Washington The CIA secretly operated pilotless spy planes over Afghanistan well before the U.S. military arrived last October to intensify the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday.
Rumsfeld took the unusual step of talking publicly about the Central Intelligence Agency's role as a way of explaining why the agency is now operating armed Predator aircraft independently from the military chain of command headed by Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. war commander.
It was a CIA-operated Predator that attacked a small group of men whom the agency believed were members of bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network. That strike on Feb. 4 has drawn public attention in the wake of claims by Afghan villagers that those killed were innocents not linked to al-Qaida.
In noting that Franks' command was investigating the claims, Rumsfeld said he was satisfied that CIA officials had established a "darn good record" of performance with the Predator in Afghanistan.
"They have on a number of occasions been successful in doing exactly that which they intended to do," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld did not elaborate on that point.
A CIA spokesman, Bill Harlow, said the agency had no comment.
On a related matter, Rumsfeld disclosed that the FBI's latest terrorism threat alert was based in large part on information gleaned from prisoners interrogated by U.S. officials at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Rumsfeld cited the interrogations at Guantanamo Bay as an example of headway the U.S. military and intelligence agencies are making in the war on terrorism. His remarks seemed aimed at countering the bad publicity of recent weeks on raids and missile attacks that allegedly hit the wrong people.
"There's a great deal of good being done" in Afghanistan by U.S. forces, he said.
The CIA was operating the Predator, a pilotless aircraft normally used for surveillance but recently modified to also carry as many as two Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, before Franks began executing his military campaign in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference.
"It's just a historical fact that they were operating these things over recent years and they were in Afghanistan prior to the involvement of CentCom and they continued during this period. That's just the way it is," he said.
Other officials said later that the armed version of the Predator became available to the CIA in September, shortly after the terrorist attacks that led President Bush to order military action in Afghanistan. Prior to September, the CIA was operating the surveillance-only version of the drone.
None of the Predators operated in Afghanistan by the Air Force, under Franks' command, are armed.
U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity have described several reasons for the Feb. 4 Predator strike.
The Predator's cameras observed about 20 people gathering in an area once frequented by al-Qaida fighters; they appeared to be taking security precautions. Officials also saw several people acting deferentially toward to the central figure who was targeted.
Government officials who have reviewed the Predator's camera footage said it appeared to show conclusively that three men wearing Arab dress were under a tree when they were hit and killed by the Hellfire missile.
Human remains and other evidence gathered by a U.S. military team at the site are being sent to the United States for analysis.
The prominence of the CIA's role in the Feb. 4 attack has raised eyebrows in some quarters and raised questions about oversight of military operations by an agency that functions mostly in secret.
Rumsfeld said he saw no reason for concern.
"Things that the agency is planning to do are well-vetted in the appropriate ways before they do them," he said.
He said Franks, as the commander of U.S. military forces in the Afghan war, is in nearly constant touch with the CIA, although Rumsfeld also said there are times when the military is not involved.
He said of the CIA, "If they have capabilities, they do them, what they wish to do."