The pace of the CIA’s drone campaign has plunged this year as part of a renewed push by the Obama administration to shift responsibility for lethal counterterrorism operations to the Pentagon, current and former U.S. officials said.
The agency has carried out at most seven strikes in 2016, putting the spy service on course to take fewer shots from remotely piloted aircraft than in any year since 2007, two years before President Obama took office and made the agency’s drone program a pillar of his counterterrorism approach.
U.S. officials said several factors have contributed to the sharp drop in the number of strikes, including the staggering depletion of al-Qaeda’s ranks in Pakistan, where in 2010 the agency launched 118 attacks. By comparison, the CIA has fired missiles from remotely piloted aircraft only twice this year.
But the decline also has been driven by White House decisions to curtail the CIA’s lethal role in Yemen and restrict it from even flying armed drones over Syria — instead handing the unambiguous lead for such operations to the U.S. military’s elite Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
Officials at the CIA and the White House declined to comment.
U.S. officials emphasized that the CIA has not been ordered to disarm its fleet of drones, and that its aircraft remain deeply involved in counterterrorism surveillance missions in Yemen and Syria even when they are not unleashing munitions.
Still, the changes appear to mark a significant turning point for an agency that was fundamentally transformed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, from a conventional intelligence-gathering service to a paramilitary force.
The sharp drop in CIA strikes comes as the White House is preparing to release data about the drone program for the first time, including the total number of strikes taken while Obama has been in office, as well as estimates of the number of militants and civilians killed. The administration also is expected to issue rules requiring periodic updates of those numbers.
The White House has repeatedly signaled its desire to shift control of such lethal operations to the military, in part to enable greater transparency and end an often awkward charade in which the U.S. government refuses to acknowledge its role in strikes that are abundantly covered by news organizations and tallied by watchdog groups.
In a speech in Chicago in April, Obama said, “I don’t want our intelligence agencies being a paramilitary organization. That’s not their function. As much as possible this should be done through our Defense Department so that we can report, ‘Here’s what we did, here’s why we did it, here’s our assessment of what happened.’ ”
But White House efforts to accomplish that have been repeatedly derailed by factors including logistical problems and intense bureaucratic opposition. The plan began to gain traction, one U.S. official said, only “over the course of the past year.”
In the most visible sign of the shift, the U.S. military began publicly acknowledging drone strikes on al-Qaeda targets in Yemen earlier this year — a step that the Pentagon had refused to take in previous years largely out of concern that identifying its own operations but remaining silent on others would indirectly expose those carried out by the CIA.
The latest Pentagon release, posted two weeks ago, not only confirmed a May 19 drone attack on suspected al-Qaeda operatives in central Yemen, but also acknowledged that it was the ninth this year. The release also disclosed details about a series of “previously unannounced counterterrorism strikes” dating to February.
The CIA has not taken any corresponding steps toward greater transparency about its drone campaign. But U.S. officials said that the agency has launched four strikes in Yemen in 2016, and that there is now a “clear preference” in that country — the only nation where the CIA and the military both fly armed drones — for JSOC to pull the trigger whenever possible.
White House spokesman Ned Price declined to comment on “specific purported intelligence matters,” but said that Obama “has been clear that we must be more transparent about both the basis of our counterterrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out.” He added that the administration “will increasingly turn to our military to provide information to the public about our efforts.”
JSOC was denied full control over drone operations, but the revised rules bolster the authority of a secretive military command that was barred from launching drone strikes by the Yemeni government after a series of mishaps, including the reported deaths of civilians in an assault on militants traveling in a wedding party.
That episode triggered dueling investigations involving the U.S. military, the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center, inquiries that fueled skepticism among key members of Congress, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, that JSOC was as capable as the CIA of avoiding civilian casualties.
That opposition has since been eroded by a series of developments. Among them is the removal last year of the former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, a surly figure who had presided over the agency’s drone program for eight years and fought off perceived encroachment by the Pentagon.
“I suspect that has an awful lot to do with it,” said a former senior U.S. official who was involved in CIA and Pentagon discussions about collaboration in Yemen, and described Michael D’Andrea, the former CTC chief, as an obstacle.
D’Andrea was replaced by Chris Wood, a longtime CIA officer who is widely considered more collegial and willing to compromise with U.S. military officials. Both sides have since overcome logistical and technical barriers, setting up a new system in which the agency yields control of its aircraft to JSOC in the moments before missiles are launched.
Other factors include the collapse of the Yemeni government that had ordered the JSOC ban, as well as agency blunders that undercut its ability to depict its drone program as superior to that of the Pentagon. In a particularly grievous mistake, the CIA killed U.S. and Italian civilians being held prisoner by al-Qaeda in Pakistan — civilians that the agency did not know were present at the compound when the strike occurred.
Current and former officials also cited fatigue in maintaining an artificial aura of secrecy around a program whose broad outlines are well known even to residents of the most remote villages of Pakistan.
“Who is it secret to?” the former official said. “Are we just providing a benefit to the host country of deniability? And is that something we should be doing? What’s the benefit to us for allowing a host country to talk out of two sides of their mouth?”
The CIA had for more than a decade been given sole authority to carry out strikes in Pakistan, largely to enable Islamabad to shield from the public secret agreements that allowed the agency to patrol Pakistan’s tribal belt.
But the administration upended that rationale last month when it authorized the U.S. military to launch a drone strike that killed the leader of the Taliban in the Baluchistan region of Pakistan. The U.S. government quickly took responsibility for the strike in a move that seemed aimed in part at exposing Pakistani duplicity in sheltering the Taliban.
“We took a strike at a fairly high target and it was [carried out by the U.S. military] and the world didn’t end,” the former U.S. official said, adding that the muted response from Pakistan has pierced the case for continued secrecy.
Julie Tate and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.