Civilians in the Killing Business? A case study of post-9/11 paramilitary action by the Central Intelligence Agency in Pakistan

Reilly, Brian [Browse]
Senior thesis
92 pages


Yarhi-Milo, Keren [Browse]
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs [Browse]
Class year
Summary note
Since its inception, the Central Intelligence Agency has engaged in missions outside of its principal mandate: the collection, analysis, and dissemination of foreign strategic intelligence. The Agency has constantly conducted operations of influence, including many involving the expression of military force. Why does the president use a civilian intelligence service for a military combat mission? Historically, the executive has employed the CIA in influence operations for situations demanding deniability or flexibility. Deniability insulates the executive from international or domestic disproval of the use of force. Flexibility allows the executive to develop quickly means to respond to threats against which the traditional tools of foreign policy do not suffice. The CIA has traditionally run deniable operations for practical reasons. Both espionage, the principal mandate of the Agency, and covert action require strategic secrecy while the traditional mission of the military demands mere tactical secrecy. However, in the post-9/11 security era, the Pentagon has expanded military capabilities in secrecy. By the letter of the law, both the CIA and Department of Defense are subject to the same privileges and responsibilities in covert action. By the spirit of the law, the DoD may have even greater freedom in covert action. Moreover, much of the CIA’s paramilitary intervention abroad has been “grey” covert action, unacknowledged but by no means deniable, especially more recently. Deniability cannot explain the tendency to task the CIA with paramilitary missions in the post-9/11 era. Flexibility refers to the CIA’s 1) capacity to respond to unprecedented threats by quickly incorporating new tools for effectively influencing conditions abroad and 2) ability to do so with a light boots-on-the-ground footprint. Both are important qualities in the post-9/11 era and therefore worth testing in the case of the modern CIA drone campaign in Pakistan. War and diplomacy both failed as the first foreign policy tools of the War on Terror. Operation Enduring freedom achieved tactical victory but strategic stalemate; the militant Islam threat persisted from Pakistan where the U.S. military could not put boots on the ground. Diplomatic pressure on the Pakistanis to neutralize the threat arguably exacerbated it. The White House turned to the CIA, who developed the surveillance technology and lethal capability necessary for the politically delicate mission far more quickly than the military would have. The CIA also built the human intelligence and analytical capacity to compliment the engineering leaps, although some of this capacity existed before the drone campaign. Furthermore, the CIA operates the drones with a much smaller footprint than the military. This case supports the theory that the executive uses the CIA for paramilitary missions in the post-9/11 era rather than the DoD for its superior flexibility.

Supplementary Information