The target was not a top operative of Al Qaeda, but [Nek Muhammad,] a Pakistani ally of theTaliban who led a tribal rebellion and was marked by Pakistan as an enemy of the state. In a secret deal, the C.I.A. had agreed to kill him in exchange for access to airspace it had long sought so it could use drones to hunt down its own enemies.
That back-room bargain, described in detail for the first time in interviews with more than a dozen officials in Pakistan and the United States, is critical to understanding the origins of a covert drone war that began under the Bush administration, was embraced and expanded by President Obama, and is now the subject of fierce debate. The deal, a month after a blistering internal report about abuses in the C.I.A.’s network of secret prisons, paved the way for the C.I.A. to change its focus from capturing terrorists to killing them, and helped transform an agency that began as a cold war espionage service into a paramilitary organization.
The deal with Pakistan, struck in 2004, limited CIA drones to the tribal regions, along the Afghan borders, away from its own terror training camps. Since then, the CIA has conducted at least 366 strikes, killing at least 2,537 people, including 168 children. While the program began under George W. Bush, the vast majority of strikes (314 and counting) have occurred since President Obama took office in 2009. Mazzetti reports that George Tenet, the CIA director from 1997 to 2004, told the 9/11 commission he wasn’t even sure the CIA should be operating weaponized drones. A decade later, the nominally secret program is the most prominent activity conducted by the CIA. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration’s proposed rules for the use of drones, brought up only after his entire first term had passed, exempts the CIA’s operations in Pakistan.