CIA drone strikes plummet as White House shifts authority to Pentagon
By GREG MILLER | The Washington Post | Published: June 16, 2016
WASHINGTON — The pace of the CIA's drone campaign has plunged this year as part of a renewed push by the Obama administration to shift responsibility for lethal counter-terrorism operations to the Pentagon, current and former U.S. officials said.
The agency has carried out at most seven strikes so far in 2016, putting the spy service on course to take fewer shots from remotely piloted aircraft than in any year since 2007, two years before Barack Obama took office and made the agency's drone program a pillar of his counter-terrorism approach.
U.S. officials said several factors have contributed to the sharp drop in the number of strikes, including the staggering depletion of al-Qaida's ranks in Pakistan, where in 2010 the agency launched 118 attacks. By comparison, so far this year, the CIA has fired missiles from remotely piloted aircraft only twice.
But the decline has also been driven by White House decisions to curtail the CIA's lethal role in Yemen and restrict it from even flying armed drones over Syria-instead handing the unambiguous lead for such operations to the U.S. military's elite Joint Special Operations Command.
Officials at the CIA and White House declined to comment.
U.S. officials emphasized that the CIA has not been ordered to disarm its fleet of drones, and that its aircraft remain deeply involved in counter-terrorism surveillance missions in Yemen and Syria even when they are not unleashing munitions.
Still, the changes appear to mark a significant turning point for an agency that was fundamentally transformed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks from a conventional intelligence-gathering service to a paramilitary force.
The sharp drop in CIA strikes comes as the White House is preparing to release data on the drone program for the first time, including the total number of strikes taken while Obama has been in office, as well as aggregate estimates of the number militants and civilians killed. The administration is also expected to issue rules requiring periodic updates of those numbers.
The White House has repeatedly signaled its desire to shift control of such lethal operations to the military, in part to enable greater transparency and end an often awkward charade in which the U.S. government refuses to acknowledge its role in strikes that are abundantly covered by news organizations and tallied by watchdog groups.
In a speech in Chicago in April, Obama said, "I don't want our intelligence agencies being a paramilitary organization. That's not their function. As much as possible this should be done through our Defense Department so that we can report, here's what we did, here's why we did it, here's our assessment of what happened."
But White House efforts to accomplish that have been repeatedly derailed by factors including logistical problems and intense bureaucratic opposition. The plan only began to gain traction, one U.S. official said "over the course of the past year."
In the most visible sign of the shift, the U.S. military began publicly acknowledging drone strikes on al-Qaida targets in Yemen earlier this year — a step that the Pentagon had refused to take in prior years largely out of concern that identifying its own operations would also mean staying silent on other attacks and make clear that they were carried out by the CIA.
The latest Pentagon release, posted two weeks ago, not only confirmed a May 19 drone attack on suspected al-Qaida operatives in central Yemen, but acknowledged that it was the ninth so far this year. The release then proceeded to disclose details about a series of "previously unannounced counterterrorism strikes" dating back to February.
The CIA has not taken any corresponding steps toward greater transparency about its own drone campaign. But U.S. officials said that the agency has launched four strikes in Yemen in 2016, and that there is now a "clear preference" in that country — the only nation where the CIA and military both fly armed drones — for JSOC to pull the trigger whenever possible.
White House spokesman Ned Price declined to comment on "specific purported intelligence matters," but said that Obama "has been clear that we must be more transparent about both the basis of our counterterrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out." He added that the administration "will increasingly turn to our military to provide information to the public about our efforts."
The revised rules reflect a significant bureaucratic victory for JSOC, which just two years ago was barred from launching drone strikes by the Yemeni government after a series of mishaps including an assault on militants traveling in a wedding party reportedly killed civilians.
That episode triggered dueling investigations involving the U.S. military, the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center, inquiries that fueled skepticism among key members of Congress, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, that JSOC was as capable as the CIA of avoiding civilian casualties.
That opposition has since been eroded, however, by a series of developments. Among them is the removal last year of the former head of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, a surly figure who had presided over the agency's drone program for eight years and fought off perceived encroachment by the Pentagon.
"I suspect that has an awful lot to do with it," said a former senior U.S. official who was involved in CIA and Pentagon discussions about collaboration in Yemen, and described the former CTC chief, Michael D'Andrea, as an obstacle.
D'Andrea was replaced by a veteran CIA officer, Chris Wood, who is widely seen as more collegial and willing to compromise with U.S. military officials. His presence has enabled both sides to overcome logistical and technical barriers, setting up a new system in which the agency yields to JSOC aircraft in the moments before missiles are launched.
Other factors include the collapse of the Yemeni government that had ordered the JSOC ban, as well as agency blunders that undercut its ability to depict its drone program as superior to that of the Pentagon. In a particularly grievous mistake, the CIA killed U.S. and Italian civilians being held prisoner by al-Qaida in Pakistan — civilians that the agency did not know were present at the compound when the strike occurred.
Current and former officials also cited fatigue with maintaining an artificial aura of secrecy around a program whose broad outlines are well known even to residents of the most remote villages of Pakistan.
"Who is it secret to?" the former official said. "Are we just providing a benefit to the host country of deniability? And is that something we should be doing? What's the benefit to us for allowing a host country to talk out of two sides of their mouth?"
The CIA had for more than a decade been given sole authority to carry out strikes in Pakistan, largely to enable Islamabad to shield from the public secret agreements that allowed the agency to patrol Pakistan's tribal belt.
But the administration upended that rationale last month when it authorized the U.S. military to launch a drone strike that killed the leader of the Taliban in the Baluchistan region of Pakistan. The U.S. government quickly took credit for the strike in a move that seemed aimed in part at exposing Pakistani duplicity in sheltering the Taliban.
"We took a strike at a fairly high target and it was [carried out by the U.S. military] and the world didn't end," the former U.S. official said, adding that the muted response from Pakistan has pierced the case for continued secrecy.
The Washington Post's Julie Tate and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.