The Washington Post reports: The CIA is urging the White House to approve a significant expansion of the agency’s fleet of armed drones, a move that would extend the spy service’s decade-long transformation into a paramilitary force, U.S. officials said.
The proposal by CIA Director David H. Petraeus would bolster the agency’s ability to sustain its campaigns of lethal strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and be able, if directed, to shift aircraft to emerging al-Qaeda threats in North Africa or other trouble spots, officials said.
If approved, the CIA could add as many as 10 drones, the officials said, to an inventory that has ranged between 30 and 35 over the past few years.
The outcome has broad implications for counterterrorism policy and whether the CIA gradually returns to an organization focused mainly on gathering intelligence, or remains a central player in the targeted killing of terrorism suspects abroad.
U.S. officials said that the proposal was recently submitted to the National Security Council, but that the White House has not made a decision. In the past, officials from the Pentagon and other departments have raised concerns about the CIA’s expanding arsenal and involvement in lethal operations, but a senior Defense official said that the Pentagon had not opposed the agency’s current plan.
The administration has touted the collaboration between the CIA and the military in counterterrorism operations, contributing to a blurring of their traditional roles. In Yemen, the agency routinely “borrows” the aircraft of the military’s Joint Special Operations Command to carry out strikes. The JSOC is increasingly engaged in activities that resemble espionage.
The CIA’s request for more drones indicates that Petraeus has become convinced that there are limits to those sharing arrangements, and that the agency needs full control over a larger number of aircraft.
The U.S. military’s fleet dwarfs that of the CIA. A Pentagon report issued this year counted 246 Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks in the Air Force inventory alone, with hundreds of other remotely piloted aircraft distributed among the Army, the Navy and the Marines.
Petraeus, who had control of large portions of those fleets while serving as U.S. commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, has had to adjust to a different resource scale at the CIA, officials said. The agency’s budget has begun to tighten, after double-digit increases over much of the past decade.
The CIA also maintains a separate, smaller fleet of stealth surveillance aircraft. Stealth drones were used to monitor bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Their use in surveillance flights over Iran’s nuclear facilities was exposed when one crashed in that country last year.
Any move to expand the reach of the CIA’s fleet of armed drones probably would require the agency to establish additional secret bases. The agency relies on U.S. military pilots to fly the planes from bases in the southwestern United States but has been reluctant to share overseas landing strips with the Defense Department.