Attacking the messenger: how the CIA tried to undermine drone study

The US Central Intelligence Agency and unnamed ‘US officials’ are attempting to undermine the Bureau’s investigation into US drone strikes in Pakistan, it was revealed today. The attack is two-pronged.

First, ‘US counter-terrorism officials’ are attempting to link the Bureau’s ‘suspect’ work to unsubstantiated allegations that one of its many sources is a Pakistani spy.

Second, the CIA is directly challenging the data itself.

The Bureau’s drone study – a 22,000-word online resource, coupled with search engines, maps and graphics – provides the most comprehensive public understanding yet of the covert CIA drone war. The material is transparently sourced and draws on more than 2,000 news reports, intelligence estimates, legal cases, and field work by the Bureau’s researchers and others.

Mirza Shahzad Akbar is a Pakistan-based lawyer, one of the Bureau’s many sources. Although he formerly worked with USAID, Mr Akbar has since focused on civilians caught up in the drone strikes. In December last year, Mr Akbar reportedly ‘outed’ the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad. With his identity revealed, the CIA chief was forced to leave Pakistan. 

The lawyer is just one of many sources the Bureau has worked with. He represents clients linked to 10 drone strikes of the 291 the Bureau has examined in detail. He has made available to us the names of those civilians he believes were killed in the attacks, which the Bureau includes in its work. Where Mr Akbar’s views contradict those of other sources, we make that clear.

Related article: Analysis: Washington – a new front in the drone wars?

In press briefings leaked to the Bureau, the CIA has forcefully attacked Mr Akbar, claiming that ‘his agenda is crystal clear’ and that ‘his publicity is designed to put targets on the backs of Americans serving in Pakistan and Afghanistan.’

The New York Times also reports today that ‘US officials’ are privately claiming that Mr Akbar is an agent of the Pakistan intelligence service, the ISI.  That in turn, they insinuate, makes the Bureau’s work ‘suspect’ – with ‘US officials’ falsely claiming that much of our data has come from Mr Akbar.

One of the major concerns of this, of course, is that in an already violent country, labelling Mr Akbar in such a way may seriously endanger his life.

Speaking from Islamabad, Mr Akbar rejected claims that he is either an ISI agent or is endangering US lives. He told the Bureau: ‘I’m disgusted with such allegations. There is a genuine need for accountability and transparency in the CIA’s drone strikes, and that is my only agenda. It is no coincidence that these allegations appear when the Bureau independently published its report, attempting to tarnish us both together.’

Reprieve, the London-based legal charity that works alongside Mr Akbar, has robustly defended him. Legal director Cori Crider stated:

The CIA is so desperate to cling to its ‘no civilian deaths by drone’ narrative that it is smearing the one Pakistani lawyer who is making a real effort to find out the truth. Unnamed CIA agents say Shahzad Akbar is ISI. That is as false as the CIA’s tattered claim not to have killed a single civilian in Pakistan in the past year.

The Bureau has also learned that the CIA is attacking its extensive findings and their accuracy. It has obtained correspondence between journalists and CIA spokespeople to this effect.

In one, a spokesperson states:

We see the battlefield in real time; the Bureau of Investigative Journalism doesn’t. This group’s allegations about individual strikes are, in every case, divorced from the facts on the ground.

The Agency attacks one report in particular. On May 6 2011 CIA drones carried out a strike in North Waziristan. The Bureau reports in its database:

In the first strike following Osama bin Laden’s death, an attack on a religious school (and suspected militant hideout) also hit a nearby unrelated roadside restaurant and a house. Our researchers in Waziristan report: ‘The total number of people killed was 18. Six were civilians while the rest were stated to be militants. The civilians were identified as Samad, Jamshed, Daraz, Iqbal, Noor Nawaz and Yousaf.’

Its summary is based on credible press coverage of the attack at the time, and the Bureau’s own field research.

In an email exchange with a journalist leaked to the Bureau, a CIA press officer mocks the Bureau’s coverage:

The claim, for example, that a restaurant was struck is ludicrous. This was a vehicle carrying explosives and nearly 10 armed men, which was engaged in a remote area just a couple miles from the Afghanistan border.

As with all of its meticulously transparent data on the drone strikes, the Bureau cited its sources in full.

On this occasion, there were 16 individual reports – from sources including the New York Times, the BBC and Reuters. Despite the CIA identifying only ten militants killed, the highest reported casualty figure for the strike is 17 killed according to SATP, a credible regional source on casualties. The New York Times reported 15 killed, and the Washington Post 13.

The CIA refers to ‘nearly ten’ killed. Yet most reports claim that more people died. The Bureau’s field researchers clearly identified that most of those killed were militants – but also identified and named six people killed at the roadside restaurant.

The New York Times is also reporting a further three Bureau studies which a ‘US official’ has contested.

Iain Overton, the Bureau’s editor said: ‘The one case the CIA has chosen to attack the Bureau on reveals clear problems with the Agency’s internal reporting mechanisms.  Who, exactly, are the missing dead in these reports? We cite clearly, based on multiple credible reports, that militants died in this strike. But we also name reported dead civilians. Instead of attacking the Bureau’s work, the Agency’s time might be better spent investigating our valid concerns.’

A US counter-terrorism official, speaking on background said: ‘The United States Government also believes that it’s critical to avoid noncombatant casualties while striving to disrupt those who slaughter innocents as a matter of course.  These operations are defined by precision; intelligence-based targeting; direct observation before, during, and after a strike; and careful, all-source damage assessments.  The differences with the Bureau are purely substantive.’