Although a strenuous debate led the Obama administration to tighten requirements for striking suspected militants with unmanned drones, the Central Intelligence Agency retains broad authority to carry out such strikes, The Wall Street Journal reported.
President Barack Obama has aggressively expanded the use of drones, raining down missiles on suspected militants in Pakistan and extending the campaign into Somalia and Yemen. But the increased reliance that strategy generated friction between the Central Intelligence Agency, which directs the strikes, and State Department officials who believe the attacks are undermining already tenuous diplomatic relationships.
A review of the policy led to a meeting in which the president reiterated his support for drone strikes. Although he instituted some checks on the use of drones, the consensus among officials interviewed in The Journal article seems to be that the CIA's deployment of drone strikes remains as aggressive as ever, in the words of one anonymous official. While ambassadors can object and prompt the CIA to justify a strike, the CIA can ultimately override diplomatic objections.
It's not like they took the car keys away from the CIA, a senior official said. There are just more people in the car.
CIA's Signature Strikes Retained
A central source of dissension was the CIA's frequent use of signature strikes that target large groups of people deemed likely to be linked to terrorist groups but whose identities are not confirmed, as opposed to personality strikes against known terrorists. The new rules are unlikely to lead the CIA to curtail its use of signature strikes, The Journal reported.
If that is the case, the review will have failed to address the reason drone strikes are so controversial: their potential to kill innocent civilians along with suspected militants, inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment in countries where such rancor is already high and raising a significant ethical dilemma. The administration has maintained that drones only kill militants but a series of studies documenting civilian deaths, coupled with anecdotal evidence and reports from journalists and human rights investigators, have challenged that position.
Obama's embrace of drone strikes parallels a debate within the administration about who can legally be considered a target in an open-ended war against terrorists. The president's authorization of a drone strike that killed the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was never formally charged, sharpened the debate.