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

Driving perceptions

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)

Officials say CIA targeteers are increasingly driven to avoid civilian deaths, in part to tamp down any political blowback from Pakistan and from U.S. and international human rights groups. Current and former officials point to the relative absence of complaints from local and regional leaders as evidence of the success of their efforts.

"Where are the photos of atrocities? Where are the protests?" asked one U.S. official who closely monitors the program. "After civilian deaths in Afghanistan, there are always press reports. Why don't you ever see that in Pakistan?"

Peter Warren Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, noted that while Americans use words such as "efficient" and "costless" to describe the campaign, some Pakistanis view it as war without honor.

"The civilian-casualties narrative is a misnomer; it's not a driver of perceptions," said Singer, the author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century." He said that in the tribal areas, the technology itself can be seen as evil because it is so alien.

The fear of collateral damage has led to what officials describe as a rigorous process for confirming the identity of terrorism suspects -- a process that includes what one U.S. official described as "advance visual observation" by operatives or surveillance drones. But new tools and weapons are equally important, the officials said.

"We're talking about precision unsurpassed in the history of warfare," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the CIA program is highly classified.

Today, several small missiles are available to the agency, including the 21-inch Small Smart Weapon, created by Lockheed Martin. Weighing 35 pounds and having roughly the diameter of a coffee cup, the Scorpion, as it is now called, was designed to be launched from the Predator. It causes far less destruction than a Hellfire, and it can be fitted with four different guidance systems that allow it to home in on targets as small as a single person, in complete darkness, according to U.S. officials familiar with the missile.

A Lockheed spokesman declined to say whether the CIA is currently using the Scorpion, which, according to a Lockheed brochure, is intended for "precision attack using a small, lethal warhead against targets in areas requiring low collateral damage." The agency is also using a variety of warheads for the Hellfire, one former senior intelligence official said. Among them is a small thermobaric warhead, which detonates a cocktail of explosive powders on impact to create a pressure wave that kills humans but leaves structures relatively intact. The wave reaches around corners and can penetrate the inner recesses of bunkers and caves, according to weapons experts.

The CIA's expanded arsenal also includes surveillance drones that carry no weapons, two former intelligence officials said. These "micro-UAVs" -- unmanned aerial vehicles -- can be roughly the size of a pizza platter and are capable of monitoring potential targets at close range, for hours or days at a stretch. At night, they can be nearly impossible to detect, said one former official who has worked with such aircraft.

"It can be outside your window and you won't hear a whisper," the official said.

Correspondent Griff Witte and staff writer Karen DeYoung in Islamabad and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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