The CIA is being too cautious in employing its broad new post-September 11 authority to use lethal force against the terrorist enemies of the United States, critics of the agency say.
One former intelligence official said even the CIA’s new Hellfire missile, which can be launched from the remotely piloted Predator aerial platform, is bogged down by the excessively legalistic attitude of the agency’s senior management.
“From personal experience, I can tell you, you have to build a brief of almost court-level evidence before you can even contemplate shooting a Hellfire missile at one of these guys,” said Michael Scheuer, a former CIA official who once led the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
“I can’t give you the exact figures,” said Mr. Scheuer, adding that they are classified, “but since May of 2002, the Predator has shot far less than 10 missiles. Not because there were no targets, but because the legal requirements necessary before you pull the trigger are so onerous.”
Roger Cressey, deputy counterterrorism director at the White House during President Bush’s first term, said he, too, is concerned that the CIA has “begun to look over its shoulder.”
“There needs to be a compact between Congress, the agencies and the White House,” he said. “We are going to make mistakes. We are even going to kill the wrong people sometimes. That’s the inherent risk of an aggressive counterterrorism program.”
Mr. Cressey added that there was concern among front-line agents that they would be held responsible for such errors.
“What we need is everyone to understand that it is being done with the best of intentions and not go running to the press whenever it becomes politically expedient to do so.”
At the heart of the issue is a legal document, known as a Memorandum of Notification, which was signed by President Bush less than a week after the September 11 attacks.
The memo is described by several people with knowledge of it as giving the CIA broad powers to use lethal force against suspected al Qaeda terrorists, superseding a series of similar documents signed by President Clinton, which had provided much more limited authorities for individual operations.
Mr. Cressey denied that the memo, which he called “one of the most remarkable documents ever signed by a president,” was “ramrodded through” the process, but he said that “there was no real consultation with Congress.”
Initially, officials at the White House determined that only the so-called Gang of Eight — the minority and majority leaders of both chambers of Congress and the chairmen and ranking members of the two intelligence committees — should be informed of the CIA’s sweeping new powers.
The members were summoned to secure offices to receive a brief phone call informing them of the memo.
“Even if Congress had been consulted,” Mr. Cressey said, “do you think there was a single member who would have said, ‘Whoa, hold up, wait a minute, these powers are too broad?’ … The consensus was that another round of attacks was pending and Congress would support any action to stop it.”
Others familiar with the memo’s contents said it also gave the CIA for the first time the power to detain terror suspects.
And that, Mr. Cressey said, is part of the problem.
He said the abuse of detainees in Iraq — many of whom were detained on the basis of tip-offs from neighbors or colleagues who might have held a grudge — has created a political atmosphere that threatens to hamstring the war on terror.
“Where the administration, principally the Pentagon, failed was in applying to the multitudes of Iraqis rounded up in the campaign against the insurgency the approach [designed for use] against hard-core al Qaeda operatives.”