Saturday, October 16, 2010

CIA Snitches Are Pakistan Drone-Spotters

How the CIA managed to expand its drone war so far and so fast has been a bit of a mystery. Now we have part of the answer: a network of Pashtun snitches, operating out of eastern Afghanistan, that infiltrate militant networks across the border. The information they collect helps direct the drones. Sometimes the targets are U.S. citizens.

Those Afghans aren’t the same as the ones who comprise its paramilitary Counterterrorist Pursuit Teams, the fighting units that Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book Obama’s Wars first disclosed. “These are really two separate efforts,” a U.S. official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss ongoing intelligence operations, tells Danger Room. “If information from one helps feed the other, all the better. But one is primarily focused on security and stability in Afghanistan while the other is directed at terrorists across the border.”

Since 2001, the CIA has cultivated and managed a large web of Afghan proxy forces, Pakistan-focused informants and allies of convenience, as a richly-detailed Washington Post piece reports today. Some of the CIA’s Afghans are more brutal and incompetent than the agency portrays, according to people with direct experience with them. And some are the missing piece behind America’s unacknowledged war in Pakistan, a CIA-driven effort that the agency considers one its proudest achievements.

While the end result of the drone strikes is visible for anyone to see — the New America Foundation keeps a running tally of the missile attacks — their origins are far more opaque. The only possible explanation for how the drones have so far launched 71 strikes in 2010 compared to 34 in 2008 is that the intelligence network supporting them in the Pakistani tribal areas has grown more robust. After all, someone needs to provide usable intelligence about militant activity for the drones to target. But while CIA Director Leon Panetta has bragged that the drone program is “the most aggressive operation that CIA has been involved in in our history,” he and other agency officials have (understandably) said practically nothing about the informant network upon which the drones depend.

That’s led al-Qaeda and its allies to take lethal countermeasures against anyone and anything they suspect to be tied to the drones. They kill local Pakistanis in the tribal areas suspected of being informants. They claim online that the CIA’s moles plant infrared homing beacons in militant areas to flash signals to the drones. And in December, they managed to sneak a Jordanian double agent, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, onto a base called Chapman in eastern Afghanistan. Brought to Chapman on the promise that he could learn the whereabouts of top al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, Balawi blew himself up, killing seven CIA operatives and Blackwater contractors.

According to the Post piece, which draws heavily on the recent WikiLeaks archive of 77,000 frontline military reports from Afghanistan, Chapman, in Khost Province, is only one of a network of CIA bases, mostly in eastern Afghanistan, for training both its Counterterrorist Pursuit Teams and its Pashtun spy network. Firebases Lilly and Orgun-E in Paktika Province — facilities that the CIA shares with Special Operations Forces — are two more launching pads for the Afghan teams. The CIA backstops them with some serious firepower: a 2008-era WikiLeaked report that the Post unearths describes the CIA dropping 500-pound bombs on extremists who launched rockets at Lilly. (So apparently the CIA has air support as well.)

While U.S. officials describe the CIA’s Afghans as “one of the best Afghan fighting forces,” others aren’t so convinced. Author and Afghanistan traveler Robert Young Pelton crossed paths with them. “I did some advising on local militias (called Arbakai) and the Agency big footed us with their version, which is essentially to hire the least trustworthy, least liked and most brutal groups,” Pelton says in an email. “I think CIA paramilitary Billy Waugh described them to me as ‘No good cheating shitheads’ in my book.”

Indeed, some of the Afghans on the CIA payroll include the private militia of Kandahar jefe Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother, who’s long been tied to the Afghan opium trade. The Post provides another example. In 2007, during a home invasion conducted by a CIA-trained Afghan team, a team member severed the fingers of a 30-year old Afghan, who received medical treatment from American troops.

But these Afghans are better paid than their countrymen who join the U.S.-sponsored Afghan military, according to the Post — which means the CIA and the Taliban both offer better wages than the Afghan National Army. That raises the prospect that the CIA is essentially competing with the U.S. military for qualified recruits to the U.S.’s exit strategy. (Without the bothersome first-grade-level reading requirement.)

That cash apparently pays for the seeds of the drone attacks — which, in at least one case that Woodward discovers, killed people holding U.S. passports in a militant training camp. What it buys in Afghanistan is questionable. The CIA’s Afghans were “known more for the their sunglasses and low budget rambo outfits than actually doing anything,” Pelton says. “I am sure they have a lot more gear now and better sunglasses.”

Still wondering if Facebook is a ripoff of ConnectU? That’s nothing. Software firms that developed the targeting systems of the CIA’s terrorist-killing Predator drones are locked in their own intellectual property battle. Their court case has at least an outside chance of halting a program the agency, the White House, and the Pentagon considers vital. And it suggests that the unmanned planes’ weapons aren’t as accurate as the agency claims.

According to emails acquired by Fast Company from the CEO of one of those firms, the agency set too tight a deadline for coders to finish a next-gen Predator targeting program. The code was “far from production ready,” wrote Rich Zimmerman, CEO of Intelligent Integration Systems, known as IISi. In September 2009, Zimmerman noted “problems with some very intricate floating point calculations that are causing me to fail a lot of my regression tests.” Court records aren’t the same thing as proof, but IISi says the targeting system is inaccurate by as much as 40 feet.

To boil down a complex drama, the Predators allegedly find their prey through a version of targeting protocols called Geospatial Toolkit and Extended SQL Toolkit. Those toolkits were developed by IISi back when it used to partner with another Massachusetts software company called Netezza. The partnership’s contract with the CIA became a matter of court record after IISi and Netezza started suing each other — lawsuits that erupted after IISi walked off the contract, citing the allegedly unrealistic deadlines. CIA isn’t a party to the lawsuit.

IISi claims that Netezza wanted to keep the contract, so it created a Geospatial knockoff to hand in. The month after Zimmerman’s email, Netezza president Jim Baum said in an email that an unnamed customer, presumably from the spy agency, “is prepared to deal with early release software. He has a previous generation system so he is able to compare results himself. It is obviously in our mutual best interest to meet this client’s needs quickly.”

Now, that doesn’t indicate that the CIA knew the targeting software was faulty, though a British report charges exactly that. But it does suggest that the agency was willing to take some risk to get it into production. And in total fairness, if it didn’t and there was another terrorist attack, we’d all probably be reading stories about how the “risk-averse” CIA’s fear of mistargeting cost Americans their lives. After all, these emails were sent months after Director Leon Panetta called the drones the “only game in town” for attacking al-Qaeda’s leadership.

A CIA representative told me that the agency declined comment, since it’s not a party to the lawsuit.

If IISi is correct, the drones could be off by as much as 40 feet, meaning they could miss houses and compounds containing terrorists. Now consider that there have been at least 87 drone strikes since the targeting problem was known, and that’s on a conservative estimation. That’s sure to reduce the proportion of Pakistanis living in the areas targeted by the drones who believe they largely target the bad guys. And only 16 percent believe that right now.

It could get worse for the agency. IISi is seeking a court-ordered injunction from Netezza’s use of the software. If that happens, writes Fast Company, “this would either force the CIA to ground Predator drones or to break the law in their use… It is unknown if the CIA has a third option in case of a ban on the use of IISI’s toolkit.” Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Margaret Hinkle is expected to settle the case by December 7 (ironically, the Pearl Harbor anniversary). The magazine expects that there’ll be some face-saving compromise by then. If not, the CIA needs to find a new game to play against terrorists.