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The Five Page Death Warrant

(On Violence is devoting the month of May to a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

According to Newsweek, the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center decides which insurgents to target via drone strikes based on cables that, “...are legalistic and carefully argued, often running up to five pages.”

Later this month I will get into the moral and legal issues of lethal operations against terrorist suspects, especially in a five page world. Today, though, I just want to bolster the case I made last Monday and Wednesday that, call it what you will, intelligence is evidence. And I can’t make my argument without mentioning America’s foremost intelligence agency, the CIA.

“Inside the Killing Machine”, the Newsweek article I quoted above, reveals how deeply the CIA has embraced evidence without realizing it. The terrorist is always a “suspect”. Like detectives, the intelligence analysts aren’t planning for battles, they are handling “cases”. The article even describes the case files as “death warrants”. So the CIA has a “suspect”, whose “case” they handle, until they can get a “warrant” approved by a higher authority. For an intelligence agency, they sure have embraced the language of detectives.

The CIA also works in much the same way a major crimes unit or organized crime task force would operate. Through past convictions or previous evidence, the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center develops a list of individuals of interest. (One source in the article calls this a “hit list”.) This list is then compiled into a rough network diagram of who is connected to whom.

CIA analysts then use all the tools at their disposal to gather intelligence, erm, evidence on the suspects. This runs the gamut from human intelligence to communications intelligence, with overhead imagery filling the gaps; detectives call human intelligence “informants”, signals intelligence “wiretaps” and overhead imagery “stakeouts”. When the analysts think they have a case, or enough evidence to warrant killing the suspect, they take it to the CIA’s general counsel, and--the article doesn’t mention this specifically--the boss of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center. If this sounds suspiciously like police work, that’s because it is. The CIA has embraced the tactics and techniques of criminal investigators, without their meddlesome burdens of reasonable doubt and probable cause.

But the CIA embraced new methods and a new mindset without ever really acknowledging it. Our intelligence system used to care about one primary actor, Russia. Our counter-intelligence people intercepted Russian spies; our agents tried to avoid Russia’s counter-intelligence folks. Military intelligence prepared for future battles against Russia in Germany. The biggest concern for the Army’s military intelligence was, “Where is the opposing Soviet Union armor or infantry division?”

On 9/11, those models of intelligence became obsolete.

Well, maybe not obsolete, but just less important relative to other disciplines. We still need the ability to spy on other countries and to detect their spies. We still need the ability to fight large maneuver wars, and the intelligence that supports battlefield commanders. And of course, there is China. But to fight asymmetric groups, like Al Qaeda, we need detectives piecing together evidence to take down enemy networks.

The CIA examples shows the shortcomings of this system. The paperwork to target suspects can run “up to five pages”. I wonder if any court case in America has ever come in under five pages of total documentation. The CIA analysts making these decisions can’t interview witnesses, and they especially can’t interview the suspect at hand. Also, because we can’t directly arrest someone, the only other means is bombing via drone strikes, which risks collateral damage and civilian casualties.

Those bombings are, to be clear, death sentences, both for the suspected terrorists and for the people around them. I think those victims would hope that their death warrants contained more than a five page summary. (According to the article, some in the CIA wished they could use even less evidence.) And they might also hope the CIA acknowledges that intelligence is evidence.

eight comments

I think the papers racist southerners used to use in lynchings were less than five pages…

Which kind of goes to the idea that society operates better, now, by the rule of law. War should too.


Luckily for the CIA, their warrant doesn’t have to pan out once it has been served.

Quite often I wonder why we can’t get ten terrorists at a time in Afghanistan…


Great points Eric and Jon.


The paperwork or the warrant is five pages? That’s where I’m getting confused. I should think the total paperwork on a suspect would be like an FBI case file. Pictures, surveillance, known associates, movements, and monitored communications. Shouldn’t the warrant just be a summary of the case file?


It sounds like the whole case is 5 pages, but I’m not sure. That’s an interesting question Matt and clarification would be great.


Matty P, you are right. The article is vague on the subject.

However, I have done “targeting” in the Army for a little while now. The problem with that process, and it will be addressed later this month, is two fold. Even if say the entire case file had more evidence, the summary running “up to five pages” is still notoriously weak. Further, the article references that often the lawyers didn’t look at the supporting evidence, they trusted the analysts.

Here is the key idea, there is no person arguing for the accused. It is really easy to win an argument if no one disagrees with you. The people populating the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center want to kill terrorists. They want to be proactive. They are an engine with no brakes. So if they only need five pages to prove a person is a terrorist, a bunch of mistakes will be made.

As I said, I will get into it more later.


Question for Jon. I just read about “Mentats” from Dune. How do you think ultra rational beings would react to terrorism?


Michael C,

Interesting question. The key thing with mentats is the quality of their output is based on the information they receive. Bad info (heck, intelligence) equals bad logic, even from a supremely logical being. So, their response to terrorism could lead to something like invading a country based on bad intelligence.

I have an inkling that mentats would be enamored by terrorism. On one hand you have a mentat like Piter, who would be thrilled by planning the perfect terrorist attack. On the other you have Thufir, who would certainly be stimulated by trying to determine what that attack would be.