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Under Panetta, a more aggressive CIA

Drone strikes scrutinized

In his 13 months in the job, CIA Director Leon Panetta has led a relentless assault on al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Pakistan.
In his 13 months in the job, CIA Director Leon Panetta has led a relentless assault on al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Pakistan. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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At the end of the George W. Bush administration, the CIA could keep seven Predators in the air round-the-clock, but the number will double by the end of this year, according to the senior intelligence official. Like other current and former officials interviewed for this report, this source spoke on the condition of anonymity because the agency does not acknowledge its actions in Pakistan.

Since 2009, as many as 666 terrorism suspects, including at least 20 senior figures, have been killed by missiles fired from unmanned aircraft flying over Pakistan, according to figures compiled by the New America Foundation as of mid-March. From 2004 to 2008, the number was 230. According to the foundation, 177 civilians may also have been killed in the airstrikes since 2009. Intelligence officials say their count of noncombatants killed is much lower and noted that on Aug. 5 only Mehsud and his wife were killed, despite reports that other family members and bodyguards died in the attack.

Panetta authorizes every strike, sometimes reversing his decision or reauthorizing a target if the situation on the ground changes, according to current and former senior intelligence officials. "He asks a lot of questions about the target, the intelligence picture, potential collateral damage, women and children in the vicinity," said the senior intelligence official.

Killing by drone has drawn increased scrutiny from human rights activists, who say such strikes raise legal questions when used outside the traditional battlefield. Some critics worry that the antiseptic quality of drone attacks, in which targets are identified on a video screen and killed with the press of a button, is anesthetizing policymakers and the public to the costs of war. The ACLU sued the government this month to compel the disclosure of the legal basis for its use of unmanned aircraft overseas.

"The government's use of drones to conduct targeted killings raises complicated questions -- not only legal questions, but policy and moral questions as well," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's National Security Project. "These kinds of questions ought to be discussed and debated publicly, not resolved secretly behind closed doors."

After weathering a number of storms on Capitol Hill, including a face-off with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after the California Democrat accused the CIA of lying, Panetta has studiously cultivated his old colleagues, holding informal get-togethers with the Senate and House intelligence committees.

"It's Krispy Kremes and coffee," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee. "People are relaxed, the conversation is free-flow, and I think that is very useful. "

Last summer, Panetta shut down a still-embryonic Bush-era plan to create an assassination team that would target terrorism suspects and was irritated that Congress had never been informed of the plan. "He found it offensive," said the former senior intelligence official, recalling that it was one of the few times he had seen Panetta visibly angry.

Panetta has impressed the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee. "I'm from the Show-Me State. He's done a pretty good job of showing me," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), an early doubter of Panetta's ability to lead the CIA. "I think the CIA knows . . . at least their director is supporting them even though other elements of the administration [are] causing them pain and grief."

Another former senior intelligence official, who served under Bush, commends Panetta for his aggression but noted that the current successes are built upon agreements made with Pakistan in the final year of the previous administration. The Obama administration has "been operating along the same continuum," the former official said.

Retired CIA officer Henry Crumpton, who pioneered the use of armed Predator drones in Afghanistan and was a top counterterrorism official at the State Department under Bush, said the number of strikes tells only part of the story.

"You have to know where to put the bird to begin with," Crumpton said. "It's a dynamic process. . . . Once you have a strike, you have disruptions and you have more intelligence to collect. It's a wonderful cycle that involves all-source collection and analysis, and the Predator is only part of it."

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