The unmanned drone is the post-9/11 signature counter-terrorism tool.
In the space of three years, the administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries. The apparatus involves dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force cockpits in the Southwest and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents.
The rapid expansion of the drone program has blurred long-standing boundaries between the CIA and the military. In Yemen, for instance, the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command pursue the same adversary with nearly identical aircraft. But they alternate taking the lead on strikes to exploit their separate authorities, and they maintain separate kill lists that overlap but don’t match. CIA and military strikes this fall killed three U.S. citizens, two of whom were suspected al-Qaeda operatives.
The convergence of military and intelligence resources has created blind spots in congressional oversight. Intelligence committees are briefed on CIA operations, and JSOC reports to armed services panels. As a result, no committee has a complete, unobstructed view.
Yemen has emerged as a crucible of convergence, the only country where both the CIA and JSOC are known to fly armed drones and carry out strikes. The attacks are aimed at al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based affiliate that has eclipsed the terrorist network’s core as the most worrisome security threat.
From separate “ops centers” at Langley and Fort Bragg, N.C., the agency and JSOC share intelligence and coordinate attacks, even as operations unfold.
he agency moved armed Predators from Pakistan to Yemen temporarily, and assumed control of others from JSOC’s arsenal, to expand surveillance of Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric connected to terrorism plots, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009.
The choreography of the strike, which involved four drones, was intricate. Two Predators pointed lasers at Awlaki’s vehicle, and a third circled to make sure that no civilians wandered into the cross hairs. Reaper drones, which are larger than Predators and can carry more missiles, have become the main shooters in most strikes.
On Sept. 30, Awlaki was killed in a missile strike carried out by the CIA under Title 50 authorities — which govern covert intelligence operations — even though officials said it was initially unclear whether an agency or JSOC drone had delivered the fatal blow.
The second attack, which killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, was carried out by JSOC under Title 10 authorities that apply to the use of military force.
When pressed on why the CIA had not pulled the trigger, U.S. officials said it was because the main target of the Oct. 14 attack, an Egyptian named Ibrahim al-Banna, was not on the agency’s kill list. The Awlaki teenager, a U.S. citizen with no history of involvement with al-Qaeda, was an unintended casualty.
In interviews, senior U.S. officials acknowledged that the two kill lists don’t match, but offered conflicting explanations as to why.
Three senior U.S. officials said the lists vary because of the divergent legal authorities. JSOC’s list is longer, the officials said, because the post-Sept. 11, 2001, Authorization for Use of Military Force, as well as a separate executive order, gave JSOC latitude to hunt broadly defined groups of al-Qaeda fighters, even outside conventional war zones. The CIA’s lethal-action authorities, based in a presidential “finding” that has been modified since Sept. 11, were described as more narrow.
But others directly involved in the drone campaign offered a simpler explanation: Because the CIA had only recently resumed armed drone flights over Yemen, the agency hadn’t had as much time as JSOC to compile its kill list. Over time, officials said, the agency would catch up.
Such disparities often elude Congress, where the structure of oversight committees has failed to keep pace with the way military and intelligence operations have converged.
Within 24 hours of every CIA drone strike, a classified fax machine lights up in the secure spaces of the Senate intelligence committee, spitting out a report on the location, target and result.
The outdated procedure reflects the agency’s effort to comply with Title 50 requirements that Congress be provided with timely, written notification of covert action overseas. There is no comparable requirement in Title 10, and the Senate Armed Services Committee can go days before learning the details of JSOC strikes.
Neither panel is in a position to compare the CIA and JSOC kill lists or even arrive at a comprehensive understanding of the rules by which each is assembled.
The return of armed CIA Predators to Yemen — after carrying out a single strike there in 2002 — was part of a significant expansion of the drones’ geographic reach.
Over the past year, the agency has erected a secret drone base on the Arabian Peninsula. The U.S. military began flying Predators and Reapers from bases in Seychelles and Ethiopia, in addition to JSOC’s long-standing drone base in Djibouti.
Senior administration officials said the sprawling program comprises distinct campaigns, each calibrated according to where and against whom the aircraft and other counterterrorism weapons are used.
In Pakistan, the CIA has carried out 239 strikes since Obama was sworn in, and the agency continues to have wide latitude to launch attacks.
In Yemen, there have been about 15 strikes since Obama took office, although it is not clear how many were carried out by drones because the U.S. military has also used conventional aircraft and cruise missiles.
Somalia, where the militant group al-Shabab is based, is surrounded by American drone installations. And officials said that JSOC has repeatedly lobbied for authority to strike al-Shabab training camps that have attracted some Somali Americans.
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