The CIA's bald assassination-by-drone of a top Al Qaeda official this week marks a new aggressiveness in the war on terror and crosses a threshold in the tactics the US is willing to use.
While the US has used unmanned aircraft to strike Al Qaeda operatives in the past, this marks the first use of the tactic outside Afghanistan and one carried out notably by the CIA and the Pentagon.
It signals the seriousness of the Bush administration to hunt down and root out Al Qaeda members, wherever they are. More important, it marks a new willingness to take preemptive strikes against suspected terrorist cells.
As such, it raises new questions about the accuracy of US intelligence and the legal and moral underpinning for such attacks in a war that is already amorphous and ill-defined by its very nature.
In the strike, Abu Ali al-Harithi, the alleged leader of a Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda, was killed along with five other Al Qaeda members. They died when a Hellfire missile was launched from an unmanned Predator drone operated by the CIA. "I think we've learned that the old notion of deterring these people doesn't work anymore," says Arthur Hulnick, a former senior CIA official. "If they're suicide bombers, they can't be deterred. What you can do is preempt them by hitting them before they strike."
That appears at least on the surface to be what was done in this case. Administration and CIA officials aren't commenting on the assassinations.
Harithi was suspected of being one of the planners in the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, in which 17 US service members were killed.
Yemen had tried once before to apprehend him, and his small band of followers. This past December, Yemen's president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, sent troops and helicopters to Marib, 75 miles east of the capital Sana, to capture Harithi and the other Al Qaeda members traveling with him. But al-Harithi and his comrades killed 18 Yemeni soldiers and escaped.
Afterward, President Saleh requested help from the US. And the Pentagon complied it sent in a contingent of US Special Forces with CIA operatives, similar to the makeup of what was in Afghanistan, to help the Yemenis combat Al Qaeda.
The Predator used in this week's operation can fly in under 15,000 feet. It's equipped with a camera so that controllers who can be hundreds of miles away can see the targets in real time and fire a missile. "The Predator allows you to get in on the deck at a low level and see what you're shooting at," says Michael Corgan, a retired naval commander. "It's below most radar search envelopes, and it moves quite fast over the ground, so it's hard to hit with gunfire."
Mr. Corgan, who now teaches international relations at Boston University, says it changes the art of warfare in that it lessens the need to put US troops at risk. "Remember," he says, "the Predator can be satellite-controlled too it's really quite a sophisticated system."
THE fact that it was the CIA that operated the Predator and not the Pentagon raises the issue of illegal, or banned, assassinations.
But both Presidents Clinton and Bush issued "findings" authorizing the CIA to initiate covert operations overseas to prevent acts of terrorism by Osama bin Laden and his network. Those findings effectively put in abeyance earlier presidential orders in effect since 1976, following botched CIA assassination attempts to eliminate the practice.
"If you're at war and out there shooting soldiers, shooting the head soldier who happens to be a civilian is not beyond the pale of ethics in my opinion," says Stansfield Turner, former director of the CIA. "This isn't a political situation, an assassination of a head of state. I think that's what Clinton and Bush are saying this is an exigency of war."
But it does raise another issue with Admiral Turner: "How do we know who was in that truck or car? How good was our intelligence as to whom we were getting here?" he asks.
In February, for example, the Predator was used to kill three suspected Al Qaeda leaders in eastern Afghanistan, including a very tall man who supposedly looked like Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. It turned out that the three people killed were local peasants trying to salvage scrap metal from the detritus of war.
Then in May, the Predator was fired at Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a leader of rebel troops opposed to the US-backed government in Afghanistan. He was not killed, but some of his followers were.
Still, others say it is an invaluable tool to employ in this new "war on terror," where the adversary can basically travel unimpeded through countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
"In warfare, the idea is to take advantage of the enemy's weakness," says Mr. Hulnick, who teaches international relations at Boston University. "Look at the pattern that's developed. The FBI managed to wrap up Ramzi Binalshibh [one of the 9/11 hijack plotters] because the National Security Agency pinpointed his location from his use of a telephone. Now we have another bunch taken out by a missile. This should send a message to Al Qaeda you can hide, but if you run, we'll start to catch you."
Hulnick thinks the argument of who operated the Predator, the CIA vs. the Pentagon, is a moot point. "It reminds me of what happened during the early days of the U2 program," he says, "where there was a lot of fuss over whether it would be the CIA or the Air Force who would fly the planes and choose the targets."
Turner agrees. He thinks it's the CIA operating the Predator in this case, because of the agency's inventiveness. "The CIA invented the Predator, and then they talked before 9/11 about putting a weapon on it," Turner says.