Amid outrage over civilian deaths in Pakistan, CIA turns to smaller missiles

A Predator flies over Kandahar, Afghanistan. The unmanned plane can carry the Hellfire missile or the newer, much smaller Scorpion.
A Predator flies over Kandahar, Afghanistan. The unmanned plane can carry the Hellfire missile or the newer, much smaller Scorpion. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/associated Press)
By Joby Warrick and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 26, 2010

The CIA is using new, smaller missiles and advanced surveillance techniques to minimize civilian casualties in its targeted killings of suspected insurgents in Pakistan's tribal areas, according to current and former officials in the United States and Pakistan.

The technological improvements have resulted in more accurate operations that have provoked relatively little public outrage, the officials said. Pakistan's government has tolerated the airstrikes, which have killed hundreds of suspected insurgents since early 2009, but that support has always been fragile and could quickly evaporate, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.

The CIA declines to publicly discuss its clandestine operations in Pakistan, and a spokesman would not comment on the kinds of weapons the agency is using. But two counterterrorism officials said in interviews that evolving technology and tactics have kept the number of civilian deaths extremely low. The officials, along with other U.S. and Pakistani officials interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the drone campaign is both classified and controversial.

Last month, a small CIA missile, probably no bigger than a violin case and weighing about 35 pounds, tore through the second floor of a house in Miram Shah, a town in the tribal province of South Waziristan. The projectile exploded, killing a top al-Qaeda official and about nine other suspected terrorists.

The mud-brick house collapsed and the roof of a neighboring house was damaged, but no one else in the town of 5,000 was hurt, according to U.S. officials who have reviewed after-action reports.

Urban strikes

The agency, using 100-pound Hellfire missiles fired from remotely controlled Predator aircraft, once targeted militants largely in rural settings, but lighter weapons and miniature spy drones have made killings in urban areas more feasible, officials said.

According to an internal CIA accounting described to The Washington Post, just over 20 civilians are known to have died in missile strikes since January 2009, in a 15-month period that witnessed more than 70 drone attacks that killed 400 suspected terrorists and insurgents. Agency officials said the CIA's figures are based on close surveillance of targeted sites both before and after the missiles hit.

Unofficial tallies based on local news reports are much higher. The New America Foundation puts the civilian death toll at 181 and reports a far higher number of alleged terrorists and insurgents killed -- more than 690.

The drone strikes have been controversial in Pakistan, where many view them as an infringement on national sovereignty. In the past the strikes have spawned protests, as well as angry denunciations in newspaper editorials and in speeches by opposition politicians.

The clamor over the strikes has died down considerably over the past year, however, and Pakistani officials acknowledge that improved accuracy is one of the reasons. Pakistani security officials say that better targeting technology, a deeper pool of spies in the tribal areas, and greater cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistani intelligence services have all led to strikes that cause fewer civilian deaths.

Still, the drone strikes are often cited by Pakistanis as a prime reason for their displeasure with U.S. policy in the region. Pakistan has repeatedly asked for its own armed drones so that it can carry out the strikes -- a move that could help the government with the perception that it has ceded authority to the United States. The United States has agreed to provide Pakistan with surveillance drones but has declined to arm them.

Peter Bergen, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said the agency's accounting of the effects of the drone campaign can neither be confirmed nor refuted without greater access to the tribal areas for outsiders or independent scrutiny of CIA video of the strikes.

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