CIA seeks expansion of drone fleet for more attacks in Yemen
Source: Washington Post, 21/10/2012
The CIA is urging the White House to approve a significant expansion of the agency's fleet of armed drones, a move that would extend the spy service's decade-long transformation into a paramilitary force, US officials say.
The proposal by the CIA director, David Petraeus, would bolster the agency's ability to sustain its campaigns of lethal strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and enable it, if directed, to shift aircraft to emerging al-Qaeda threats in North Africa or other trouble spots, officials said.
If approved, the CIA could add 10 drones, the officials said, to an inventory that has ranged between 30 and 35 during recent years.
The outcome has broad implications for counterterrorism policy and whether the CIA gradually returns to an organisation focused mainly on gathering intelligence, or remains a central player in the targeted killing of terrorism suspects abroad.
US officials said the proposal was submitted recently to the National Security Council but the White House had not made a decision. In the past, officials from the Pentagon and other departments have raised concerns about the CIA's expanding arsenal and involvement in lethal operations. But a senior Defence official said the Pentagon had not opposed this plan.
Officials from the White House, CIA and Pentagon declined to comment. Officials who discussed it did so on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of the subject.
One official said the request reflected a concern that political turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa had created new openings for al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
"With what happened in Libya, we're realising that these places are going to heat up," the official said, referring to the attack on September 11 on a US diplomatic outpost in Benghazi. No decision had been made about moving armed CIA drones into these regions but officials had begun to map out contingencies.
White House officials are particularly concerned about the emergence of al-Qaeda's affiliate in North Africa, which has gained weapons and territory since the collapse of the governments in Libya and Mali. Seeking to bolster surveillance in the region, the US has been forced to rely on small, unarmed turboprop aircraft disguised as private planes.
Meanwhile, the campaign of US air strikes in Yemen has heated up. Yemeni officials said a strike on Thursday – the 35th this year – killed at least seven militants linked to al-Qaeda. The strike was near Jaar, a town in southern Yemen previously controlled by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as the affiliate is known.
The CIA's proposal is being evaluated by a White House panel known as the counter-terrorism security group, which officials said was chaired by John Brennan, counterterrorism adviser to the President, Barack Obama.
The security group, which includes officials from the CIA, Pentagon, State Department and other agencies, is directly involved in deciding which alleged al-Qaeda operatives are added to "kill" lists. But present and former officials said the group also played a lesser-known role as referee in deciding the allocation of assets, including whether the CIA or the Defence Department took possession of new drones.
"You have to state your requirements and the system has to agree that your requirements trump somebody else," said a former official. "Sometimes there is a food fight."
The administration has touted the collaboration between the CIA and the military in counterterrorism operations, contributing to a blurring of their traditional roles.
In Yemen, the agency routinely "borrows" the aircraft of the military's Joint Special Operations Command to carry out strikes. The joint command is increasingly engaged in activities that resemble espionage.
The CIA's request for more drones indicates [retired] General Petraeus is convinced there are limits to those sharing arrangements, and that the agency needs full control over a larger number of aircraft.
The military's fleet dwarfs that of the CIA. A Pentagon report this year counted 246 Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks in the air force inventory alone, with hundreds of other remotely piloted aircraft distributed among the army, navy and marines.
General Petraeus, who had control of large portions of those fleets while serving as US commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, had had to adjust to a different resource scale at the CIA, officials said. The agency's budget has begun to tighten after double-digit rises during the past decade.
In briefings on Capitol Hill, General Petraeus often marvels at the agency's role relative to its resources, saying, "We do so well with so little money we have."
The official declined to comment on whether General Petraeus had requested the drones.
Early in his tenure at the CIA, General Petraeus was forced into a triage situation with the agency's inventory of armed drones. To augment the hunt for Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born cleric linked to al-Qaeda plots, General Petraeus moved several CIA drones from Pakistan to Yemen. After al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike, the aircraft were sent back to Pakistan, officials said.
The number of strikes in Pakistan has dropped from 122 two years ago to 40 this year, according to the New America Foundation. But officials said the agency had not cut its patrols there, despite the killing of Osama bin Laden and a dwindling number of targets.
The agency continues to search for bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and has carried out dozens of strikes against the Haqqani network, a militant group behind attacks on US forces in Afghanistan.
The CIA maintains a separate, smaller fleet of stealth surveillance aircraft, which were used to monitor bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Their use in surveillance flights over Iran's nuclear facilities was exposed when one crashed there last year.
Any move to expand the reach of the CIA's armed drones probably would require the agency to establish extra secret bases. The agency relies on US military pilots to fly the planes from bases in south-western US but has been reluctant to share overseas landing strips with the Defence Department.
CIA Predators used in Pakistan are flown from airstrips along the border in Afghanistan. The agency opened a secret base on the Arabian Peninsula when it began flights over Yemen, although the Joint Special Operations Command's planes are flown from Djibouti.