The White House over the summer put new restrictions on CIA drone strikes in the wake of concerns that the program was primarily targeting lower-level militants while provoking anger in Pakistan, U.S. officials said.
Since then, according to an independent analysis, the strikes have yielded a significant increase in the percentage of people killed whom the government considers “high-value targets.” But the program is still killing mainly rank-and-file fighters, the study indicates.
And the adjustments in the program have not altered the fundamental character of the secret drone strikes: The CIA continues to attack identified Al Qaeda and Taliban militants as well as rank-and-file fighters whose names are not known.
Under the new rules, however, the State Department, which has been concerned about the anger the strikes have aroused in Pakistan, has more input on each attack. And the U.S. has promised to inform Pakistan if a strike will target a particularly large group of militants.
How much those policies have altered the program in practice remains unclear. “I don’t think this really changed very much,” said a congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the classified program.
The changes grew out of an internal Obama administration debate in the wake of a March 17 drone attack that the government of Pakistan condemned as a mistake, saying it killed more than 40 civilians. The U.S. says the attack killed “a large group of heavily armed men … all of whom acted in a manner consistent with Al Qaeda-linked militants.”
Dennis C. Blair, who was ousted in 2010 as President Obama’s director of national intelligence, has criticized such strikes, saying there is little point in killing easily replaceable foot soldiers if the cost is public outrage in Pakistan. Similar concerns have been expressed within the administration, officials said.
The CIA classifies its drone strikes into two categories. In one type, known as “personality strikes,” the agency tracks and targets a specific person who has been placed on a “kill list” because he has been deemed a threat to the United States.
The other type, known as “signature strikes,” is the one primarily affected by the new rules. In those attacks, the CIA watches a group of suspected militants through drone surveillance video and other means until officials are satisfied that the targets are plotting or carrying out attacks against U.S. troops or American interests, officials have said. The names of those militants are not necessarily known.
On numerous occasions, senior militant figures on target lists were killed in signature strikes, U.S. officials say, and their identities were discovered only afterward.
Some legal experts contend that the strikes amount to illegal assassinations. The State Department and many international law experts, however, say drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas are legal because Afghan insurgents take refuge in those areas, making them part of the Afghanistan conflict zone.
Signature strikes are not allowed in Yemen, U.S. officials say, even though some U.S. counter-terrorism officials say they believe such attacks would be legal and potentially effective.
Since June, when some of the new strictures went into place, CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have killed 235 suspected militants. Thirteen of those, or 5.5%, were significant Al Qaeda figures or militant commanders, according to data compiled by Long War Journal, a website that tracks the strikes through Pakistani and Western news reports.
In 2010, just 2.2% of 801 militants killed were known significant figures, the numbers show. The percentage for the first half of 2011 was similar.
“We are removing leaders faster than they can be replaced. And even when they are replaced, it is with younger, less experienced individuals who lack the abilities and expertise of their predecessors,” said a U.S. official regularly briefed on the program.
Estimates of noncombatants killed in the strikes vary widely. Long War Journal counted 14 civilians reported killed in 2010 and 30 in 2011. Some Pakistani and British activists say the number of civilian deaths is in the hundreds. U.S. officials, including Democrats in Congress who oversee the program, insist that the number is far lower. One U.S. official said there had been “a handful” of civilian deaths in 2011.
U.S. officials say they are confident they know who has been killed because they watch each strike on video and gather intelligence in the aftermath, observing funerals for the dead and eavesdropping on conversations about the strikes.
Times staff writer David S. Cloud contributed to this report.