December 03, 2012
Credit: Credit: Africom
Those who believed four years ago that an administration led by Barack Obama would shut down the CIA's controversial fleet of unmanned Predator and Reaper aircraft were clearly not listening closely to what the president actually said during his campaign. Had they read the candidate's public statements, they would have realized that Obama had never actually criticized the use of drones to assassinate terrorist leaders and insurgents.
In fact, his comments presaged his later support of an aggressive campaign targeting Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. “It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an Al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005,” he said during his first campaign. “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will,” the candidate said.
That's precisely what the administration has done, not just in authorizing the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, but also with the use of lethal UAV strikes.
Obama personally approves additions to the so-called “kill list,” a roster of names listing those Al Qaeda-linked operatives who can be targeted for assassination by the CIA's apparently growing covert UAV force, according to a report earlier this year by The New York Times. And that list appears set to grow longer. With signs of base expansion in Africa, the Obama administration is clearly making armed UAVs a central part of U.S. military strategy in the years to come.
Can a secret be secret if it is not secret? It is common knowledge that the CIA operates its own UAVs and that they carry out a significant share of strikes, particularly outside Afghanistan—where there are acknowledged U.S. forces on the ground. However, thin as the CIA fig leaf may be, it provides a layer of cover for actions that are at best questionable under international law.
Although more information has leaked out over the years about how and where the CIA conducts its drone strikes, many details are still obscure. For example, little is known about the number of UAVs the agency operates. As long ago as 2006, the Predator and Reaper production lines included aircraft not allocated to the U.S. Air Force, suggesting that CIA birds may not be included in publicly announced USAF contracts. Yet the number of strikes speaks for itself: The use of lethal drone attacks has increased markedly over the past four years and shows no signs of tapering off. As the Obama administration moves into its second term, it is likely to ramp up its UAV campaign.
The difference between the “shadow wars” of strikes conducted by the CIA and the white world of U.S. military strikes is not always clear-cut. While not talked about publicly, there are indications that the military and intelligence operations are closely integrated. The CIA, for example, does not maintain a separate support structure for its drone operations, often relying on Air Force personnel and bases, and it is possible that the military and CIA exchange targets depending on which one is operating in the area.
Perhaps what is most striking about the secret drone strikes is that they show an unprecedented level of cooperation, and in some cases integration, between U.S. military operations and CIA clandestine activities. Though the CIA's drones are often thought of as distinct, the military and CIA operations are closely linked, using the same infrastructure such as the Combined Air Operations Center to coordinate their strikes. The appointment in 2011 of David Petraeus, the former four-star general in charge of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, as the head of the CIA, appeared to cement the relationship between the CIA and the military (it remains to be seen what will happen in the wake of Petraeus's recent resignation).