A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone
A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone. James Gordon/Flickr

In an effort to expand its campaign of covert drone strikes in Yemen, the Central Intelligence Agency has asked for the authority to target suspected terrorists without needing to establish their identity first.

Yemen has assumed a central place in the Obama administration's counterterrorism push, leading to an expanded use of strikes by unmanned drones that are a critical part of the military's arsenal in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The new authority sought by the CIA, reported the Washington Post, would give CIA operatives latitude to operate in Yemen more in line with practices they already employ in Pakistan.

Drone attacks are divided into two categories: personality strikes on specific, high-value terror suspects, and signature strikes that involve groups of potential militants whose behavior and gathering places indicate they pose a risk. The CIA is asking for the ability to deploy signature strikes in Yemen.

The tactic carries risks because of the possibility of killing innocent people. The Obama administration initiated a review this summer after diplomats and military officials warned that the signature strikes were straining America's already tenuous alliance with Pakistan. The results were mixed, with some critics of overly aggressive drone strikes saying the CIA retained broad autonomy to launch strikes.

The United States faces a similarly precarious situation in Yemen. A popular uprising toppled former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, a U.S. ally who, in a diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, told a top American general that he would continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours. The White House has been trying to beat back an Al Qaeda offshoot that has capitalized on the instability in Yemen, both by launching more drone strikes and by offering increased military assistance to Yemen.

Complicating the situation is the overlap between Al Qaeda affiliates and local militants targeting the Yemeni government. Many Yemenis are already wary of the United States' intentions, given its history of backing Saleh, and assaults on suspected groups of militants could further inflame an already volatile situation.

I think there is the potential that we would be perceived as taking sides in a civil war, an official told the Post.

The pace of armed drone operations in Yemen has been accelerating in recent months, including Obama's controversial authorization of a strike on the radical Al Qaeda cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen.