Repackaging Assassination

09/07/2010 02:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • John Feffer Director, Foreign Policy In Focus and Editor, LobeLog

To: Leon Panetta, Langley HQ
From: Operative 650, Sana'a office
Re: Memo XE1850


Greetings from Yemen. It's been a year since I corresponded directly with you. Perhaps you remember my 2009 memo in which I recommended outsourcing our assassinations - er, sorry, our "targeted killings" - to China. I suggested that China would do a better job of it than Blackwater. I never received a reply from you. I trust that this memo had nothing to do with my transfer from Shanghai to Sana'a. Don't get me wrong. It's good to be in the thick of things here in Yemen. But I sometimes miss pork dumplings as well as reliable electricity and running water.

I'm writing in response to the recent monthly update from Langley. I was delighted to hear about your appearance on the TV show Top Chef. I think that the CIA has to get up to speed with the 21st century. And reality shows are definitely the best way to explain CIA policy to the American public. So, I know you're really going to love my new recommendation.

First let me explain the problem as I see it. Most Americans just don't understand our policy of targeted killing. Look at the No Drones campaign. Or look at what Anthony Romero and Vincent Warren wrote last Friday in The Washington Post: "Many Americans rightly reacted with alarm when the Bush administration claimed worldwide authority to detain suspected terrorists -- including U.S. citizens -- without charge or trial. We should react with similar if not stronger alarm to the Obama administration's claim of worldwide authority to kill suspected terrorists without charge or trial."

What Americans don't understand is that we can't go in and grab these bad guys. Extraordinary rendition is a marvelous tool. But sometimes we don't have the luxury of hooking these guys and reeling them in. Sometimes we just have to shoot and ask questions later. Or maybe it's shoot and answer questions later.

In any case, I have a proposal for repackaging our targeted killings so that they're more palatable to Americans. I suggest that the CIA launch a new program: Top Terrorist. This would be a kind of global version of America's Most Wanted. Every week, we pick out a new target, sit down with the planners in Langley and go through the highlights of the dossier. Then we hang out with the drone operators at Creech Air Force base in Nevada. And finally we take a ride with the drone itself and watch the hit.

I can anticipate some of your objections.

1) Americans don't want to watch killing on television. I beg to differ. Just look at all the shows on television that have focused on killing: Dexter, the Sopranos, 24. Also, public executions have always been a big hit throughout history. According to a 2004 poll, two-thirds of Americans support the idea of televised executions. In fact, a large number of people would pay to watch Osama bin Laden be executed. I know that money is tight in DC these days. This could be a big revenue generator, Leon!

2) We don't want to focus on our mistakes. Don't worry: we won't show the mistakes. Not even for the out-takes in the director's cut of the show when it goes to DVD. That's the beauty of reality shows. They're not really real. Take the December 17, 2009 air strike on an al-Qaeda training camp in the southern part of Yemen that killed 55 people. In general, that's pretty good! The problem, as you well know, was that 41 of them were civilians, including 14 women and 21 children. Even with special effects, it's hard to generate a lot of good ratings - not to mention positive publicity - by killing women and children. Just look at the Taliban and the bad rep they've gotten for going after women and children. So, we just don't mention December 17, 2009. Most Americans don't even know it happened anyway. And couldn't pick out Yemen on a map if you paid them (I know I couldn't before my transfer). Oh, and we definitely won't mention May 25, 2010 when we killed the deputy governor of Marib province just as he was sitting down with al-Qaeda representatives to negotiate a settlement. Big oops.

3) We would reveal trade secrets. But hey, that's why we're doing this stuff in the first place. Deterrence. We want them to know what we're doing. We want to put a little fear into their swagger. True, we might be encouraging even more terrorists with every strike. There are even people within the Agency who are starting to ask questions. But what's our alternative? Withdraw our soldiers? Close our bases? We Americans don't cut and run. (Though honestly, I'm not sure why we're here in Yemen and I hear that Kabul and Baghdad aren't very nice places either - I think we should staff up in Paris and Florence, but I'll save that for another memo).

I haven't worked out all the details yet, Leon. For instance, there are a couple Americans on the kill list. I'm not sure how excited the U.S. public would be about watching a drone attack on an American citizen. That might cut a little too close to home, even if the American target has a long beard and a funny name. But I wanted to get this memo out to you while the idea was still fresh in my head.

Anyway, look at what the show 24 did for the FBI. It made torture popular. Top Terrorist can do so the same for assassination. And maybe I can work on the show as a consultant. I wouldn't mind a transfer to Los Angeles...

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