Former CIA Director Reveals He Approved Drone Attack He Knew Would Kill Innocent Children

Leon Panetta speaks during his last news conference as defense secretary, at the Pentagon. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SUSAN WALSH, FILE
Leon Panetta speaks during his last news conference as defense secretary, at the Pentagon. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SUSAN WALSH, FILE

The CIA’s targeted killing program has long been shrouded in secrecy. Recent leaks given to the Intercept, as well as thorough reporting by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, have shed light on the execution of such attacks, but interviews with former CIA directors for an upcoming documentary puts the ethical quandaries of the program, which has few regulations, in stark relief.

“We do not know what the rules of engagement are,” former CIA director Porter Goss, who resigned under George W. Bush due to frustration, told Chris Whipple for the documentary The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs. “Are we dealing with enemy combatants? Are we dealing with criminals? Are the rules shoot first? Do we only shoot when we get shot at? Can we ask questions? Do we have to Mirandize people?”

A lack of regulations mean directors make the final call on targeted killings. Leon Panetta served as CIA director from 2009 to 2011 before becoming Secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013. Panetta recalls a situation where he was forced to make a decision over a targeted killing where innocent people were involved.

“We knew who the individual was,” Panetta said. “This was a bad guy. And he was clearly a leader who had been involved not only in going after our officers, but in killing members of our own forces in Afghanistan.


“Unfortunately, this individual had family and wife and children around him, so one of the tough questions was, what should we do? If there were women and children in the shot, we normally would not take the shot.”

Panetta says he called White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan who left the decision to the CIA director. As Whipple writes:

The judgment call fell to the devoutly Catholic Panetta, once an altar boy. “The White House said, ‘Look, you’re going to have to make a judgment here,’” he recalls. “So, I knew at that point it was a decision that I was going to have to make. I’m the one who’s going to have to say Hail Marys here. Suddenly, I found that I was making decisions on life and death as director. And those are never easy, and frankly they shouldn’t be easy. But I felt it was really important in that job to do what I could to protect this country. So I passed on the word. I said, ‘If you can isolate the individual and take the shot without impacting on women or children, then do it. But if you have no alternative and it looks like he might get away, then take the shot.’ And it did involve collateral damage, but we got him.” In the end, says Panetta, “What you do has to be based on what your gut tells you is right. You have to be true to yourself — and hope that ultimately God agrees with you.”

In less words, Panetta gave the go ahead on a strike he knew would kill innocent children. The death of civilians in drone strikes do not always violate international law. According to a report released by Human Rights Watch:

Civilians are immune from attack, except those individuals “directly participating in the hostilities.” While the phrase “directly participating in hostilities” has various interpretations, it is generally accepted to include not only persons currently engaged in fighting, but also individuals actively planning or directing future military operations. For a specific attack on a military objective to be lawful, it must discriminate between combatants and civilians, and the expected loss of civilian life or property cannot be disproportionate to the anticipated military gain of the attack. Therefore, not all attacks that cause civilian deaths violate the laws of war, only those that target civilians, are indiscriminate or cause disproportionate civilian loss.

Panetta’s decision in this case did not target only civilians and, because it was targeted, doesn’t appear to have been indiscriminate. Deciding whether or not the loss of civilian life was disproportionate or not is more difficult. The ICC statute does not give a statistical figure or damage ratio when it states disproportionate attacks as, “Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects … which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.”


Yet the moral question still remains: Is killing innocent people, including children, an acceptable act of war? Defenders of the targeted killing program argue that such attacks keep Americans safe, even though it is afundamental human right is “not to be arbitrarily deprived of one’s life.”

To date, however, there is no data that proves drone strikes make Americans, or other human beings with the right to life, safer.

“There is no good analytical study one way or the other,” Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow at CAP focusing on National Security and Southeast Asia, told ThinkProgress this past April. “It’s open to conjecture. Fourteen years after 9/11, no discernible metric tells us whether we’re winning or losing against these guys.”

“The big picture,” acting CIA director Michael Morell said “is a great victory for us and a great victory for them. Our great victory has been the degradation, decimation, near-defeat of the Al Qaeda core that brought tragedy to our shores on 9/11. But their great victory has been the spread of their ideology across a huge geographic area. What we haven’t done a good job of is stopping new terrorists from being created. And until we get our arms around that, this war is not going away.”

“You can’t kill your way out of this,” said another former director George Tenet. “It’s not sustainable.