Outing the CIA’s ‘Undertaker’ Michael D’Andrea

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The lobby of CIA headquarters in McLean, Virginia, on August 14, 2008. REUTERS/Larry Downing

The following is an excerpt of Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (Hotbooks/Skyhorse), which will be published on June 28, 2016.

Remote even by the standards of Pakistan’s tribal areas, the Shawal Valley is surrounded by steep mountains that descend into thick forests interspersed with boulder-strewn alpine rivers. The valley is one of the final redoubts of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters who fled Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion. Numerous Pakistani military offensives have so far failed to dislodge the militants, although their ranks have been depleted by hundreds of American drone strikes.

In the weeks leading up to an operation in the Shawal Valley on January 2015, CIA-operated drones filmed four men coming and going from a building, who appeared to of military service age. Anonymous U.S. officials later told The New York Times that the agency had analyzed so-called “pattern of life” evidence to determine that the compound was being used by militants. The CIA said it had also intercepted cellphone calls and had obtained other intelligence indicating the four men were “Al-Qaeda operatives and possibly members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.”

On the basis of this evidence, the CIA authorized a so-called “signature” strike on the compound. (Pakistan is the only country where the CIA can order a strike against a target without the president’s knowledge.) Soon afterward, as CIA analysts reviewed the drone footage, the agency realized something had gone awry. Six bodies, not four, were dragged from the rubble and quickly buried, according to The New York Times. Among the dead were two hostages: Warren Weinstein, an American humanitarian, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian aid worker. It took the CIA several weeks to confirm that the two hostages had been killed in the strike. Afterward, the agency notified President Barack Obama, who then called the families and apologized.

The deaths of the two Western hostages succeeded in doing what the killing of thousands of innocent Pakistanis, Afghanis, and Yemenis in U.S. drone strikes had failed to accomplish. It prompted Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times to act. Frustrated with the lack of congressional oversight over the drone program, Mazzetti defied the CIA and published the name of the man, who as head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC), was a key “architect of the targeted killing program.” His name is Michael D’Andrea.

‘It’s Bullshit’

By the time Mazzetti outed D’Andrea in April 2015, he was no longer heading the CTC. But among national security reporters, D’Andrea’s identity and central role in the agency’s torture and targeted killing programs had been an open secret for years. He was always identified in various newspaper articles and books only by his first name, “Mike,” or his undercover alias, “Roger.” “For every cloud of smoke that follows a CIA drone strike in Pakistan, dozens of smaller plumes can be traced to a gaunt figure standing in a courtyard near the center of the agency’s Langley campus in Virginia,” Greg Miller of The Washington Post wrote in 2012. “He presides over a campaign that has killed thousands of Islamist militants and angered millions of Muslims, but he is himself a convert to Islam.”

Within the CIA, D’Andrea was viewed as a competitive workaholic who had somehow managed to survive several tedious years in the agency’s clandestine service in Africa. He later rose through the ranks and worked in Egypt and Iraq, among other places.

When the Shawal Valley strike occurred, D’Andrea was already was a controversial figure in intelligence circles. He was one of the agency's officials who failed to keep track of Nawaf Al-Hamzi, one of the 9/11 hijackers, after he entered the United States. As The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer wrote in her book The Dark Side, the CIA knew Al-Hamzi was in the United States. An FBI officer named Doug Miller who was attached to the agency's Osama bin Laden–tracking unit typed up a memo about Hamzi, hoping to share the tip with the FBI so they could locate the suspected terrorist. “But his boss, a CIA desk officer in the Bin Laden unit of the Counterterrorist Center who is identified by the 9/11 commission only as ‘Mike’ told Miller to hold off on sending the memo,” Mayer wrote. “After the second try, Miller dropped the matter.” Three hours after “Mike” gave that order, he inexplicably told his CIA superiors that the tip had, in fact, been passed to the FBI. “The CIA assumed from then on that it was,” adds Mayer. “But it wasn’t.”

“Mike” was Michael D’Andrea. While researching her book, Mayer spoke with a 9/11 Commission investigator, who told her that under questioning, D’Andrea couldn’t remember anything about the Al-Hamzi episode. “Astonishingly,” Mayer wrote, “the 9/11 investigator later learned [that D’Andrea] was given a promotion by the agency after September 11.”

D’Andrea also supervised an operation that resulted in one of the costliest miscalculations in America’s war on terror. In 2009, a doctor in Jordan named Humam Balawi convinced Jordanian intelligence, and then the CIA, that he could infiltrate Al-Qaeda’s top leadership. “The CIA at the highest levels, especially ‘Mike,’ was so excited by the possibility of finally having an agent inside the terrorist group, that the news was hurried all the way to the Oval Office,” reported the veteran British-born national security correspondent Andrew Cockburn in his 2015 book Kill Chain. But Balawi had no intention of helping the CIA. Instead, on December 30, 2009, he wore an explosive vest to an introductory meeting at an agency station in Khost, Afghanistan, where he met with several CIA officers. The doctor blew himself up, and seven CIA employees perished.

D’Andrea was also the driving force behind the sharp escalation of the CIA's killer drone program in Pakistan in the late 2000s and argued for the implementation of “signature” strikes, which helps explain why, as the Intercept reported this year, during one several-month period in northeastern Afghanistan, "nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets."

With his growing reputation as a terrorist hunter, it is not surprising that the CIA talked up his story to Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow. In the movie, D’Andrea became the inspiration for a character named “The Wolf,” an enigmatic CIA supervisor in charge of the the CIA’s Bin Laden–tracking unit. “People were scared of [D’Andrea],” one former U.S. intelligence official told Miller of The Washington Post. “[He] was the undertaker.”

But the Shawal disaster was reportedly D’Andrea’s undoing. In March 2015, a month before the news reached the public, Miller reported that D’Andrea was quietly being removed from his job as director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. His responsibility for the Khost suicide bombing fiasco as well as his deep involvement in the agency's torture program had “tainted” him. The Shawal disaster swiftly and quietly ended his CIA career.

Why did it take so long for an intelligence official with a track record as notorious as D’Andrea’s to be reported on by name in the press? Mazzetti, the Times reporter who finally exposed his identity, had always tried to play by the unwritten rules of the national security beat. They stipulated that stories should never unnecessarily mention CIA officials by name. So while he had mentioned D’Andrea in The Way of the Knife, his 2014 book about the CIA’s counterterrorism operations in the Middle East and South Asia, Mazzetti was careful to only use his first name.

As D’Andrea climbed the ranks at the CIA, with controversy swirling around him, Mazzetti concluded it was legitimate to out him. “Everyone who covers this beat knows the names of dozens of undercover officers, but for me, there were personally two factors in naming him. These guys are in senior management jobs that give them oversight over hundreds or thousands of people. They are not guys in the field out there undercover working sources.”

The agency pushed back. According to Mazzetti, CIA Director John Brennan called Times editor Dean Baquet, hoping to convince him to quash the D’Andrea story. Mazzetti says the CIA’s argument was absurd. “At that level in the CIA, you’re a public figure. It’s bullshit to be undercover; you represent the agency at that stage. These guys are the modern generals running a secret war.”

The Times found the CIA’s argument unpersuasive and dragged the infamous counterterrorism chief from the shadows. But by playing by the CIA’s rules for years, the Washington media had allowed D’Andrea to keep rising through the intelligence ranks, despite his obvious missteps. It was only after Langley through him overboard that the Times dared to mention D’Andrea by name.

‘Are You Really Going to Do This Story?’

RTR4C1B9 People pose with laptops in front of a screen projected with binary code and a CIA logo, in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina on October 29, 2014. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

From its inception in 1947 until after the end of the Vietnam war, the CIA put reporters on its payroll. But after this practice was exposed during the Watergate era, Langley had to devise more subtle ways to manipulate coverage.

Today, Mazzetti, like other national security reporters who are given access at Langley, has to constantly engage in an intricate choreography. In this dance with security officials, reporters sometimes take the lead, but often find themselves at their mercy. In December 2007, Mazzetti informed the CIA that he was about to publish a story revealing that Jose Rodriguez, the agency’s clandestine service chief, had destroyed evidence concerning the torture of two terror suspects. “I went to the CIA and told them I was going to write the story,” Mazzetti recalls. “I told them I was going to write it in two days, and put it in Friday’s paper. On Thursday, they called and said, ‘Are you really going to do this story?’”

After Mazzetti said yes, an agency spokesperson told him that then-CIA Director Michael Hayden had just informed his staff that the destruction of the tapes had been leaked to the press. Suddenly, the Times reporter found himself scooped by Langley with apparent advance notice given to the Associated Press, presumably to punish him while rewarding a rival reporter.

“That’s one of the risks we run when we have stories not favorable to the administration or CIA or Pentagon,” says Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers. “If we give them too much time, they will leak their version to someone else and upstage you. We are very cautious about when we inform a government agency that we are writing a story that they might not like.… We can’t give them too much time to respond, because they will leak it to someone else.”

Mazzetti compared the CIA to “a big public high school” with “so many cliques and agendas and factions that when you are talking to someone it is hard to know which faction they are from and what axes they have to grind. So you have to treat [everything] with caution,” he says, estimating that reporters are lucky if they know even 20 percent of the facts behind a story. “That’s a disadvantage for a journalist, but 20 percent is critically important if your job is to let people know about what’s going on in secret.”

Knowing what is going on in secret is, of course, the primary directive of all national security reporters. But trying to gain access to such secrets puts the scoop-hungry Washington press corps in a position of perpetual subordination and supplication in relation to government intelligence agencies. Reporters offend their official sources at their peril, for they may be cut off from the morsels of leaked intelligence that are these beat journalists’ specialty.

Which is why the CIA no longer needs to recruit reporters and put them on its payroll. Instead, the agency simply relies on finely tuned relationships with a select group of elite reporters who are utterly dependent on the national security state for their professional survival.

As the radical scholar Peter Dale Scott puts it: “The CIA nowadays doesn’t really have to buy journalists. [They] step into line voluntarily.”