The Cost of Secrecy

Early last year, Pakistani anti-drone activist Kareem Khan received an unannounced visit at his Rawalpindi home from over a dozen unidentified men, some in police uniforms. He was subsequently abducted without being offered any explanation and, over the course of the next nine days, interrogated about his anti-drone work and tortured. After a local court ordered Pakistan’s intelligence agencies to produce Khan he was released and told not to speak to the media.

Khan was due to travel to Europe to testify before parliamentarians about a December 2009 U.S. drone strike on his North Waziristan home that killed his brother and son along with a local stonemason staying with his family. He had also filed a case against the Pakistani government for its failure to investigate the deaths of his family members.

There is a long history in Pakistan of irksome journalists and activists being disappeared, tortured, or killed by the state. Kareem Khan’s abduction and torture, however, is not just another example of the criminality of the Pakistani state. It also reveals a broader pattern concerning the U.S.-led War on Terror and its global consequences.

Over the past thirteen years the U.S. has been involved in a perpetual war that includes covert operations spanning the globe, at times pursued unilaterally and other times in collaboration with local regimes. These operations require extreme secrecy, preclude all attempts to redress grievances, and ultimately uproot any semblance of democratic accountability. The intimidation, torture, and even murder of journalists and activists seeking to document and publicize these policies are crucial components of an embedded imperative to secrecy. While legal and human rights groups in the United States argue for more transparency on covert operations and drone strikes, it is usually forgotten that challenging secrecy in targeted areas involve much deadlier stakes.

In Pakistan the need to silence journalists and critics is largely prompted by the necessity of hiding the state’s collaboration with the U.S. drone program. Its history can be traced back to one of the first U.S. drone strikes in the country’s tribal areas in December 2005 that reportedly killed a total of six people including al-Qaeda member Hamza Rabia and two children.

At the time the Pakistani government under General Musharraf claimed Rabia’s death was the result of an accidental bomb-making explosion at the house. Journalist Hayatullah Khan investigated the aftermath of the explosion and took photographs which showed “clearly identifiable fragments of U.S. Hellfire missiles in the rubble.” According to a classified diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, leaked by Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks, “Hayatullah’s account, which was widely covered in Pakistan and abroad, speculated that the missile had been launched by a CIA drone.” The day after Hayatullah Khan’s report was published he was abducted by five unidentified men. Six months later his body was found in a ditch with five bullet holes in his head and his hands bound with government-issued handcuffs.

Hayatullah Khan’s brother recounted to the Committee to Protect Journalists that Khan had met a military intelligence official a few weeks before his disappearance and was told "to leave his profession or leave Waziristan or accept the government’s political policies." Khan wrote his will shortly after this meeting and told his tribe in no uncertain terms, “if I am kidnapped or get killed, the government agencies will be responsible.” A year later Khan’s wife, who had been “active in protesting against his abduction and murder” according to Reporters without Borders, was also killed by a bomb planted near her bedroom.

After drone strikes could no longer be hidden from plain view, the government began lodging protests against the United States while covertly supporting them. The constant protests against the strikes and a fiercely anti-drone public opinion had made such deception essential for two ostensibly democratic governments. Wikileaks cables provided a glimpse of this deception in a leaked conversation between Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and U.S. Ambassador Anne Peterson. As Pakistani Interior Minister brought up drone strikes, Gilani dismissively remarked, “I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.” Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was even more callous. As Bob Woodward reported in his book, Obama’s Wars, Zardari exhorted CIA Director Michael Hayden to “Kill the seniors,” referring to the al-Qaeda leadership. “Collateral damage worries you Americans,” he continued, “It does not worry me.”

The same episode repeated in Yemen, where the United States and the authoritarian government of Ali Abdullah Saleh shared the same imperative to mislead the Yemeni people on U.S. strikes. Welcoming the use of “aircraft-deployed precision-guided bombs,” Saleh told General Petraeus, “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.” This prompted the Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke that he had just “lied” to the Parliament by claiming the bombs in various regions were deployed by the Yemeni government and not the United States. This deception has had grave implications for press freedoms in Yemen, just as in Pakistan.

In December 2009, the Yemeni government claimed it had carried out a series of strikes on an al-Qaeda training compound in the village of al-Majala. Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a local journalist, traveled to the village and uncovered evidence indicating the strike was carried out by the U.S. and the casualties included fourteen women and twenty-one children. Shaye would later be snatched by Yemeni intelligence agents, threatened, and told not to speak to the media. Upon his release, Shaye immediately defied the intelligence agents and describing his arrest to the media. He was re-arrested, taken before a court, and declared a “media man” for al-Qaeda in a widely-criticized sham trial. Tribal mediation would compel President Saleh to prepare a pardon for Shaye but an unlikely intervention forced him to keep the journalist in prison. President Obama called Saleh and “expressed concern” that the Yemeni President was allowing an al-Qaeda associate to be set free. Shaye himself was clear about who was responsible for his travails. “[T]he only person responsible for kidnapping and detaining me is Obama,” he told an interviewer. He would eventually be released after spending more than three years in prison.

Even if Obama had not directly intervened in Shaye’s case, the nature of U.S. covert operations would have compelled the Saleh government to ensure journalists like him were punished for revealing inconvenient and embarrassing information. The public was not simply to be kept in the dark; it was to be deliberately misled. Journalists and activists seeking to uncover information about U.S. covert operations and their governments’ secret collusion with the United States often face deadly consequences. As long as secrecy remains an embedded imperative of U.S. military operations, such casualties will continue to mount.

Waqas Mirza is a writer based in Massachusetts. You can e-mail him at