Gareth Porter: CIA leaks to the Washington Post alleging Pakistani support for drone strikes a ploy to prop up increasingly unpopular program
October 30, 2013
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network, and welcome to this latest edition of The Porter Report. I'm Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, for the first time, Pakistani drone strike survivors appeared in front of a congressional hearing and testified about the devastating effects that the U.S. drone program has had on their lives. Hosted by Florida Rep. Alan Grayson, the hearing comes as the Obama administration's expansive drone strike program is coming under increasing scrutiny from human rights groups and the United Nations. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that the strikes have killed as many as 3,600 Pakistanis.
On a trip to Washington last week, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called on the U.S. to halt the strikes on Pakistan. Then something interesting happened. The Washington Post reported that according to secret CIA memos that it obtained, the Pakistani government, while publicly being critical of the U.S. drone program and killing of civilians, was in fact in collusion with the U.S. and privately supports the program.
Our next guest argues that because the Pakistani military's already come out against the drone strikes and, quote, the leak of classified CIA documents to The Post appears to represent an effort by CIA officials to head off a decision by the Obama administration to reduce the drug war in Pakistan to a minimum, if not phase it out completely--.
We're now joined by Gareth Porter, a historian and investigative journalist on foreign and military policy.
Thank you so much for joining us, Gareth.
PORTER: Thanks for having me, Jaisal.
NOOR: So, Gareth, you had a piece responding to this widely circulated Washington Post article which came out at a very convenient time, a time of increasing opposition, both internationally among human rights groups, the UN, and the Pakistani prime minister, who came here--they're all calling for a close look and an end to drone strikes that the U.S. is carrying out. And, you know, this year, drone strikes in Pakistan have been dramatically reduced. So talk about the timing of this Washington Post article and what you think it's true--the true timing of the CIA leaks at The Washington Post.
PORTER: Well, there are two aspects of this. One is the immediate short-term timing. And, of course, it was timed to coincide with the visit of Nawaz Sharif, knowing that Sharif was going to say publicly that he had told the president that the Pakistani government wants the drone strikes to stop.
And at the same time, I think there's a longer-term, more general timing here, which is, as you've indicated, that the Obama administration is under a lot of pressure with regard to the drone war in Pakistan. And there's been an clear indication in the past months, in the past several months that the Obama administration is reconsidering the entire policy toward the drone war in Pakistan. Both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have made public statements indicating that that is the case. And, in fact, John Kerry most recently, in August, said that he believed that the president was intending to bring this to a close and he hoped that would be soon.
So it's clear to me that the people in the CIA who are responsible for the drone war in Pakistan are feeling the heat. They're afraid that they could face the ax for this program. And I think they're fighting back. And what we see in this Washington Post story is an effort to turn this situation around, to turn the public opinion against any decision by the administration to end this program by suggesting that after all, that the Pakistani government is simply being hypocritical in saying that it needs to be stopped.
That, of course, misrepresents the reality of the situation, which is that we've known for quite a bit of time. We've known for a few years that there was in fact an understanding, going back to the Musharraf regime, which allowed the United States' CIA to carry out drone strikes against al-Qaeda, and that this was fully accepted by the military, as well as the civilian government, in the early years of the program. And that's understandable, because at first, at least, the targets were supposed to be al-Qaeda, although I have to say there is a lot of evidence that the targeting was very poor, the intelligence was not good, and mostly civilians were killed in the first couple of years, the first two or three years of that program.
But the real problem arose in 2008 when the CIA convinced the White House to expand the target list well beyond al-Qaeda high-value targets to start hitting targets based on signatures, what they call signature strikes, which meant that they were really killing rank-and-file people on mere suspicion that they might be involved with not just al-Qaeda but also the Afghan Taliban. So there you get a huge expansion of the targets and a much larger number of civilians who are being killed by these strikes. And that's when you begin to get a very strong reaction from the Pakistani military.
So that's why the CIA sources here misled none other than Bob Woodward, who's, of course, associated with investigative journalism and has still a reputation for truth-telling. But I'm afraid in this case he was misused.
NOOR: Now, is this a sign of desperation by the CIA? Is it a sign that the growing international outrage is in fact working? Or just that this program was ineffective, and that's the reason why the Obama administration is starting to kind of change gears and shift away from it?
PORTER: This is a more complicated picture. No doubt the pressure from the international community, at least from publicity being given to the number of civilian casualties, has played a role. It's added to the pressure on the administration to take a very close look at whether this is really necessary.
But what's also happened in this situation is that the drone strikes were being targeted, as I mentioned, against the Afghan Taliban stationed in or based in Pakistan. And because the United States is getting out of Afghanistan, there's no doubt that the administration is reconsidering this as really not necessary to carrying out the war that it has been fighting in Afghanistan. So that's a big part of the reason why I think the administration is now ready to say, well, we don't really need to do this anymore.
And then the final point is they really have used up the high-value targets, al-Qaeda targets already. They've killed a very large number of high-ranking al-Qaeda officials, or at least a significant number, and they're really having trouble finding high-value targets in the al-Qaeda organization to hit anymore. So the original justification for this is really long gone.
And so I think the administration recognizes that the main reason the CIA wants to continue this is that it's good for the bottom line for the CIA. They don't want to lose a major program that has been a source of income, in other words, of investment in the CIA for many years now.
NOOR: Gareth Porter, thank you so much for joining us.
PORTER: Thank you, Jaisal.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.