The review process is compressed but not skipped when the CIA or JSOC has compelling intelligence and a narrow window in which to strike, officials said. The approach also applies to the development of criteria for “signature strikes,” which allow the CIA and JSOC to hit targets based on patterns of activity — packing a vehicle with explosives, for example — even when the identities of those who would be killed is unclear.
A model approach
For an administration that is the first to embrace targeted killing on a wide scale, officials seem confident that they have devised an approach that is so bureaucratically, legally and morally sound that future administrations will follow suit.
During Monday’s presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney made it clear that he would continue the drone campaign. “We can’t kill our way out of this,” he said, but added later that Obama was “right to up the usage” of drone strikes and that he would do the same.
As Obama nears the end of his term, officials said the kill list in Pakistan has slipped to fewer than 10 al-Qaeda targets, down from as many as two dozen. The agency now aims many of its Predator strikes at the Haqqani network, which has been blamed for attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
In Yemen, the number of militants on the list has ranged from 10 to 15, officials said, and is not likely to slip into the single digits anytime soon, even though there have been 36 U.S. airstrikes this year.
The number of targets on the lists isn’t fixed, officials said, but fluctuates based on adjustments to criteria. Officials defended the arrangement even while acknowledging an erosion in the caliber of operatives placed in the drones’ cross hairs.
“Is the person currently Number 4 as good as the Number 4 seven years ago? Probably not,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official involved in the process until earlier this year. “But it doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous.”
In focusing on bureaucratic refinements, the administration has largely avoided confronting more fundamental questions about the lists. Internal doubts about the effectiveness of the drone campaign are almost nonexistent. So are apparent alternatives.
“When you rely on a particular tactic, it starts to become the core of your strategy — you see the puff of smoke, and he’s gone,” said Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center. “When we institutionalize certain things, including targeted killing, it does cross a threshold that makes it harder to cross back.”