CIA wants to expand Yemen drone strikes
OK sought to attack without knowing IDs
by Greg Miller - Apr. 20, 2012 11:15 PM
The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by
launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the
identities of those who will be killed, U.S. officials said.
Securing permission to use "signature strikes" would allow the agency to hit
targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious
behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaida
compounds or unloading explosives.
The practice has been a core element of the CIA's drone program in Pakistan
for several years. But Director David Petraeus has requested permission to
employ the tactic against the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen, which has emerged
as the most pressing terrorism threat to the United States, officials said.
If approved, the change would probably accelerate a campaign of U.S.
airstrikes in Yemen that is already on a record pace, with at least eight
attacks in the past four months.
For President Barack Obama, an endorsement of signature strikes would mean a
significant, and potentially risky, policy shift. Until now, the
administration has placed tight limits on drone operations in Yemen to avoid
being drawn into an often murky regional conflict and risk turning militants
with local agendas into potential al-Qaida recruits.
A senior Obama administration official, who like others spoke on the
condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations, declined
to discuss what he described as U.S. "tactics" in Yemen but said that "there
is still a very firm emphasis on being surgical and targeting only those who
have a direct interest in attacking the United States."
U.S. officials acknowledge that standard has not always been upheld. Last
year, a U.S. drone strike inadvertently killed the American son of Anwar
al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida leader. The teenager had never been accused of
terrorist activity and was killed in a strike aimed at other militants.
Some U.S. officials have voiced concern that such incidents could become
more frequent if the CIA is given the authority to use signature strikes.
"How discriminating can they be?" asked a senior U.S. official familiar with
the proposal. Al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen "is joined at the hip" with a
local insurgency whose main objective is to oust the country's government,
the official said. "I think there is the potential that we would be
perceived as taking sides in a civil war."
U.S. officials said that the CIA proposal has been presented to the National
Security Council and that no decision has been reached. Officials from the
White House and the CIA declined to comment.
Proponents of the plan said improvements in U.S. intelligence collection in
Yemen have made it possible to expand the drone campaign -- and use
signature strikes -- while minimizing the risk of civilian casualties.
They also pointed to the CIA's experience in Pakistan. U.S. officials said
the agency killed more senior al-Qaida operatives there with signature
strikes than with those in which the agency had identified and located
someone on its kill list.
In Pakistan, the CIA "killed most of their 'list people' when they didn't
know they were there," said a former senior U.S. military official familiar
with drone operations.
The agency has cited the Pakistan experience to administration officials in
arguing, perhaps counterintuitively, that it can be more effective against
al-Qaida's Yemen affiliate if it doesn't have to identify its targets before
launching an attack. Obama, however, ruled out a similar push for such
authority more than a year ago.
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Received on Fri Apr 20 2012 - 10:10:01 EDT