CIA Takes On Major New
Military Role - 'I Mean Killing People...'

By John Donnelly,
Boston Globe Staff

WASHINGTON - The Central Intelligence Agency - criticized for its military forays in Vietnam and Central America - has taken a lead role in the war in Afghanistan, running covert paramilitary teams, shooting Hellfire missiles from airborne drones, and acting as the Bush administration's political and financial broker in warlord-controlled regions.

The new CIA military mission has operated under greatly relaxed rules of engagement that, unlike those of recent wars in Serbia and Iraq, allow US forces to fire on suspected Taliban or Al Qaeda troops after receiving permission from US Central Command in Tampa.

''We are doing things I never believed we would do - and I mean killing people,'' said one US intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

CIA agents also have been trading favors and distributing blocks of cash in Pakistani and US currency to warlords who do their bidding, both on the battlefield and in the cities of Kandahar, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Taloqan, according to US intelligence officials in Washington, Afghan warlords, and international aid officials in the region.

With up to 200 operatives there at any given time, Afghanistan represents the CIA's largest on-ground military presence since Vietnam, yet it has received slight public scrutiny. The spy agency has not received much credit for successes, nor much blame for failures, because few know what it is doing.

From interviews in the United States and Afghanistan, some details of the CIA's multifaceted mission have begun to emerge, leaving little doubt that CIA Director George J. Tenet's role in the war on terrorism is, in some respects, as critical as those played by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is set to hold a hearing early next month on worldwide threats, and Tenet will be questioned about the Afghanistan theater. While most of the hearing will be open to the public, some questions will be asked in secret.

Tenet ''is not anxious to talk to reporters and we will not go out of our way to be forthcoming,'' said a senior US intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Questioned about a need for public discussion of the CIA's expanding role in military affairs, including the emerging belief of many analysts that the CIA is building a shadow military organization, the senior US official said: ''If we didn't think it was appropriate, we wouldn't be doing it. If the commander in chief didn't think it appropriate, we wouldn't be doing it. If it ain't broke, why fix it?''

What is happening in Afghanistan is likely to be a precursor to what happens in other countries as the war on terrorism expands.

Some in Congress are beginning to have questions, although few are raising them publicly. ''We'll be discussing the CIA role closely,'' said a congressional staff member.

''There are a lot of questions. But you can't argue about success so far.''

Tenet, the lone Clinton appointee among Bush's national security advisers, has developed an extremely close relationship with the president, but some conservatives in the administration still distrust him, according to a source in the administration and a congressional staff official.

Vice President Dick Cheney has advanced his special counsel, David Addington, for the position of CIA general counsel. One official said it was a signal that Cheney wanted to keep close tabs on Tenet.

In Congress, the thorniest issues are likely to be the emergence of a separate civilian fighting force alongside the military, and whether two operations can work well together.

''I think it doesn't make any sense to have a kind of military special forces dedicated to terrorism and then a civilian force that mirrors the same kind of thing,'' said Vincent Cannistraro, a former head of the CIA's counterterrorism center. ''This is a whole new experience for the CIA and the US military,'' he said, referring to the CIA's more sophisticated capabilities.

While some integrated CIA-military teams have registered successes in Afghanistan, others have worked at cross purposes.

In one case, according to a US intelligence official and a military analyst, an Al Qaeda target was identified by US forces on the ground, then captured on real-time, high-resolution video by a CIA RQ-1 Predator plane, and relayed to screens at the control centers at Central Command in Tampa and Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. As those military officials discussed whether to give a green light for a nearby warplane to blow up the target, the Predator went ahead and shot Hellfire antitank missiles and destroyed it. Central Command officials reacted angrily because the CIA had violated the chain of command.

But other cases demonstrated well-coordinated attacks. On Nov. 15, US officials intercepted signal intelligence that top members of Al Qaeda were at that moment in a house near Kabul. The CIA dispatched a Predator, which took pictures of unmanned vehicles and foot traffic in and out of the house, two US intelligence officials said.

A fighter jet and the Predator then fired at the house, killing seven Al Qaeda top operatives.

The CIA's new role grew out of a reinvigorated effort more than three years ago to track down Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden.

Tenet, 48, who took the job in July 1997, began to build up the agency's military capabilities in response to the synchronized bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Both are believed to have been carried out by bin Laden's organization.

Clinton directed the CIA to catch bin Laden and his top associates. ''They had the authority to go find him, but they needed the intelligence to get him,'' Cannistraro said.

The effort was classified because of the mission, but there also were political concerns that a CIA military role would raise the ghosts of the CIA's past.

In Vietnam, the CIA's Phoenix program became a focus for antiwar protesters because of its involvement in assassinations, now widely acknowledged. In Chile, Guatemala, and several other countries, the spy agency helped military leaders oust democratically elected governments.

For a time, the public backlash sharply curtailed such covert missions, but the hunt for bin Laden began a buildup of the CIA counterterrorism center, now run by Cofer Black, a veteran officer who served in Sudan.

The CT center, as it is known, began developing a much larger paramilitary force that drew upon the Defense Department's special operations forces; dozens of special operations forces were temporarily redirected for the effort.

The center had fewer than 300 people before Tenet's tenure, but has grown to more than 900, including some hired after the Sept. 11 air attacks. The CIA, in all, received $1.6 billion in funds as part of the $40 billion post-attack special appropriation passed by Congress. The money will be used to hire nearly 700 new CIA employees, many of them to engage in counterterrorism.

In addition, the CIA updated and added missiles to the Predator plane, which was developed as a miniature unmanned drone, equipped with cameras and other special devices that make it ideal for hostage and rescue situations.

In contrast to the Pentagon, which has reported that 15,000 weapons have been fired in the air campaign, the agency isn't saying how many times the Predator has fired at targets in Afghanistan, or whether it has been successful.

On the ground in Afghanistan, the CIA's highly secretive Special Activities Division, made up of teams of a half-dozen men each, entered the country on Sept. 27. The 50 officers represented the first sizable US combat force in the country.

They have dressed as Afghans, wearing knee-length shirts and matching pants, checkered keffiahs around their necks, rimmed Pakun hats, and blankets wrapped around them to keep warm. Many are bearded.

One has been killed so far. CIA officer Johnny Micheal Spann, 32, was overpowered Nov. 25 during a prison riot near Mazar-e-Sharif.

A main task for the CIA officers has been to keep close relationships with regional warlords. This has involved paying large sums of money to put Afghan troops on the front line, as in the fight at Tora Bora, or to secure cities, as in Kandahar.

These relationships are cloaked in mystery. It is not known why the CIA picked certain warlords and not others, and whether the relationships dated back to the days when the CIA helped them fight the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

''It would be impossible for us to be doing as well as we are doing now if we started from scratch on Sept. 11,'' a senior intelligence official said. ''Our interests in the region go back many years. They never stopped.''

One former CIA official who worked in the region said that the relationships with tribal leaders were allowed to wither after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, but that it wasn't difficult to start them again. ''My sense is that the grandfathers of the CIA picked up just fine and were able to call in some old chips still valid from the old days when we helped them fight the Soviets,'' he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

''We don't know much yet,'' he said, ''but we do know that the CIA officers there have made alliances, and they're able to schmooze with every viable commander because we knew them from not long ago.'' le+.shtml

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