For years, the debate raged within the CIA: Should the United States hunt down and kill its terrorist foes, or would Israeli-style “targeted killings” only invite retribution and feed an endless cycle of violence?
The debate ended Sunday, current and former intelligence officials say, when the CIA incinerated a carful of alleged Al Qaeda operatives in northern Yemen with a laser-guided Hellfire missile.
“There was discussion about this for years in the CIA,” said one former official of the agency who has extensive experience in the Middle East. “The discussion is now over, and the operations have begun.”
The risks remain. Even those who applauded Sunday’s strike said in interviews Tuesday that it is sure to inflame militant Muslims, including those belonging to the Al Qaeda network, and expose U.S. diplomats and other overseas officials to possible retaliation.
The attack triggered outrage in some quarters of the Arab world and forced U.S. officials into the difficult position of defending a tactic Washington has criticized Israel for using.
But Bush administration officials made it clear that they see those risks and diplomatic discomforts as worth enduring when they are confronted with an opportunity to kill a high-ranking Al Qaeda figure linked to previous attacks and considered likely to be planning more.
In fact, U.S. officials and top Pentagon advisors said Tuesday that Al Qaeda should expect more of the same.
“We’ve got new authorities, new tools and a new willingness to do it wherever it has to be done,” one administration official said.
Neither the CIA nor the White House would publicly confirm the U.S. role in the strike, which is believed to have killed Qaed Sinan Harithi, who is suspected of being involved in the 2000 bombing off Yemen of the U.S. destroyer Cole, an attack in which 17 U.S. sailors died.
But administration officials openly relished what was widely viewed as a significant and symbolic U.S. victory.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz called the strike “a very successful tactical operation.”
“We’ve got to keep the pressure on everywhere we’re able to,” he said on CNN. “We’ve got to deny the sanctuaries everywhere we’re able to, and we’ve got to put pressure on every government that is giving these people support to get out of that business.”
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer declined to discuss the attack specifically but said: “The president has talked about a shadowy war where terrorists are going to try to hide .... We’re going to be on the lookout for them when they emerge.”
Sunday’s mission was in keeping with the so-called Bush doctrine, which, among other things, commits the United States to preemptive military strikes in the American-declared war on terrorism.
The attack was carried out by an unmanned CIA surveillance plane armed with laser-guided missiles. The Predator drones had been patrolling Yemen in recent months, tracking the movements of dozens of Al Qaeda figures who have been operating in the country’s barren northern territory.
Until Sunday, U.S. strikes on suspected Al Qaeda members had been confined to the war theater in Afghanistan. Elsewhere, the CIA’s activities had appeared to consist mainly of assisting in raids and other operations conducted jointly with foreign intelligence services.
At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher refused to discuss the attack in Yemen and trod carefully around questions of whether U.S. involvement in the strike contradicted long-standing U.S. disapproval of so-called targeted killings.
The State Department has repeatedly criticized Israel for using such tactics against Palestinians. Asked whether the United States had altered its opinion, Boucher replied, “Our policy on targeted killings in the Israeli-Palestinian context has not changed.”
He went on to say that the U.S. position reflects concern that such killings harm prospects for peace negotiations. Those reasons, he said, “do not necessarily apply in other circumstances.”
Israeli scholars rejected such distinctions and said the strike in Yemen was tantamount to a U.S. endorsement of the Israeli policy of preemptive attacks on militant foes. The U.S. shift, the scholars said, shows that the Bush administration has rejected the long-held American view that refraining from violence offers at least some protection from retaliation.
“Israel knows that it’s going to be attacked no matter what it does,” said Barry Rubin, head of the Global Research in International Affairs Center. “The U.S. situation has become more like the Israeli situation. It is the impact of Sept. 11.”
Current and former intelligence officials said reprisals are possible, if not inevitable.
“Not everybody has been gung-ho about going out and doing this,” said the former CIA official, who was previously involved in high-level counter-terrorism missions. “It may be the right policy, but it’s not going to be without consequences.”
Others, however, said Sept. 11 showed that restraint earned America no protection from Al Qaeda and that the show of force in Yemen was long overdue.
“Maybe they’ll try to do something else to us,” a former senior CIA official said. “The fact is, we’ve been getting shot at for the last 30 to 40 years. The weaker they think you are, the more they’ll go after us.”
Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said he was not aware of whether U.S. embassies are taking extra precautions in the wake of the missile strike but noted that they are “already at a very high state of security.”
The attack in Yemen prompted criticism from some in the Arab world. The London-based Arab newspaper Al Quds al Arabi carried an editorial Tuesday condemning the attack.
“We believe the Americans are adopting the Israeli style of bombing -- it is appalling,” editor Abdel Bari Atwan wrote. “This is not the work of a civilized democratic power but in the style of Osama bin Laden.”
Atwan predicted that the attack will antagonize Arabs and “will encourage membership [in] Al Qaeda.”
The Yemeni government, which is cooperating with the United States in the war on terrorism and is said to have permitted the attack, offered no immediate comment on the incident. Many experts said the strike is likely to inflame anti-American sentiment already widespread in the country.
But Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, issued a statement Tuesday timed for the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan urging Al Qaeda members to “repent” and “renounce all means of violence.”
The official Yemeni news agency cited reports from tribesmen near the scene of the attack, about 100 miles east of the capital, Sana, confirming that Harithi was among those killed.
Harithi had been under U.S. surveillance for months. A onetime bodyguard to Bin Laden, he was believed to be Al Qaeda’s operational leader in Yemen, where many Al Qaeda members have fled from war-torn Afghanistan.
Some intelligence officials said the strike is certain to deliver a psychological blow to Al Qaeda, perhaps explaining why word of U.S. involvement in the attack leaked so quickly from the Bush White House on Monday.
“You want to take credit for this operation,” said the former senior CIA official. It sends a message that Al Qaeda “is not even safe in north Yemen. That’s the back of the beyond. Al Qaeda owns that lawless border area, and I’m sure they’ve been wandering around there with impunity.”
Others were skeptical that Islamic militants would be cowed even by an impressive display of U.S. weaponry.
“I’m not sure you can frighten them,” another former CIA operative said. “They do crazy better than we do.”
The strike came at a time when many in the Bush administration have been pushing for more aggressive tactics in the war on terrorism.
At the Pentagon in recent weeks, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others have been discussing the expanded use of special forces in the Al Qaeda hunt.
An influential Pentagon advisory board has advocated launching a wave of preemptive operations targeting Al Qaeda cells, designed to create confusion and expose them to U.S. intelligence collection.
An American intelligence official said Sunday’s strike may have accomplished just that.
“Events like this are worth doing for the sake of taking known terrorists out of action,” the official said. “But they can also cause people to move or communicate or perhaps stop planning things while they’re worried about their own security.”
Some CIA veterans said the attack was in keeping with a long tradition of ambitious clandestine operations. R. James Woolsey, CIA director in the early 1990s, recalled the World War II era, before the agency was created.
“We broke the Japanese code and sent up aircraft to shoot down Adm. Yamamoto’s plane and killed him,” Woolsey said. “It was a targeted killing of one of their greatest military figures.”
Times staff writer Michael Slackman in Cairo and Janet Stobart of The Times’ London Bureau contributed to this report.