WASHINGTON – When missiles fired by CIA drones slammed into Yemen and Pakistan last week, the attacks ended a period of relative quiet for the Obama administration’s lethal counterterrorism program. They also served as a reminder that the CIA is not ready to relinquish its role in the drone war.
Six months after President Barack Obama signaled his desire to shift the campaign to the Defense Department (DOD), the CIA’s drone operations center in Langley, Virginia, is still behind the vast majority of strikes.
And although senior CIA and Pentagon officials have held a series of meetings in recent months aimed at finding a way for the military’s elite U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to take over the job, U.S. officials said the White House vision remains a distant goal.
The emerging plan is likely to allow the CIA to maintain its drone fleet and stay deeply involved in targeted killing operations, even if the final step in any strike sequence is eventually handled by someone wearing a U.S. military uniform, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
U.S. officials said the discussions between the CIA and Pentagon have involved CIA Director John Brennan, his deputy, Avril Haines, and Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, who previously worked at the CIA.
The talks are focused on finding a way to merge key aspects of the CIA’s drone operations with those of the JSOC, so that both sides are deeply and simultaneously involved in nearly every strike, officials said.
“The goal is a find, fix and finish process that features seamless cooperation and robust integration between CIA and DOD,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said, using terminology that has become nearly ubiquitous among CIA and U.S. military operatives for the three-step sequence of lethal strikes.
Even if the JSOC takes over sole responsibility for the “finish,” the intelligence official said, “Brennan has said from the very beginning that the agency contributes important tools to the nation’s counterterrorism capacity . . . the so-called find and fix.”
The effort is beset by technical snags. Despite their overlapping “orbits” in Yemen, the CIA and JSOC employ different surveillance equipment on their drone fleets. They also rely on separate and sometimes incompatible communications networks to transmit video feeds and assemble intelligence from multiple streams in the moments before a strike.
Brennan met twice with senior officials at the Pentagon this month “to better integrate CIA and DOD counterterrorism efforts,” the intelligence official said.
The push to get the CIA out of large-scale lethal operations “is a goal broadly shared within the administration” but “proving difficult to accomplish,” said California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Even when it happens, Schiff said, “it isn’t going to mean that either the intelligence community or the Department of Defense make a clean break.”
That prospect could undermine one of the main rationales for the switch — the conviction among many senior officials in the administration that the CIA should return its focus to its mission of intelligence-gathering.
During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this year, Brennan described the drone program as “an aberration” from the agency’s historic role and seemed to signal that he intends to preside over an unambiguous shift back. “The CIA should not be doing traditional military activities and operations,” he said.
The lack of significant progress toward that aim has raised questions among some whether Brennan’s enthusiasm for ending CIA strikes has waned since he made the switch from senior White House adviser to CIA director earlier this year.
One senior administration official said Brennan had “gone native” since moving into the director’s office on the seventh floor of CIA headquarters.
U.S. officials close to Brennan disputed that characterization, saying he remains committed to the White House goal. But they acknowledged that there is still no timetable for reaching it, and that Brennan never envisioned a complete CIA withdrawal from the drone program.
When Brennan speaks of “traditional” military activities, he “is referring to the military conducting lethal ‘finishing’ operations, i.e. ‘dropping ordnance,’ ” the intelligence official said, meaning the agency will remain involved in tracking terrorist groups and identifying targets even if it ultimately surrenders its authority to execute strikes.
“There has been no change in policy since the president’s (National Defense University) speech in May,” White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said. “I’m not going to speculate on how long the transition will take, but we’re going to ensure that it’s done right and not rushed.”
The outcome has significant implications for U.S. counterterrorism strategy, as well as the identity of the CIA. The agency, which rarely carried out lethal operations during most of its history, was transformed into a paramilitary force over the past 12 years, with its own fleet of armed aircraft.
Since 2004, the United States has launched 433 drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, according to the Long War Journal website. The vast majority have been carried out by the CIA, killing more than 2,200 militants and as many as 400 civilians in Pakistan alone, according to a recent report by a United Nations human rights investigator. U.S. officials have insisted that the civilian casualty count is far lower but have never released a figure.
In his confirmation hearing, Brennan voiced concern that the drone war had absorbed too much of the agency’s resources and attention, creating potential gaps in the U.S. understanding of critical developments overseas, including the political turmoil that has swept across the Middle East as part of the Arab Spring.
“The principal mission of the agency is to collect intelligence,” Brennan testified, adding that one of his first priorities as director would be to examine “whether or not there has been too much of an emphasis on the CT front.”
U.S. officials said that Brennan, now in his eighth month on the job, is continuing to assess the agency’s posture and allocation of resources, and has made significant adjustments. But current and former U.S. officials said they have seen little indication that the CIA’s counterterrorism focus and its role in targeted killing have been curtailed.
“It has been business as usual,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with CIA operations overseas.
The number of strikes has declined this year, in part because of stricter targeting criteria imposed by Obama in May.
But at a time when U.S. spy agencies are facing their first budget cuts in more than a decade, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center — which swelled to roughly 3,000 employees after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — has been shielded from reductions in resources or personnel.
And while Brennan has made personnel moves across most of the CIA’s major divisions, he has left the leadership ranks of the agency’s powerful Counterterrorism Center intact. Among those still in place is the chief of the center, who has led the agency’s drone operations for the past seven years and is described as fiercely opposed to giving up the agency’s role.
Agency veterans who were directly involved the drone program said the “finish” stage of counterterrorism operations is the least labor intensive of the three. By contrast, confirming the coordinates of al-Qaida operatives and keeping them under surveillance until all the criteria are met for a strike is painstaking work that often involves dozens of analysts tracking a single target for weeks.
Others, however, said that moving the CIA even one step away from the trigger could help alter a military mind-set that has spread across the agency’s ranks. As the drone campaign intensified during Obama’s first term, his CIA directors routinely fielded calls in the middle of the night from counterterrorism operatives seeking permission to proceed with a strike.
“I think a lot of it is about the culture in the building,” said Daniel Benjamin, former counterterrorism coordinator at the U.S. State Department, now at Dartmouth University. “How much of the director’s time is going to be taken up by targeting? How much is going to be focusing on questions of analytic product? Those issues are absolutely key.”