A. director George Tenet approached Pakistan with a deal. The U.S. would kill Muhammad in exchange for access to Pakistan's airspace to carry out further drone strike. Mazzetti writes that Muhammad mentioned seeing a "strange, metallic bird hovering above him," during an interview on the day he died. It was the Predator that would eventually kill him — a weapon "cheered by Republicans and Democrats alike" at the time, a marvel of technological accomplishment — but it wasn't the Pakistani missile attack that was reported as the cause of Muhammad's death.
Part of the deal was that Pakistan would take credit for any and all American drone strikes on its territory. The country didn't want to give critics the appearance of looking like it was under Washington's thumb. This is how the Times reported the drone accusations at the time of Muhammad's death in 2004:
Local residents said they believed that a missile fired from an American drone killed the militant, Nek Muhammad, after he spoke over a satellite phone. But Pakistani military officials denied any American involvement.
The chief spokesman for the Pakistani military, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, said any suspicion of American involvement in Muhammad's death was "absolutely absurd." Pakistan still doesn't confirm American drone activity on record; officials sometimes do when granted anonymity. But the debate over "targeted killing" has evolved in the years since the deal was struck, and was evolving before the U.S. ever sent one of its metallic birds to Pakistan. The U.S. was operating and carrying out morally questionable drone strikes in Yemen starting in 2002. Pakistan was originally a huge fan of the idea, thinking they'd never get caught. Now the country resents America, but the government occasionally uses the U.S. to cover up its own drone strikes. The U.S. is Pakistan's occasional drone scape goat so they won't face criticism from their own civilians.
Meanwhile, the U.S. moved on elsewhere, including to Saudi Arabia, in another drone-airspace deal we didn't find out about until recently, until white papers leaked and Senators started asking more drone questions than ever around the confirmation of John Brennan, the architect of the drone program, to head up the C.I.A. In the midst of that debate, the President made promises to be more transparent about the drone activities during his new term. From the State of the Union:
"So in the months ahead, I will continue to engage Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world."
So that means secret deals for drone strike airspace will be reported earlier, as in, not almost a decade later, and after the CIA is officially out of the drone business, right? Don't hold your breath, but there's still a lot of explaining to be done.