CIA’s Careful Terrorism

Both WaPo and Newsweek have stories out on CIA’s role in assassinating Imad Mugniyah in 2008. As described, Michael Hayden loved the idea, but then got a bit squeamish about ordering a hit. Luckily, President Bush was all too happy to approve it. Here’s Newsweek:

“General Hayden, at first, was all for this,” the former official said, “But slowly, or maybe not so slowly, the realization set in for him that he was ordering an assassination, that basically he was putting out a hit. And once he became pretty much cognizant of the fact that he was basically ordering the murder of someone, he got cold feet. He didn’t fancy himself as a Corleone.”

And he wasn’t, really. That role would ultimately fall to the president.

“Obviously [Hayden] had to get authority for this, and authority could come from only one person, and that would be POTUS,” said the participant. “So he went down to see President Bush. It took Bush apparently only about 30 seconds to say, ‘Yes, and why haven’t you done this already? You have my blessing. Go with God.’”


But in late December, with the bomb ready and Mugniyah firmly in their sights, Hayden “started to get really cold feet again,” the participant said. He decided to go see President Bush personally—on Christmas Eve 2007, at Camp David.

“On Christmas Eve morning, he and [Deputy CIA Director Steven] Kappes fly up to Camp David to see POTUS, to say, ‘Okay, look, here’s what we got, everything is in place, do we still have the go-ahead?’ And POTUS basically threw both of them out, saying, ‘Why are you up here wasting my time on Christmas Eve? Get the fuck out and go do this. Not quite in those terms. But it was, ‘Yes, I’ve already given you my approval. Go do this; go with God.’”

“Go with our Christian God,” I guess Bush meant.

Both pieces emphasize how careful the CIA and Mossad were with their terrorist tactics, to make sure only their target was killed. Again, Newsweek:

Finally, the car was in place. But then there were always other people around. Weeks more went by. Hayden’s demands that only Mugniyah be killed, and no one else, with no collateral damage, had to be met.

“It was always either he wasn’t alone, or he had his kids with him, or somebody else with him, or there were casuals in the area, or he was gone, he was in the Bekka [Valley] or someplace else, he wasn’t in his apartment,” the participant said. “The rules of engagement were so tight that he probably walked past the thing dozens of times but they just couldn’t do anything because somebody was there or it just didn’t fit into the rules of engagement.”

“They were keeping watch on this just about all the time,” he added. “They were taking shifts, a station officer and a Mossad officer. The Mossad officer was there just to make the confirmation that, ‘yeah, that’s him.’”

The kill was made all the harder by the way the bomb would be detonated. There was a two-second delay from the time the CIA and Mossad agents in the lookout post pushed the button to when the bomb exploded. Under the plan, the Mossad agent would ID Mugniyah, and the CIA man would press the remote control.

“So you would have to count—one, one thousand; two, one thousand… “ the participant said. “They had about six seconds from the time he came out of the apartment door to the time he moved out of the danger zone. So they had to do it really fast.”

And WaPo notes how tedious it was to get approval to kill a guy whose attacks on the US were years earlier, under Reagan.

Former U.S. officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the operation, asserted that Mughniyah, although based in Syria, was directly connected to the arming and training of Shiite militias in Iraq that were targeting U.S. forces. There was little debate inside the Bush administration over the use of a car bomb instead of other means.

“Remember, they were carrying out suicide bombings and IED attacks,” said one official, referring to Hezbollah operations in Iraq.


The authority to kill Mughniyah required a presidential finding by President George W. Bush. The attorney general, the director of national intelligence, the national security adviser and the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department all signed off on the operation, one former intelligence official said.

The former official said getting the authority to kill Mughniyah was a “rigorous and tedious” process. “What we had to show was he was a continuing threat to Americans,” the official said, noting that Mughniyah had a long history of targeting Americans dating back to his role in planning the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.

“The decision was we had to have absolute confirmation that it was self-defense,” the official said.

(Note, Newsweek says the Finding was signed under Reagan, which actually makes more sense since the Gloves Come Off Memorandum of Notification Bush and Obama have relied on was also a modification of a Finding signed by him.)

This is, presumably, meant to be a big success story for CIA. My hope, however, is that it adds some nuance to debates about our use of drones. If the US kills more collateral casualties using drones than using a classic terrorist technique — in both cases making really attenuated claims about current threats — which is the greatest terror technique?

Update: Kevin Jon Heller argues the US violated the Terrorist Bombing Convention.

16 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    The hubris of folks like the unnamed “former senior CIA operative with deep Middle East experience” is breathtaking. Says the FSO:

    “It was an Israeli-American operation. Everybody knows CIA did it—everybody in the Middle East anyway.” The CIA’s authorship of Mugniyah’s bloody death, the operative said, should have been told long ago. “It sends the message that we will track you down, no matter how much time it takes,” he said. “The other side needs to know this.”

    So which is it? “Everybody knows” or “we should have told this story long ago, because not enough people know it”?
    Sounds to me as if the FSO really means “the American public should have heard this story long ago, so that we can be hailed as heroes.” And when you go deeper in the story and read where they ruled out using a sniper, I can’t help but think that the FSO wouldn’t like to see his/her heroism on The Big Screen, without all the moral questions in “American Sniper.”

  2. Peterr says:

    The timing on this story is interesting on multiple levels. I’m guessing that Newsweek and the WaPo were working on this before Boehner got into the foreign policy business and invited Bibi to speak to Congress, but choosing to run the story right before he arrives to give that speech will definitely mess with the optics if not the substance of the event. But how?
    Option one: this was fed to the WaPo and Newsweek by administration insiders looking to deflect criticism of Obama by saying “You want to talk about dithering over taking someone out? Let me tell you about Michael Hayden . . . Even the Israeli’s were pissed at him.” This tries to put Bibi and today’s CIA on the same side. “There’s no rift here, despite the shenanigans being pulled by Boehner over this speech.”
    Option two: it was fed by folks who are using the fact that Bush was around to overrule Hayden’s squeamishness to say “but now, the squeamishness is in the Oval Office.” By getting this out now, just prior to Bibi’s speech, they want the contrast to be between not just Bibi and Obama, but Bush and Obama.
    The thing that strikes me as most odd, though, is the criticism of Hayden as not wanting to “be a Corlieone.” First, it says that a mafia-style Godfather is the ultimate image of leadership at the highest ranks of the military. Second, and less believably, is the FSO really saying that Hayden rose to the rank of general in the Air Force without confronting his own feelings about ordering someone’s death or doing the killing himself? Really? I can’t believe I seem to be defending Hayden, but this really seemed odd.
    But assuming the picture of Hayden is accurate, who gains by making that picture public? Well, Obama and the current CIA folks are likely pissed at the criticism he continually puts out there against them, so this may be some pushback — and even a warning against future public rants. “You keep pushing us, and we’ve got dozens of stories like this to tell, and then what happens to your ‘tough guy’ image?”
    Another possibility is that there are similar operations under consideration now, but someone is upset at all the rules being put down and wants to push back against the current leadership. “Just get out of our way and let us kill the bad guys.” Without saying so directly, are they pushing against the image of Obama as a less-than-Corlieone figure by using Hayden’s story?
    Lots of questions. But one piece seems absolutely solid to me: the story told about the Christmas Eve visit to Camp David. The source says “POTUS basically threw both of them out, saying, ‘Why are you up here wasting my time on Christmas Eve? Get the fuck out and go do this. Not quite in those terms.” I have no trouble believing it was precisely in those terms, but as soon as the source said them to Newsweek, he/she realized that maybe this wasn’t the best way to present the president speaking on Christmas Eve. But “go with God and blow someone up in the name of the Prince of Peace” doesn’t come across much better.

    • emptywheel says:

      Newsweek had this story longer than WaPo, but was willing to heed CIA’s request not to publish. WaPo did and now CIA’s in a snit again.

      Timewise, I think it likely to make an Iranian deal harder. I think it’s probably meant to fuck with any pushback about Israel assassinating Iran’s IGRC general in Syria.

      • bmaz says:

        Agreed on both points, but especially the “makes the Iran nukes deal harder” part. I would much appreciated it if Jeff and Adam had really noted that issue, and am pretty disappointed that nether did so more strongly than was done.

      • bevin says:

        “I think it likely to make an Iranian deal harder.”
        Yes, this is clearly the case.

        It should be borne in mind that, by almost any rational analysis, it is very much in the interest of the US to make an agreement with Iran. Whether it is in Iran’s interest I doubt, but if the US does not make every effort to reclaim Iran from its movement towards alliance with Russia and China, it will have no chance, short of a major war, to maintain its influence in the world.

        At the same time involving itself in the thuggish adventures of the crew from Mossad ensures that, for years to come Americans will have to deal with blowback in the form of car bombs and other terrorist actions. This will please those, in the security state, who make a living out of terrorising their fellow citizens but it will significantly diminish the quality of life enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people.
        And, in the end, a state riddled with spies, honeycombed with exceptional laws and shivering with fear and mistrust, wreathed in a thick cloud of mutual suspicions, will not last long.

        bmaz might be happy that Imad Mugniyah (never charged, never tried, never given a chance to speak in his own defence) has been killed (as now has his son) but Imad’s pain is over. Those who were responsible and take responsibility for his killing have a reckoning, if only with their consciences and the contempt of posterity, yet to come. So, given the crude nature of explosive devices, will unknown numbers of bystanders.

        • orionATL says:

          “…And, in the end, a state riddled with spies, honeycombed with exceptional laws and shivering with fear and mistrust, wreathed in a thick cloud of mutual suspicions, will not last long…”

          perhaps, will not thrive at all:

          – education spending: down

          – infrastructure spending: down

          – scientific & technological research spending: down

          – security spending: available in excess

          – income inequality: growing exponentially

  3. bmaz says:

    I am with Kevin. And, though he is right about the Terrorist Bombing Convention, I think he gives short shrift to focus on that in the face of the concurrent extrajudicial execution issues under relevant US law as well. And there are many. You can start off with the DOD versus CIA/civilian dilemma inherent in §1119 that Kevin so ably pointed out in relation to drone executions. But, seriously, getting back to “imminence” and “self defense” concepts, the reasoning for this kill is just pure unadulterated shit. I am glad that Imad Mugniyah is dead. But how we got there is by Rule of Convenience far more, actually to the exclusion of, the Rule of Law.

    • Peterr says:

      Given the non-prosecutions of those who ordered and enabled torturers, and the free pass given to those who were just following orders and did the actual torturing, I won’t hold my breath waiting for anyone to be held accountable for violating this international agreement either. Once you’ve tossed Nuremberg and Geneva on the compost pile, what’s one more broken international convention?

  4. TomVet says:

    Speaking of hubris and Michael Hayden, which always go together perfectly, have you seen his latest speech in which he explains why it was his responsibility to reinterpret the Constitution after 9/11?
    Connor Friedersdorf covers it at The Atlantic.

  5. Anon says:

    This might also be out now as part of the Stirling trial. As Marcy noted in other articles the full story of Merlin makes the CIA look pretty damned bad at their jobs. Perhaps this is an attempt to tell a story of their success and care in light of that.

  6. GKJames says:

    But if the hit was for something the guy had done “years earlier,” isn’t this simply a revenge killing? As such, isn’t it materially different — legally and morally — from the US assassination of people representing (at least according to the USG version) an imminent threat of prospective harm?

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