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CIA drone strikes will get pass in counterterrorism ‘playbook,’ officials say

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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.”

The document, which is expected to be submitted to President Obama for final approval within weeks, marks the culmination of a year-long effort by the White House to codify its counterterrorism policies and create a guide for lethal operations through Obama’s second term.

A senior U.S. official involved in drafting the document said that a few issues remain unresolved but described them as minor. The senior U.S. official said the playbook “will be done shortly.”

The adoption of a formal guide to targeted killing marks a significant — and to some uncomfortable — milestone: the institutionalization of a practice that would have seemed anathema to many before the Sept. 11 , 2001, terrorist attacks.

Among the subjects covered in the playbook are the process for adding names to kill lists, the legal principles that govern when U.S. citizens can be targeted overseas and the sequence of approvals required when the CIA or U.S. military conducts drone strikes outside war zones.

U.S. officials said the effort to draft the playbook was nearly derailed late last year by disagreements among the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon on the criteria for lethal strikes and other issues. Granting the CIA a temporary exemption for its Pakistan operations was described as a compromise that allowed officials to move forward with other parts of the playbook.

The decision to allow the CIA strikes to continue was driven in part by concern that the window for weakening al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan is beginning to close, with plans to pull most U.S. troops out of neighboring Afghanistan over the next two years. CIA drones are flown out of bases in Afghanistan.

“There’s a sense that you put the pedal to the metal now, especially given the impending” withdrawal, said a former U.S. official involved in discussions of the playbook. The CIA exception is expected to be in effect for “less than two years but more than one,” the former official said, although he noted that any decision to close the carve-out “will undoubtedly be predicated on facts on the ground.”

The former official and other current and former officials interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were talking about ongoing sensitive matters.

Obama’s national security team agreed to the CIA compromise late last month during a meeting of the “principals committee,” comprising top national security officials, that was led by White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan, who has since been nominated to serve as CIA director.

White House officials said the committee will review the document again before it is presented to the president. They stressed that it will not be in force until Obama has signed off on it. The CIA declined requests for comment.

The outcome reflects the administration’s struggle to resolve a fundamental conflict in its counterterrorism approach. Senior administration officials have expressed unease with the scale and autonomy of the CIA’s lethal mission in Pakistan. But they have been reluctant to alter the rules because of the drone campaign’s results.

The effort to create a playbook was initially disclosed last year by The Washington Post. Brennan’s aim in developing it, officials said at the time, was to impose more consistent and rigorous controls on counterterrorism programs that were largely ad-hoc in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Critics see the manual as a symbol of the extent to which the targeted killing program has become institutionalized, part of an apparatus being assembled by the Obama administration to sustain a seemingly permanent war.

The playbook is “a step in exactly the wrong direction, a further bureaucratization of the CIA’s paramilitary killing program” over the legal and moral objections of civil liberties groups, said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s National Security Project.

Some administration officials have also voiced concern about the duration of the drone campaign, which has spread from Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia where it involves both CIA and military strikes. In a recent speech before he stepped down as Pentagon general counsel, Jeh Johnson warned that “we must not accept the current conflict, and all that it entails, as the ‘new normal.’ ”

The discussions surrounding the development of the playbook were centered on practical considerations, officials said. One of the main points of contention, they said, was the issue of “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.

Signature strikes contributed to a surge in the drone campaign in 2010, when the agency carried out a record 117 strikes in Pakistan. The pace tapered off over the past two years before quickening again in recent weeks.

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. The restraint has not mollified some critics, who say the secrecy surrounding the strikes in Yemen and Somalia means there is no way to assess who is being killed.

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, which began under President George W. Bush. The agency is expected to give the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan advance notice on strikes. But in practice, officials said, the agency exercises near complete control over the names on its target list and decisions on strikes.

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.

Officials said concerns about the CIA exemption were allayed to some extent by Obama’s decision to nominate Brennan, the principal author of the playbook, to run the CIA.

Brennan spent 25 years at the agency before serving as chief counterterrorism adviser to Obama for the past four years. During his White House tenure, he led efforts to impose a more rigorous review of targeted killing operations. But he also presided over a major expansion in the number of strikes.

CIA officials are likely to be “quite willing, quite eager to embrace” the playbook developed by their presumed future director, the former administration official said. “It’s his handiwork.”

Brennan’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee is scheduled for Feb. 7.

Peter Finn contributed to this report.

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