Currently, both the CIA and the U.S. military are authorized to remotely pilot unmanned, missile-carrying drones against terror suspects. It’s unknown exactly how many strikes have been carried out, but experts say that drone attacks in Pakistan are conducted by the CIA, while those in Yemen and Somalia, for example, are by military forces.
The drones have strained diplomacy between the U.S. and the nations where the strikes are carried out, as civilians have been killed alongside the targeted terrorists, even though most nations have given Washington at least tacit agreement to carry out the attacks.
A Middle Eastern diplomat said that in Yemen, for example, an uptick of U.S. drone strikes last month have killed dozens of people and upset the local public, leading some leaders in Sanaa to reconsider how often they should be used. The diplomat spoke Tuesday on condition of anonymity to avoid political retribution from the Obama administration.
The Pentagon is also considering basing surveillance drones in Niger to monitor on burgeoning extremist violence in North Africa, but it’s not clear if they will be armed. Scaling back the use of drones also would hamper war plans in Afghanistan after combat troops are scheduled to withdraw in 2014. Drones represent a major thrust of the post-troops campaign to help the limited number of special forces units that remain there keep the Taliban from regrouping.
Brennan, who currently serves as the White House counterterrorism czar, has signaled he is prepared to turn the CIA from carrying out lethal drone strikes and hand over those missions to the U.S. military. Sen. Ron Wyden, a senior Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence panel, declared himself unsatisfied Tuesday with the Justice memo and said he will press Brennan at the confirmation hearing about the administration’s current policy.
The drone debate puts Obama — himself a former civil rights lawyer — in the awkward position of carrying out lethal attacks in secret and bucking his political allies in the Democratic Party. Democratic lawmakers were incensed by the refusal of the Republican administration of President George W. Bush to hand over classified Justice Department opinions justifying the use of waterboarding, the harsh interrogation tactic that critics call a form of torture. Obama repudiated those methods — and released those opinions — when he took office in 2009. The use of drones proved to have no political cost to Obama in his re-election campaign.
House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., defended the use of deadly drones, calling it ‘‘a lawful act of national self-defense.’’
‘‘When an individual has joined al-Qaida — the organization responsible for the murder of thousands of Americans — and actively plots future attacks against U.S. citizens, soldiers, and interests around the world, the U.S. government has both the authority and the obligation to defend the country against that threat,’’ Rogers said in a statement.
But Rep. Keith Ellison, said the new Justice memo could spur lawmakers into taking a fresh look at deadly drones, and what he called an outdated policy guiding them.
‘‘We are sort of running on the steam that we acquired right after our country was attacked in the most horrific act of terror in U.S. history,’’ said Ellison, D-Minn. ‘‘We have learned much since 9/11, and now it’s time to take a more sober look at where we should be with use of force.’’
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