CIA Told to Be More Careful With Their Drones


The Wall Street Journal has a piece on the White House and the CIA's battles over drone strikes. The American people, of course, are not party to those debates, so the conclusions from the story optimistically headlined "CIA Tightens Drone Rules" are mixed:

The disputes over drones became so protracted that the White House launched a review over the summer, in which Mr. Obama intervened.

The review ultimately affirmed support for the underlying CIA program. But a senior official said: "The bar has been raised. Inside CIA, there is a recognition you need to be damn sure it's worth it."

Among the changes: The State Department won greater sway in strike decisions; Pakistani leaders got advance notice about more operations; and the CIA agreed to suspend operations when Pakistani officials visit the U.S.

The Pakistan drone debate already seems to be influencing thinking about the U.S. use of drones elsewhere in the world. In Yemen, the CIA used the pilotless aircraft in September to kill American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a suspected terrorist. But the White House has for now barred the CIA from attacking large groups of unidentified lower-level militants there.

The CIA concessions were detailed by high-level officials in a series of interviews with The Wall Street Journal. But in a measure of the discord, administration officials have different interpretations about the outcome of the White House review. While some cast the concessions as a "new phase" in which the CIA would weigh diplomacy more heavily in its activities, others said the impact was minimal and that the bar for vetting targets has been consistently high.

"Even if there are added considerations, the program—which still has strong support in Washington—remains as aggressive as ever," said a U.S. official.

Emphasis added. The rest here.

So, what does this actually mean, considering some of the recent controversies over the targeted killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki (and weeks later, the supposedly accidental killing of Awlaki's Denver-born 16-year-old son) and the more recent news that a Pakistani teenager who wanted to document the effects of drones on his country was killed (along with his 12-year-old cousin) in yet another strike? 

Maybe not much. Even though it's heartening to see any White House attempts to rein in the CIA, its policy effect may not ever be clear. The only thing the Obama administration has made clear, after all, is that the whys and whos of drone strikes is entirely their call.

Adam Serwer, in a blog over at Mother Jones, delves deeper into the Journal story and explains the basic difference between the types of drone strikes, and some of their effects:

There are basically two kinds of strikes the CIA carries out—strikes on specific targets and "signature strikes," which target groups of individuals the government suspects are militants. How does it know they're actually militants? It "tracks their movements and activities for hours or days before striking them." Which is to say, the CIA thinks it's getting the right people, but it doesn't always know for sure. And when asked, the government claims that the CIA almost never makes mistakes. White House Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan said in June that there hadn't been "a single collateral death" from the drone program in almost a year.

Third-party evaluations of the drone program say otherwise. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism concluded in a report released in August that "at least 392 civilians" were among the estimated nearly 2,500 people killed in drone strikes since 2004. 

Reason on drones, on the CIA, and on war.