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Entous writes: "President Barack Obama tightened rules for the U.S. drone program in 2013, but he secretly approved a waiver giving the Central Intelligence Agency more flexibility in Pakistan than anywhere else to strike suspected militants, according to current and former U.S. officials."

A Predator Drone on the runway. (photo: Getty Images/ John Moore)
A Predator Drone on the runway. (photo: Getty Images/ John Moore)

Obama Secretly Waived Requirement That Drone Targets Pose Imminent Threat

By Adam Entous, The Wall Street Journal

27 April 15


Waived requirement to show proposed targets pose imminent threat to the U.S.

resident Barack Obama tightened rules for the U.S. drone program in 2013, but he secretly approved a waiver giving the Central Intelligence Agency more flexibility in Pakistan than anywhere else to strike suspected militants, according to current and former U.S. officials.

The rules were designed to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. Mr. Obama also required that proposed targets pose an imminent threat to the U.S.—but the waiver exempted the CIA from this standard in Pakistan.

Last week, the U.S. officials disclosed that two Western hostages, U.S. and Italian aid workers Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, were killed on Jan. 15 by a U.S. drone strike aimed at al Qaeda militants in Pakistan. If the exemption had not been in place for Pakistan, the CIA might have been required to gather more intelligence before that strike.

And though support for the drone program remains strong across the U.S. government, the killings have renewed a debate within the administration over whether the CIA should now be reined in or meet the tighter standards that apply to drone programs outside of Pakistan.

Last week, Mr. Obama apologized for the killings and took personal responsibility for the mistake. He called the operation “fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism efforts in the region” without specifying what those guidelines are or how they differed from those applied in the rest of the world.

He also announced a review to ensure that such mistakes aren’t repeated. Current and former officials say many of the changes he called for in 2013 haven’t been implemented or remain works in progress.

Details about the CIA’s drone program have been shrouded in official secrecy from its inception because it is covert. Seeking to maintain an effective national-security weapon in the face of opposition from within his own party, Mr. Obama in a 2013 speech at the National Defense University spelled out some rules governing drone strikes, which he codified in a “presidential policy guidance” directive.

Among them were that the threat needed to be imminent and that the U.S. had to have “near-certainty” no civilians would be killed or injured. Officials said the directive also included language aimed at curbing and eventually eliminating a particular type of drone strike in which the U.S. believes an individual is a militant, but doesn’t know his identity.

These so-called “signature” strikes have been responsible for killing more al Qaeda leadership targets than strikes directly targeting high-value leaders, especially in Pakistan, where the group’s leadership can be difficult to find, current and former U.S. officials said.

The Jan. 15 strike that killed Messrs. Weinstein and Lo Porto was a signature strike.

Under a classified addendum to the directive approved by Mr. Obama, however, the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan was exempted from the “imminent threat” requirement, at least until U.S. forces completed their pullout from Afghanistan.

The exemption in the case of Pakistan means that the CIA can do signature strikes and more targeted drone attacks on militant leaders who have been identified without collecting specific evidence that the target poses an imminent threat to the U.S. Being part of the al Qaeda core in Pakistan is justification enough in the Obama administration’s eyes.

The CIA still has to meet the near-certainty requirement to avoid civilian casualties in Pakistan, as it does everywhere else it operates.

A CIA spokesman declined to comment.

The waiver gave the CIA more flexibility in Pakistan than anywhere else, including Yemen where both the CIA and the U.S. military conduct drone strikes, and Somalia, where the military has its own targeted killing campaign.

When the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan was extended, so too was the “imminent threat” waiver, officials said. The administration had initially thought the waiver would expire at the end of 2014 with the withdrawal of most U.S. forces, but Mr. Obama decided to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan for longer.

Building a case that a militant poses an “imminent threat” in Pakistan could have required the CIA to undertake additional surveillance before launching a strike, officials said. That could have affected the Jan. 15 operation, these officials said, though it is unclear whether it would have reduced the chances of the hostages being killed.

Critics within the administration say the CIA has done little to curb the use of signature strikes, although they acknowledge that, despite the January killings, they have become less common and have otherwise resulted in few civilian casualties in recent years.

“Signatures have been exploited in a way that was not intended,” a senior U.S. official said. “This is where the policy discussions have to go over the next few months.”

Defenders of the program say the CIA was following guidelines provided by the White House and described the strikes as highly effective. They also say the CIA abided by the requirement concerning civilian casualties even before Mr. Obama issued his directive.

In the weeks before the Jan. 15 strike that killed Messrs. Weinstein and Lo Porto, CIA drones hovering overhead observed a total of five militants. Drone operators zeroed in on one particular militant whom the CIA concluded was an al Qaeda leader whose identity wasn’t known, according to U.S. officials briefed on the operation.

Just before the Jan. 15 strike, the CIA saw one of the lower-ranking militants leaving. Three were visible just outside the compound while the al Qaeda leader remained hidden from view inside.

To track the al Qaeda leader’s movements, and to make sure nobody else was hiding inside the compound, the CIA used the drone’s heat sensors, which can detect the unique heat signature of a human body. These sensors and others are typically used to meet the “near-certainty” standard.

The only heat signature inside the compound detected before the Jan. 15 strike was of the al Qaeda leader, the officials said.

After the compound was destroyed, drones overhead watched as six bodies were pulled from the rubble. The heat sensors and other intelligence had showed only four. They didn’t see any evidence at the time to suggest who the two additional bodies were, but didn’t think they were Westerners based on how the bodies were treated after the strike.

In early February, the U.S. intercepted communications by militants saying two Western hostages had been killed. CIA officials brushed aside suggestions the deaths came from a drone strike, pointing instead to the possibility that a Pakistan military operation might have been the responsible.

Analysts now believe the hostages were kept underground, either in a basement or an escape tunnel, which is why the heat sensors didn’t detect them before the strike, U.S. officials said.

The FBI informed the Weinstein family in February that he might be dead but said the U.S. was still investigating, a process which stretched into early April.

Once U.S. intelligence agencies concluded the drone strike killed the hostages, officials across the government agreed on the need to disclose the mistake. The question was whether to acknowledge the CIA’s role.

Officials at the CIA, the State Department, the Pentagon and the Justice Department argued against making such a disclosure, warning that doing so could make it difficult if not impossible for the CIA to continue the strikes. Diplomats warned it could reopen a rift with Pakistan, where the government publicly opposes the strikes but security services privately abet them.

On the other side was Deputy White House National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who argued for disclosing the CIA’s direct role. In meetings at the White House, they argued that Mr. Obama had promised more transparency two years ago and that it was critical to live up to that pledge.

They received support from the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, much to the surprise of his counterparts at the CIA and the Pentagon, according to officials involved in the discussions.

In what turned out to be a key opinion, the Attorney General’s office warned Mr. Obama that publicly disclosing the CIA’s role in this case would undermine the administration’s standing in a series of pending lawsuits challenging its legality.

Mr. Obama decided to brief the families of the dead in full but to disclose publicly only that Messrs. Weinstein and Lo Porto were killed in a “counterterrorism operation” which took place somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistan border. your social media marketing partner
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