Details of an emerging turf war in Washington DC between the CIA and the US State Department suggest a policy shift may be in the wind. Government officials are now talking semi-publicly about whether CIA drone attacks in Pakistan might at times be causing more harm than good.
The CIA's station chief in Islamabad has just stepped down after only seven months in post, ostensibly for health reasons. But according to a new investigation by the Associated Press, this might not be the entire story. The investigation reveals that significant friction existed between the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, and the 'hard charging' former CIA station chief. The two reportedly took part in closed-door shouting matches.
The CIA runs a 'secret' drone war inside Pakistan, aimed at militants perceived as a threat to the US. But now senior officials in the State Department - responsible for US diplomacy worldwide - are questioning whether some of those attacks actually serve America's best interests.
On March 17, AP reports, Ambassador Munter personally attempted to halt an imminent drone strike which he thought might 'set back Washington's already shaky relations with Islamabad', according to a senior US source.
Only the day before, CIA contractor Raymond Davis had been released, despite a public outcry in Pakistan. Munter's objections were reportedly personally overruled by then-CIA chief Leon Panetta. The strike 'was in retaliation for Davis. The CIA was angry,' AP's source claims.
Details of Munter's objection to the attack may be self-serving. That March 17 strike proved disastrous, killing as many as 40 people, most of them civilians. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with which I work, recently identified by name 19 of the civilians killed, including tribal elders and policemen. The CIA continues to deny it has killed any non-combatants since August 23 2010.
AP's investigation - told very much from the State Department perspective - claims that similar problematic CIA strikes undermined US diplomatic efforts in April and May of this year. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is said to have 'weighed in' on at least one occasion.
The current intervention suggests that the State Department may be trying to regain the diplomatic initiative, much as it did some years into the Iraq war. Barack Obama came to office promising to take the war on terror to Pakistan's tribal areas. And since then the CIA's strikes have rained down on average once every four days.
For the last 18 months little opposition to this approach has been heard within the administration. Dennis Blair, the former US Director of National Intelligence who was ousted last year, remains a rare voice against the drones campaign. The mainstream US media and think-tanks have also barely challenged the strategic value of the campaign.
With US-Pakistani diplomatic relations now on the floor, the State Department may simply be exploiting a power vacuum to gain some policy leverage. Leon Panetta has left the CIA, taking over as Defense Secretary. General David Petraeus has yet to formally succeed him. The present conflict might represent a skirmish for advantage, rather than a full-blown war.
A version of this article appeared at thebureauinvestigates.com
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