WSJ: CIA asked to adjust drone strike policy

By Sophie Quinton

November 4, 2011

The CIA has secretly adjusted its drone strike campaign in Pakistan, bowing to pressure from military and diplomatic officials, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

Behind closed doors, military and diplomatic officials have expressed concern that the CIA's large drone strikes are straining the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan, The Journal reported -- although "few U.S. officials have publicly criticized the campaign, or its rapid expansion under President Barack Obama." Pakistani citizens, rising politicians, and top officials have strongly opposed the strikes, which they say kill innocent civilians.

Earlier this year, "the disputes over drones became so protracted that the White House launched a review over the summer, in which Mr. Obama intervened," The Journal reported. "Among the changes: The State Department won greater sway in strike decisions; Pakistani leaders got advance notice about more operations; and the CIA agreed to suspend operations when Pakistani officials visit the U.S."

"The White House review culminated in a Situation Room meeting with Mr. Obama in June in which he reaffirmed support for the program," The Journal noted.

Officials who spoke to The Journal had mixed reactions to the concessions, with some saying "the impact was minimal" and others saying the changes reflect a "new phase" in the CIA's drone operations.

CIA officials argue that civilian casualties have been minimal, with only 60 civilians slain "over the years," The Journal reported. Officials in both Pakistan and the United States doubt that the number is that low. The White House review was prompted by a March 17 strike that Pakistani said "killed more than 40, including innocent civilians." American officials say 20 militants were killed.

Diplomats say the CIA unleashes strikes without considering the larger diplomatic implications. The CIA has wide latitude to determine when and where to strike; the White House is often informed only after the fact.

In the spring of 2011, "military leaders increasingly found themselves on the phone" with then-CIA Director Leon Panetta "and his deputy, urging restraint in drone attacks, particularly during periods when the U.S. was engaging in high-level diplomatic exchanges with Pakistan," The Journal reported.

U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter is among those who has "advocated more judicious use" of signature strikes, the Journal reported. Other skeptics have included former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Gen. David Petraeus, who is now the CIA director. Panetta now serves as Defense secretary.

"Some strikes on larger groups have taken place" under Petraeus, a senior intelligence official told the Journal, despite the fact the Petraeus has "voiced a preference for smaller drone strikes."

Current U.S. objectives in Pakistan underscore the complexity of both the drone strike issue and the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. While the CIA has recently "intensified strikes in Pakistan focusing on the militant Haqqani network," the State Department "is trying to enlist Pakistan's help in advancing peace talks with the Taliban," the Journal reported -- which may involve engaging diplomatically with the Haqqanis. The Haqqani network is affiliated with the Taliban, and is also closely tied to Pakistan's intelligence agency.

By Sophie Quinton

November 4, 2011