November 18, 2012
Pakistan has a way of cutting careers short, some tragically. One Prime Minister was sent to the gallows after being toppled in a coup. Nine years later, the general who led the putsch died in a plane crash; conspiracists posit that it was brought down by combustible crates of mangoes on board. Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of the hanged Prime Minister, perished in a suicide blast. Two Americans were killed when radicals overran the U.S. Embassy in 1979; two more died in the plane crash. Two C.I.A. station chiefs have been forced to flee in the past few years. Most recently, the U.S. Ambassador, Cameron Munter, retired prematurely because, according to a colleague quoted in the Times, “he didn’t realize his main job was to kill people.”
Now that he’s back from Pakistan and is settling into a visiting professorship at Columbia Law School, Munter wants to set the record straight. “Of course I knew part of my job was killing people,” he said recently. For a man whose affect is more bike-shop owner—rimless glasses, tousled gray hair—than terrorist hunter, this was a startling admission. Before he was deployed to Iraq in 2006, he had never fired a gun. Yet Munter’s twenty months in Islamabad coincided with a particularly torqued and testy period for U.S.-Pakistan relations. Soon after he arrived, a C.I.A. contractor named Raymond Davis was jailed for killing two men who were trying to rob him. Not long afterward, Munter helped spring Davis from jail, and a team of seals choppered into Abbottabad and killed Osama bin Laden. Later, American helicopters and warplanes strafed Pakistani border posts, killing twenty-four soldiers.
And then there were the drones.
A couple of weeks ago, on his first day at Columbia, Munter admonished a class of fourteen law students not to blog his comments—“These are very sensitive things”—before dishing about the C.I.A.’s classified drone program. He distinguished three types of drone attacks: high-value targets (“Article Fifty-one of the U.N. charter gives us the right to go after these people. . . . I don’t have a problem with that”); imminent threats, mostly to troops in Afghanistan (“Those, too, are fairly uncontroversial, at least inside our government”); and signature strikes, firing a missile at guys who “look like they’re up to no good” (“targeting based on behavior, rather than identity”). This became a source of contention between Munter and the C.I.A.: “When you kill people and you don’t know who they are, what are you leaving yourself open to?”
A hand went up. A student suggested that, from a military standpoint, “If you can’t say, ‘That thing is a military target,’ you can’t pull the trigger.” The C.I.A. apparently played by different rules. He went on, “The gray area there is somewhat uncomfortable.”
Munter, who says he is for the “judicious use of drones,” nodded. Clearly, that gray area left him feeling uneasy, too.
VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER
From the Mother of an Incarcerated Son
Our bad! It looks like we're experiencing playback issues.
The conversation pivoted to another vexing legal quandary, that which surrounded the trigger-happy C.I.A. contractor Raymond Davis. Although Davis was covertly working for the C.I.A., he carried credentials as a low-level diplomat, and so was protected by diplomatic immunity. “We decide who a diplomat is,” Munter explained. “Raymond Davis didn’t look like a diplomat. He had tattoos, he had big muscles . . . he had an unregistered weapon in his car. The Pakistanis said, ‘This guy’s not a diplomat.’ We said, ‘Oh yes he is.’ ” He added, “Some Pakistanis even feared that the Americans would come in with their helicopters and try to do a raid on the prison.”
Sarah Cleveland, the professor who had invited Munter to talk to her class, chuckled. “_‘_Argo’ hadn’t been released yet.”
Munter said that the Davis incident highlighted the extent to which the C.I.A. is driving policy in Pakistan—and other countries: “I’ve been in interagency meetings where everybody got one vote. But there were, like, twelve different intelligence agencies present, and two from State and one from the Pentagon. Gee, who’s going to win that vote?” Getting constantly big-footed by the C.I.A. wears on a man. When Munter was in Islamabad, someone from the agency would frequently call him in the middle of the night, to notify him of an impending drone strike. Other nights, he would participate in 3-
a.m. videoconferences with Washington, dressed in a starched shirt, a necktie, and pajama bottoms. “I got tired of it all,” he later said. Even so, upon returning to Washington Munter received a medal from the C.I.A., awarded to him by David Petraeus. Munter said that the unfolding Petraeus scandal made him “sad”—and a little concerned. “I don’t see the national-security element of all this,” he said. “I’m puzzled the F.B.I. got so deeply involved.”
When class let out, Munter went to a bar across the street for a drink. He’d enjoyed the lecture. “Lawyers make you think differently,” he said. He was delighted to have discovered that mornings at Columbia would feel like his own. “In the faculty lounge, there is a spread of bagels and cream cheese, with fresh fruit,” he said. And he wouldn’t have to work in his pajamas. ♦
This Week’s Issue
Never miss a big New Yorker story again. Sign up for This Week’s Issue and get an e-mail every week with the stories you have to read.
Subscribe for unlimited access, plus get a free tote.Subscribe Cancel anytime.
© 2021 Condé Nast. All rights reserved. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our User Agreement
and Your California Privacy Rights. The New Yorker
may earn a portion of sales from products that are purchased through our site as part of our Affiliate Partnerships with retailers. The material on this site may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used, except with the prior written permission of Condé Nast. Ad Choices