The Washington Post reports: When Obama was sworn into office in 2009, the nation’s clandestine drone war was confined to a single country, Pakistan, where 44 strikes over five years had left about 400 people dead, according to the New America Foundation. The number of strikes has since soared to nearly 240, and the number of those killed, according to conservative estimates, has more than quadrupled.
The number of strikes in Pakistan has declined this year, partly because the CIA has occasionally suspended them to ease tensions at moments of crisis. One lull followed the arrest of an American agency contractor who killed two Pakistani men; another came after the U.S. commando raid that killed bin Laden. The CIA’s most recent period of restraint followed U.S. military airstrikes last month that inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border. At the same time, U.S. officials have said that the number of “high-value” al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan has dwindled to two.
Administration officials said the expansion of the program under Obama has largely been driven by the timeline of the drone’s development. Remotely piloted aircraft were used during the Clinton and Bush administrations, but only in recent years have they become advanced and abundant enough to be deployed on such a large scale.
The number of drone aircraft has exploded in the past three years. A recent study by the Congressional Budget Office [PDF] counted 775 Predators, Reapers and other medium- and long-range drones in the U.S. inventory, with hundreds more in the pipeline.
About 30 of those aircraft have been allocated to the CIA, officials said. But the agency has a separate category that doesn’t show up in any public accounting, a fleet of stealth drones that were developed and acquired under a highly compartmentalized CIA program created after the Sept. 11 attacks. The RQ-170 model that recently crashed in Iran exposed the agency’s use of stealth drones to spy on that country’s nuclear program, but the planes have also been used in other countries.
The escalation of the lethal drone campaign under Obama was driven to an extent by early counterterrorism decisions. Shuttering the CIA’s detention program and halting transfers to Guantanamo Bay left few options beyond drone strikes or detention by often unreliable allies.
Key members of Obama’s national security team came into office more inclined to endorse drone strikes than were their counterparts under Bush, current and former officials said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former CIA director and current Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, and counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan seemed always ready to step on the accelerator, said a former official who served in both administrations and was supportive of the program. Current administration officials did not dispute the former official’s characterization of the internal dynamics.
The only member of Obama’s team known to have formally raised objections to the expanding drone campaign is Dennis Blair, who served as director of national intelligence.
During a National Security Council meeting in November 2009, Blair sought to override the agenda and force a debate on the use of drones, according to two participants.
Blair has since articulated his concerns publicly, calling for a suspension of unilateral drone strikes in Pakistan, which he argues damage relations with that country and kill mainly mid-level militants. But he now speaks as a private citizen. His opinion contributed to his isolation from Obama’s inner circle, and he was fired last year.
Obama himself was “oddly passive in this world,” the former official said, tending to defer on drone policy to senior aides whose instincts often dovetailed with the institutional agendas of the CIA and JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command].