The plan was a standard one in the CIA’s war against extremists in Pakistan: The agency was using a Predator drone to monitor a residential compound; a Taliban leader was expected to arrive shortly; a CIA missile would kill him.
On the morning of August 5, CIA Director Leon Panetta was informed that Baitullah Mehsud was about to reach his father-in-law’s home. Mehsud would be in the open, minimising the risk that civilians would be injured or killed. Panetta authorised the strike, according to a senior intelligence official who described the sequence of events.
Some hours later, officials at CIA headquarters in Langley identified Mehsud on a feed from the Predator’s camera. He was seen resting on the roof of the house, hooked up to a drip to palliate a kidney problem. He was not alone.
Panetta was pulled out of a White House meeting and told that Mehsud’s wife was also on the rooftop, giving her husband a massage. Mehsud, implicated in suicide bombings and the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was a major target. Panetta told his officers to take the shot. Mehsud and his wife were killed.
Panetta, an earthy former congressman with exquisitely honed Washington smarts, was President Barack Obama’s surprise choice to head the CIA.
During his 13 months in the job, Panetta has led a relentless assault on Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Pakistan, delivering on Obama’s promise to target them more aggressively than his predecessor.
Apart from a brief stint as a military intelligence officer in the 1960s, little in Panetta’s resume appeared to merit his nomination to become the 19th director of the CIA, but his willingness to use force has won over skeptics inside the agency and on Capitol Hill. Said one former senior intelligence official: “I’ve never sensed him shirking from it.”
Since 2009, as many as 666 terrorism suspects, including at least 20 senior figures, have been killed by missiles fired from unmanned aircraft flying over Pakistan, according to figures compiled by the New America Foundation as of mid-March. From 2004 to 2008, the number was 230.
Panetta personally authorises every strike, sometimes reversing his decision or reauthorising a target if the situation on the ground changes.
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