Does Barack Obama intend to end the drone war before leaving office four years from now? There are troubling indications that he may well do just that.
After Obama took the oath of office four years ago, one of his first acts was to tie the hands of our CIA interrogators – actions that effectively ended the capture and interrogation of high-value detainees. Now in his second term, it appears that Obama is preparing to tie the hands of our CIA drone targetters – placing restrictions on their ability to strike terrorists that could sharply reduce, if not altogether end, the drone campaign against al Qaeda in Pakistan.
The Washington Post reports:
The Obama administration is nearing completion of a detailed counterterrorism manual that is designed to establish clear rules for targeted-killing operations but leaves open a major exemption for the CIA’s campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan, U.S. officials said.
The carve-out would allow the CIA to continue pounding al-Qaeda and Taliban targets for a year or more before the agency is forced to comply with more stringent rules spelled out in a classified document that officials have described as a counterterrorism “playbook.”
At issue are what are known as “signature strikes”:
The term refers to the CIA’s practice of approving strikes in Pakistan based on patterns of suspicious behavior — moving stockpiles of weapons, for example — even when the agency does not have clear intelligence about the identities of the targets.
CIA officials have credited the approach with decimating al-Qaeda’s upper ranks there, paradoxically accounting for the deaths of more senior terrorist operatives than in the strikes carried out when the agency knew the identity and location of a target in advance….
Despite CIA assertions about the effectiveness of signature strikes, Obama has not granted similar authority to the CIA or military in Yemen, Somalia or other countries patrolled by armed U.S. drones…. In Yemen, officials said, strikes have been permitted only in cases in which intelligence indicates a specific threat to Americans. That could include “individuals who are personally involved in trying to kill Americans,” a senior administration official said, or “intelligence that . . . [for example] a truck has been configured in order to go after our embassy in Sanaa.”
The playbook has adopted that tighter standard and imposes other more stringent rules. Among them are requirements for White House approval of drone strikes and the involvement of multiple agencies — including the State Department — in nominating new names for kill lists.
None of those rules applies to the CIA drone campaign in Pakistan… Imposing the playbook standards on the CIA campaign in Pakistan would probably lead to a sharp reduction in the number of strikes at a time when Obama is preparing to announce a drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan that could leave as few as 2,500 troops in place after 2014.
In other words, it appears that Obama is giving the CIA a year or so to blast as many targets as it can in Pakistan, before he imposes deep restrictions on its ability to target terrorists. Once this grace period is over, instead of being able to strike targets following a known terrorist “signature” – patterns of behavior that clearly identify them as terrorists — the CIA will have to have specific intelligence that the individuals in question present a threat to Americans.
This could lead to the virtual end of the CIA drone campaign in Pakistan. That is because the planned dramatic reductions U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan will require the U.S. to withdraw from forward bases near the Pakistani border. Without the intelligence networks run from those forward bases, it will be difficult if not impossible for the U.S. to get the kind of specific intelligence about drone targets required by the “playbook.”
Quite the opposite: continuing the drone campaign after Obama’s Afghan drawdown will require an even greater reliance on “signature” strikes – based on patterns of behavior instead of specific intelligence. Yet it appears that the authority to conduct such signature strikes will be withdrawn at the very same time as most U.S. forces are withdrawn. As one former U.S. official involved in discussions of the playbook told the Post, “There’s a sense that you put the pedal to the metal now, especially given the impending” withdrawal.
That means that at his confirmation hearings, senators need to ask CIA director-designate John Brennan how he intends to continue the drone campaign if the U.S. withdraws its forces from Afghanistan and the CIA’s ability to conduct signature strikes. Or does Obama intend to end the drone campaign – along with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – before leaving office in 2016?