CIA drone war driven by internal needs
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - When David Petraeus walks into the Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA) on Tuesday, he will be taking over an organization whose mission has
changed in recent years from gathering and analyzing intelligence to waging
military campaigns through drone strikes in Pakistan, as well as in Yemen and
But the transformation of the CIA did not simply follow the expansion of the
drone war in Pakistan to its present level. CIA director Michael Hayden lobbied
hard for that expansion at a time when drone strikes seemed like a failed
The reason Hayden pushed for a much bigger drone war, it now
appears, is that it had already created a whole bureaucracy in the anticipation
of such a war.
During 2010, the CIA "drone war" in Pakistan killed as many as 1,000 people a
year, compared with the roughly 2,000 a year officially estimated to have been
killed in "night raids" in Afghanistan, according to a September 2 report in
the Washington Post.
A CIA official was quoted by the Post as saying that the CIA had become "one
hell of a killing machine", before quickly revising the phrase to "one hell of
an operational tool".
The shift in the CIA mission's has been reflected in the spectacular growth of
its Counter-terrorism Center (CTC) from 300 employees in September 2001 to
about 2,000 people today - 10% of the agency's entire workforce, according to
The agency's analytical branch, which had been previously devoted entirely to
providing intelligence assessments for policymakers, has been profoundly
More than one-third of the personnel in the agency's analytical branch are now
engaged wholly or primarily in providing support to CIA operations, according
to senior agency officials cited by the Post. And nearly two-thirds of those
are analyzing data used by CTC drone war staff to make decisions on targeting.
Some of that shift of internal staffing has followed the rise in the number of
drone strikes in Pakistan since mid-2008, but the CIA began to lay the
institutional basis for a bigger drone campaign well before that.
Crucial to understanding the role of internal dynamics in CIA decisions on the
issue is the fact that the drone campaign in Pakistan started off very badly.
During the four years from 2004 through 2007, the CIA carried out only 12 drone
strikes in Pakistan, all supposedly aimed at identifiable high-value targets of
al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
The George W Bush administration's policy on use of drones was cautious in
large part because the President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, was
considered such a reliable ally that the administration was reluctant to take
actions that would risk destabilizing his regime.
Thus relatively tight constraints were imposed on the CIA in choosing targets.
Drone strikes were only to be used against known "high-value" officials of
al-Qaeda and their affiliates in Pakistan, and the CIA had to have evidence
that no civilians would be killed as a result of the strike.
Those first 12 strikes killed only three identifiable al-Qaeda or Pakistani
Taliban figures. But despite the prohibition against strikes that would incur
"collateral damage", the same strikes killed a total of 121 civilians, as
revealed by a thorough analysis of news media reports.
A single strike against a madrassa (seminary) on October 26, 2006 that
killed 80 local students accounted for two-thirds of the total of civilian
Despite that disastrous start, however, the CIA had quickly become deeply
committed internally to building a major program around the drone war. In 2005,
the agency had created a career track in targeting for the drone program for
analysts in the intelligence directorate, the September 2 Post article
That decision meant that analysts who chose to specialize in targeting for CIA
drone operations were promised that they could stay within that specialty and
get promotions throughout their careers. Thus the agency had made far-reaching
commitments to its own staff in the expectation that the drone war would grow
far beyond the three strikes a year and that it would continue indefinitely.
By 2007, the agency realized that, in order to keep those commitments, it had
to get the White House to change the rules by relaxing existing restrictions on
That's when Hayden began lobbying president George W Bush to dispense with the
constraints limiting the targeting for drone attacks, according to the account
in New York Times reporter David Sanger's book The Inheritance. Hayden
asked for permission to carry out strikes against houses or cars merely on the
basis of behavior that matched a "pattern of life" associated with al-Qaeda or
In January 2008, Bush took an unidentified first step toward the loosening of
the requirements that Hayden sought, but most of the restrictions on drone
strikes remained in place. In the first six months of 2008, only four strikes
were carried out.
In mid-2008, however, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell returned
from a May 2008 trip to Pakistan determined to prove that the Pakistani
military was covertly supporting Taliban insurgents - especially the Haqqani
network - who were gaining momentum in Afghanistan.
A formal assessment by McConnell's staff making that case was produced in June
and sent to the White House and other top officials, according to Sanger. That
forced Bush, who had been praising Musharraf as an ally against the Taliban, to
do something to show that he was being tough on the Pakistani military as well
as on the Afghan insurgents who enjoyed safe havens in northwest Pakistan.
Bush wanted the drone strikes to focus primarily on the Afghan Taliban targets
rather than al-Qaeda and its Pakistani Taliban allies. And according to
Sanger's account, Bush quickly removed all of the previous requirements for
accurate intelligence on specific high-value targets and for assurances against
Released from the original constraints on the drone program, the CIA
immediately increased the level of drone strikes in the second half of 2008 to
between four and five per month on average.
As Bob Woodward's account in Obama Wars of internal discussions in the
early weeks of the Barack Obama White House shows, there were serious doubts
from the beginning that it could actually defeat al-Qaeda.
But Leon Panetta, Obama's new CIA director, was firmly committed to the drone
war. He continued to present it to the public as a strategy to destroy
al-Qaeda, even though he knew the CIA was now striking mainly Afghan Taliban
and their allies, not al-Qaeda.
In his first press conference on February 25, 2009, Panetta, in an indirect but
obvious reference to the drone strikes, said that the effort to destabilize
al-Qaeda and destroy its leadership "have been successful".
Under Panetta, the rate of drone strikes continued throughout 2009 at the same
accelerated pace as in the second half of 2008. And in 2010 the number of
strikes more than doubled from 53 in 2009 to 118.
The CIA finally had the major drone campaign it had originally anticipated.
Two years ago, Petraeus appeared to take a somewhat skeptical view of drone
strikes in Pakistan. In a secret assessment as CENTCOM commander on May 27,
2009, which was leaked to the Washington Post, Petraeus warned that drone
strikes were fueling anti-US sentiments in Pakistan.
Now, however, Petraeus' personal view of the drone war may no longer be
relevant. The CIA's institutional interests in continuing the drone war may
have become so commanding that no director could afford to override those
interests on the basis of his own analysis of how the drone strikes affect US
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.