from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Obama Limits CIA Drone Strikes in Pakistan

November 4, 2011

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Boys walk through the rubble of destroyed homes in Buner, Pakistan on September 14, 2009.
Boys walk through the rubble of destroyed homes in Buner, Pakistan on September 14, 2009.

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent article this morning that reports: “The Central Intelligence Agency has made a series of secret concessions in its drone campaign after military and diplomatic officials complained large strikes were damaging the fragile U.S. relationship with Pakistan.”

Based on a series of interviews with anonymous officials, the article describes an Obama administration debate and review of the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan. On the one hand was the CIA, which is the lead executive agency, authorized to conduct the drone strikes under what what U.S. law describes as a Title 50 “covert action.” The CIA has sought and received a free hand from the White House to determine which low-level militants they can target—i.e. “signature strikes”—based on a pattern of life observations of individuals that provide operational support to groups threatening U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, some Pentagon and State Department officials reportedly contended that the drone strikes kill low-level fighters with little concern for diplomatic costs or Pakistani public opinion. According to a senior U.S. intelligence official, when Gen. David Petraeus commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan (he is now Director of Central Intelligence), he voiced caution against such signature strikes of large groups. Moreover, the article notes at least two instances when Leon Panetta (then the Director of Central Intelligence) ignored objections by U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter to cancel pre-planned attacks, including one soon after Sen. John Kerry visited Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.

Dissension between Ambassador Munter and Panetta had been previously reported, when Panetta refused to cancel a drone strike one day after CIA contractor Raymond Davis was released by Pakistan after being imprisoned for killing two Pakistanis. Those earlier reports came in late July, the same time it was revealed that the CIA station chief in Islamabad was permanently leaving his post for medical reasons. ABC News reported of Munter and the unnamed CIA station chief, "when the doors are closed they are shouting at each other.”

According to this morning’s article, among the changes that the CIA will have to implement are allowing the State Department more power in strike decisions, suspending attacks when Pakistani officials visit the United States, and giving Pakistani leaders advance notice about more covert operations. This last point is a significant concession, since factions within the Pakistani Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence have tipped off its Taliban allies about U.S. operations against them. As Gen. Petraeus testified before the Senate back in March 2009: “An intelligence agency contact ... is warning [the Taliban] of an impending operation." At times, this has thwarted the advantage of surprise that the drones might have.

It is long past time that the Obama administration has integrated the diplomatic viewpoint of America’s Chief of Mission in Pakistan with those of the CIA. The United States has foreign policy objectives in Pakistan beyond the killing of an endless supply of low-level militants, and the CIA drone campaign without limits was increasingly making those non-kinetic objectives unachievable.

The next step for the Obama administration to take is end the myth that the drone strikes are a secret. According to a Wall Street Journal report from August 29, some Pentagon officials have “advocated lifting the veil of official secrecy surrounding the covert CIA strikes so the U.S. can explain more openly who the targets are and what roles they have played in attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.” Hopefully, this sentiment wins out in the next inter-administration debate over the CIA’s drones in Pakistan. Since they are such a significant part of U.S. national security strategy, they should be openly debated and defended by administration officials, not simply lauded with anonymous quotes. After more than seven years and 300 drone strikes, it’s time to discuss the worst kept secret in the history of U.S. foreign policy.