WASHINGTON — The drone attack that killed a Pakistan Taliban deputy leader this week was a clear signal that despite President Barack Obama’s promise last week of new transparency in the drone program, the CIA will still launch secret attacks on militants in north Pakistan and the administration will not have to tell anyone about it.
The CIA drone took off from Afghanistan on Wednesday and struck a compound in Pakistan’s remote tribal areas where the agency believed Waliur Rehman was staying. The Pakistani Taliban later confirmed the death of Rehman, believed to be one of the key planners behind the deadly suicide bombing against a CIA base in 2009.
But White House officials would not even confirm that the strike occurred, much less confirming Rehman’s death, although the president pledged in a national security speech only last week that he would be more transparent about U.S. counterterrorism actions.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday would only say broadly that Obama feels a responsibility to protect U.S. forces in the “Afghan war theater” — it includes Pakistan — and would use a “range of abilities” to provide those forces as much protection as possible.
Obama announced new “presidential policy guidelines” last week on the standards his administration has been using when deciding to launch lethal strikes, including a guideline to strike a target only if it presents an “imminent threat” to U.S. national security and only if the target cannot be captured. He also stated his preference for using the military, not the CIA, to carry out such strikes.
But he also indicated that the CIA would continue to control and run its secret drone programs in places like Pakistan and Yemen. While the CIA has permission from the Yemeni government to take strikes, it operates without permission from the Pakistani government, and the newly elected administration of Nawaz Sharif has demanded an end to the program that has killed more than 3,000 people since 2004.
The program has also eliminated dozens of key militants, including al-Qaida’s second-in-command, Abu Yahya al-Libi, last year.
Obama’s speech promising more transparency is not necessarily at odds with this week’s covert strike, according to Shamila Chaudhary, a former National Security Council staffer who worked on Pakistan.
“He’s codifying it, trying to set down in legal language” the counterterrorism program built during Obama’s first term, said Chaudhary, now at the New America Foundation.
“But Pakistan is still an exception,” she said. The fact that the American drone took out one of Pakistan’s enemies also probably helped mute Islamabad’s reaction, she added.
U.S. officials briefed on the drone program say the administration’s intent in the speech was to take the heat off the controversial drone strikes by promising future action would be done by the military when possible. The suggestion was that military strikes are more subject to publicly accessible congressional oversight. In fact, Congress is briefed on drone strikes by both the military and CIA but in closed, classified hearings.
But U.S. officials say they will continue to carry out drone strikes, launched from bases in neighboring Afghanistan or anywhere else al-Qaida and its affiliates operate and local governments can’t or won’t act. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the classified program publicly.
Guidelines for lethal force issued by the White House after the speech would seem to fit the Rehman case, stating that lethal action would only be taken against “a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,” where there is “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Wednesday said Rehman was responsible for cross-border attacks in Afghanistan against NATO troops and as well as deadly attacks against Pakistani troops and civilians. Rehman was also thought to be a key player in the 2009 suicide attack on a U.S. base in Afghanistan that killed seven Americans working for the CIA. Pakistani officials said the other three killed in the drone strike also were militants.
The White House guidelines also state that lethal strikes would only be taken after “an assessment that the relevant governmental authorities in the country where action is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the threat to U.S. persons.” Sharif had indicated willingness to open peace talks with Rehman, which could have meant the man who helped carry out one of the deadliest attacks on the CIA would get away with it.
The drone strike also highlights the closing window of opportunity for the CIA to target high-level Taliban and al-Qaida-related militants while the agency still has tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops to protect its dozen-plus major bases around neighboring Afghanistan.
U.S. intelligence and military officers are also drawing down, and will be relying more on Afghan agencies and intelligence agents. That complicates the mission Obama says will not end with U.S. troop withdrawal: hunting the al-Qaida remnants responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on New York and Washington, and keeping them from launching new attacks.
“They’re still trying to come back,” said a senior coalition intelligence officer in an interview Wednesday from Afghanistan, describing the remote stronghold of al-Qaida in the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan, just across the Pakistan border. He said al-Qaida continues to support both Pakistan and Afghan branches of the Taliban with financial backing, and training in bomb-building and military tactics. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be identified.