News that a US drone strike killed two innocent Americans held hostage by Al Qaeda in Pakistan raised new questions about who really runs the program, and who oversees it. Brooke speaks with New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo about the challenges to transparency, and why the paper named three top counter-terrorism officials although the CIA had asked it not to.
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BROOKE: This is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone. Last week the White House confirmed that a January strike on an Al Qaeda compound killed two innocent hostages, an American and an Italian.
OBAMA- As President and as Commander-in-Chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni. I profoundly regret what happened.
But in his apology, the President neither mentioned that it was a drone strike, nor that it was a CIA mission. Why? Senator Dianne Feinstein explains.
FEINSTEIN: Because it’s classified, it’s a covert program. For the public it doesn’t exist. Well, I think that rationale is long gone.
Feinstein said that two years ago, and not much has changed. The President’s push to move drone operations to the relative sunlight of the Pentagon hasn’t succeeded. Last week the New York Times reported that the CIA had helped stall the move by winning over key legislators, including Senator Feinstein.
The report said Members in Congress charged with overseeing the CIA’s drone program make monthly trips to CIA headquarters in Langley to watch videos of drone strikes…with little follow-up after the fact.
The Times also revealed, over the CIA’s objections, the names of three top counterterrorism officials involved in the CIA’s drone program, over the agency’s objections. Matt Apuzzo co-wrote the story, He says that last week’s announcement about the drone strike raised more questions about oversight.
APUZZO: We never get a public accounting when it’s not a westerner who’s killed. And so, it’s very hard to know: is this is really an unusual thing? Because obviously there’s been criticism from human rights groups, from Pakistani citizens, that American drones are killing innocent people. The American government has never had to address that square on, and on the one hand it's the worst kept secret in the American government, right? That we have a drone war in Pakistan. On the other hand, there's no sort of public debate over this program in a meaningful way because it's all technically classified.
BROOKE: So the Congresspeople are driven over to CIA headquarters in Langley, they see the boom boom, they don't really know the context, or even the outcome necessarily, and yet you wrote that these viewings give the veneer of congressional oversight.
APUZZO: Right. To kind of understand how this goes, it's important to understand the context of CIA oversight. And the elephant in the room in this, is the detention and interrogation program in which people were interrogated in secret prisons after 9/11. i think one of the lessons learned at the CIA was, we're going to be a lot better if we bring Congress into the fold early and often. And so there's been a real push to try to keep Congress in the loop about what was going on, but also to advocate that this is a good, successful program. And so what you have is you have the people who are doing the oversight getting their information from the same people who they're overseeing. Sort of like, grading your own homework. We did this, and we assess it was very good.
BROOKE: you set out to report on transparency, and as I mentioned, you named three top counterterrorism officials in the piece. The CIA asked you not to because they were undercover - we asked the CIA for comment on why the identity of these three officials wasn't public to begin with, they declined to give us an explanation, did they give you one?
APUZZO: their argument is definitely that these guys because they have senior roles in the CIA are potential targets. that's also true for the head of counterterrorism at the FBI who travels overseas. That's also true for the head of the joint special operations command at the pentagon who travels overseas. The mere possibility that somebody someday could be harmed by having their name out there is true for so many people in the United States, and if that were to be the standard that the public doesn't know who's carrying out american policy, then we would know almost nothing. If this had not been a drone strike, if the Navy Seals had conducted a raid to try to rescue the hostages and then inadvertently had ended up killing these hostages, of course we would write about the people who ran the joint special operations command or who run the navy seals, we would write about the commanders. we would explain how this happened. And so the mere fact that this is a drone war as opposed to a conventional overt war, that in of itself doesn't change the primary function of what journalists do. We're trying to explain to people why the president said 2 years ago this program was gonna get much more public, and it was gonna get moved over to the Pentagon and that didn't happen. And that didn't happen in many ways because of the people we wrote about at the CIA who were really pushing to keep that authority.
BROOKE: It didn't become more public in part because of the three guys you mentioned in your piece? Can you run through their backgrounds?
APUZZO: Sure. Mike Deandria, who was till recently the head of the CIA's counterterrorism center is basically the architec to the drone program. He came up through the counterterrorism center, the chief of operations when we were doing waterboarding. And in this city, whenever somebody new takes on a policy role, one of the things reporters do is they look at their background. And the fact that he had a very serious management role in the interrogation and rendition program, speaks to this question of if Congress says everybody involved in the interrogation program is all liars, well then, how do we know that they're telling us the truth now? So the other two people were Chris Wood and Greg Vogel. Chris Wood recently took over for Deandria as the head of the counterterrorism center, and he also played a key role in the counterterrorism center during the interrogation program. He was head of, at one point, Alex Station which is the unit that tracks Al Qaeda. And the other person is Greg Vogel who was the head of the entire operational arm of the CIA, and until very recently that was an overt position. Foreign governments, everybody who wants to interact with the operations arm of the CIA knows who he is.
BROOKE: Let's talk about the drone program itself. Can you give me a little bit on the division between the CIA and the Pentagon on drone strikes?
APUZZO: If the Pentagon were doing things, it would be as if it were an airstrike. It's an overt thing, the military's doing it, they're going to hold a press conference, they're going to explain why they did it. There's an inspector general that produces information that in many times is public. you know, hearings on Capitol Hill are much more often public when it's dealing with military than when it's dealing with intelligence. Those are parts of the reasons why President Obama has said he wants to move this programs out of the shadows and towards the Pentagon. But there's been real resistance by this. The entire counterterrorism center is basically built up around this program. More than a thousand employees at the counter terrorism center you know thousands of contractors, hundreds of millions of dollars in budget. The CIA has lobbied very hard on Capitol Hill to keep that authority. And has prevailed in this fight.
BROOKE: Basically out-muscled the president by getting close to members of Congress?
APUZZO: I would just see it as, them making their case strongly to their oversight committees, who also frankly have an interest in keeping it with the CIA because they're more likely to keep oversight of the program if it stays with the CIA than if it moves to the Pentagon in a different committee.
BROOKE; that's interesting. They just like what some have called the seductions of secrecy?
APUZZO: Yeah. You know, I don't know what it is. I do think that people on Capitol hill take their oversight role seriously, but if you talk to members of Congress and former members of congress they'll tell you that doing oversight on intelligence is so hard, because you basically rely on the CIA. You have to ask the questions just right to get answers, and as far as a public accounting, i mean it's almost impossible. If you think about the most important things that have happened in the war on terrorism, whether its NSA wiretapping or secret prisons, the drone program, the abuses at Abu Ghraib, all of those things were classified. And if reporters weren't out there writing about it, i don't know when we would know about it.
BROOKE; Alright. Matt, thank you very much.
APUZZO: Any time.
BROOKE: Matt Apuzzo is a reporter for the New York Times.