NEW YORK: President Barack Obama “secretly” approved a waiver to the rules for the U.S. drone programme that gave the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) more flexibility in Pakistan than anywhere else to strike suspected militants, a major American newspaper reported Monday.
Citing current and former U.S. officials, The Wall Street Journal said the rules — tightened in 2013 — were designed to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. “Mr. Obama also required that proposed targets pose an imminent threat to the U.S.”but the waiver exempted the CIA from this standard in Pakistan,” the report said.
Last week, the U.S. officials disclosed that two Western hostages, U.S. and Italian aid workers Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, were killed on Jan. 15 by a U.S. drone strike aimed at al Qaeda militants in Pakistan. “If the exemption had not been in place for Pakistan, the CIA might have been required to gather more intelligence before that strike,” the Journal said.
According to the report, support for the drone programme remains strong across the U.S. government, but the killings have renewed a debate within the administration over whether the CIA should now be reined in or meet the tighter standards that apply to drone programmes outside of Pakistan.
Last week, President Obama apologized for the killings and took personal responsibility for the mistake. He called the operation, “fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism efforts in the region’ without specifying what those guidelines are or how they differed from those applied in the rest of the world.
He also announced a review to ensure that such mistakes aren’t repeated. Current and former officials say many of the changes he called for in 2013 haven’t been implemented or remain works in progress.
On its part, Pakistan has long objected to the use of lethal drone strikes in its tribal areas. In a statement, the Pakistani foreign office said, “The deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto in a drone strike demonstrate the risk and unintended consequences of the use of this technology that Pakistan has been highlighting for a long time”.
“Having lost thousands of innocent civilians in the war against terrorism, Pakistan can fully understand this tragic loss and stands with the families of Weinstein and Lo Porto in this difficult time.”
Details about the CIA’s drone programme have been shrouded in official secrecy from its inception because it is covert, The Wall Street Journal pointed out. Seeking to maintain an effective national-security weapon in the face of opposition from within his own party, Obama in a 2013 speech at the National Defense University spelled out some rules governing drone strikes, which he codified in a, “presidential policy guidance” directive.
Among them were that the threat needed to be imminent and that the U.S. had to have, “near-certainty” no civilians would be killed or injured.
Officials said the directive also included language aimed at curbing and eventually eliminating a particular type of drone strike in which the U.S. believes an individual is a militant, but doesn’t know his identity.
These so-called “signature” strikes have been responsible for killing more al Qaeda leadership targets than strikes directly targeting high-value leaders, especially in Pakistan, the Journal said, citing current and former U.S. officials.
The Jan. 15 strike that killed Messrs. Weinstein and Lo Porto was a signature strike. Under a classified addendum to the directive approved by President Obama, however, the CIA’s drone programme in Pakistan was exempted from the “imminent threat” requirement; at least until U.S. forces completed their pullout from Afghanistan, according to the report.
The exemption in the case of Pakistan means that the CIA can do signature strikes and more targeted drone attacks on militant leaders who have been identified without collecting specific evidence that the target poses an imminent threat to the U.S. Being part of the al Qaeda core in Pakistan is justification enough in the Obama administration’s eyes, the Journal said.
The CIA still has to meet the near-certainty requirement to avoid civilian casualties in Pakistan, as it does everywhere else it operates, it said. But a CIA spokesman declined to comment, the paper said.
The waiver gave the CIA more flexibility in Pakistan than anywhere else, including Yemen where both the CIA and the U.S. military conduct drone strikes, and Somalia, where the military has its own targeted killing campaign.