Published On: Tue, Apr 8th, 2014

Why the CIA Won’t Give Up Its Drone War

CIAs Drone War

By Brian Anderson

Last month, in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, CIA Director John Brennan was clear about one thing: His agency will continue to take the fight to terrorists.

“Despite rampant rumors that the CIA is getting out of the counterterrorism business, nothing could be further from the truth,” said Brennan. The near impunity with which the spy agency carries out covert actions, together with the far-flung relationships it has cultivated with foreign intelligence operations, he went on, “will keep the CIA on the front lines of our counterterrorism efforts for many years to come.”

It was an oblique, if tacit affirmation that drones, more than any other hunter-killer technology, have turned the CIA into a full-on paramilitary force, and that there’s (probably) no turning back. Not for a very long time, at least. Since 9/11, the agency has quickly and quietly shed its bespectacled history of wonky data analysis and global security assessment, trading it instead for direct actions, waging lethal drone attacks throughout the Middle East and Horn of Africa.

And while Brennan himself has sent mixed signals about the need—and his personal desire—to shift away from that paramilitarized model and return the CIA to a strictly intelligence-based outfit, the agency has been achingly slow to make a pivot.

There are a few reasons for the slog, namely bureaucratic quibbling and congressional tension over the future of America’s shadow wars writ large. But equally responsible for the CIA’s reluctance to fully hand over its shadow wars to the Pentagon, which helms its own drone campaign, have been foreign governments’ various demands concerning US drones operating in sovereign airspace (Yemen and Pakistan, for example, would rather not have US drones firing missiles down on their soil, but say that if it’s going to happen, it might as well be the CIA, not a Pentagon prone to clumsiness), and the machinations of the CIA’s National Counterterrorism Center, which continues to thrive under Brennan’s watch.

“Some might want to get the C.I.A. out of the killing business, but that’s not happening anytime soon,” Michael A. Sheehan, distinguished chair at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center and formerly the Pentagon’s senior Special Operations official, told The New York Times.

Just look at Yemen, where a number of tragically botched Spec Ops strikes over the past few years have compelled leaders there to demand a temporary halt on US drone strikes within its borders. The previously unreported ban was undercut a few days ago; after a three week lull in strikes, the CIA resumed its campaign in Yemen, as the Long War Journal reported.

Or look at Pakistan, where the the CIA has enjoyed free droning reign over the past year. The frequency of strikes within Pakistan has dropped off considerably, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s count, to be sure. And we are, at long last, beginning to paint a picture, thanks to so-called forensic architecture, of the true scope of the years-long CIA drone campaign inside Pakistan, which as of November 2013 has returned to Pakistan’s populated areas.

But it remains a place where Brennan’s program could very well continue apace for years to come.

According to Caitlin Hayden, a White House spokeswoman, there has been “no change in policy” since May 2013, when President Obama gave what was considered a landmark speech overhauling the targeted killing program that’s come to define his counterterror policy. “The plan is to transition to these standards and procedures over time, in a careful, coordinated and deliberate manner,” Hayden told the Times. “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.”

Now five years on, Obama’s drone war has killed over 2,400 people. Brennan has moved to obscure the CIA’s role in that count, with mixed results. Last year, as we reported, an appeals court said his drone secrecy argument is hogwash. Nevertheless, that argument still has us grappling with more questions than answers when it comes to the agency’s dronings abroad. What is clear, though, is that those dronings are very real, and will remain fixtures in the CIA’s counterterror operations long after Brennan’s era.

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