Report: White House Expands Role in Guiding Drone Targets

In this Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night. A computer virus that captures the strokes on a keyboard has infected networks used by pilots who control U.S. Air Force drones flown on the warfront, according to a published report.

Photo: An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan. (AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

May 23, 2012

In a sign of increased sensitivity over U.S. drone strategy, White House counterterror chief John Brennan has taken command of a high stakes review process to determine which terror suspects will be targeted outside of war zones, in nations such as Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

First reported by the Associated Press on Tuesday, the updated procedure “means Brennan’s staff consults the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies as to who should go on the list, making a previous military-run review process in place since 2009 less relevant, according to two current and three former U.S. officials aware of the evolution in how the government targets terrorists.”

Prior to the change, which was instituted over the last several weeks, “targets were first discussed in meetings run by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff … with Brennan being just one of the voices in the debate,” the AP reported.

Drone strikes have become a central component of President Obama’s terror-fighting strategy. As FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith reported in The Secret War, the CIA has launched nearly six times more drone strikes during the Obama administration than it did under the Bush administration.

“The calculus is really a very simple one. It’s trying to kill people before they kill you. It’s as simple as that,” Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA Counterterrorism Center who has become a critic of the strategy, told FRONTLINE last year

The strikes have been credited with killing many high-level targets, yet misfires resulting in civilian deaths have strained diplomatic ties with key allies, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Many details of U.S. drone strategy remain classified, yet in an April address to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Brennan offered a rare window into the administration’s standards for drone strikes.

The U.S. only targets persons it considers a “significant threat,” Brennan said, whether that be an operational leader of Al Qaeda or one of its affiliates, an operative “in the midst of actually training for or planning” an attack, or an individual who “possesses unique operational skills that are being leveraged in a planned attack.”

The AP report sheds new light on how officials at the CIA and the Pentagon have compiled their target lists in the past:

Under the old Pentagon-run review, the first step was to gather evidence on a potential target. That person’s case would be discussed over an interagency secure video teleconference, involving the National Counterterrorism Center and the State Department, among other agencies. Among the data taken into consideration: Is the target a member of Al Qaeda or its affiliates; is he engaged in activities aimed at the U.S. overseas or at home?

Any target not captured or killed within 30 days must have his case reviewed, the AP reported, adding that at the CIA, the process is more insular:  “Only a select number of high-ranking staff can preside over the debates run by the agency’s Covert Action Review Group, which then passes the list to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center to carry out the drone strikes.”

The CIA’s process has not changed under the new structure, but the move will provide Brennan greater input earlier in the vetting process, before final recommendations are given to the president, according to the AP.

On next week’s FRONTLINE, award-winning reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad travels to Yemen to examine, among other issues, the role of drone strikes in the battle against Al Qaeda there. You can watch a preview here.

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Digital Editor



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