CIA Drone Operators Oppose Strikes as Helping al Qaeda
WASHINGTON - Some CIA officers involved in the agency's drone strikes
program in Pakistan and elsewhere are privately expressing
their opposition to the program within the agency, because
it is helping al Qaeda and its allies recruit, according to a
retired military officer in contact with them.
"Some of the CIA operators are concerned that, because of
its blowback effect, it is doing more harm than good," said
Jeffrey Addicott, former legal adviser to U.S. Special
Forces and director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St
Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, in an interview
Addicott said the CIA operatives he knows have told him the
drone strikes are being used effectively by al Qaeda and
Taliban leaders to recruit more militants.
CIA officers "are very upset" with the drone strike policy,
Addicott said. "They'll do what the boss says, but they view
it as a harmful exercise."
"They say we're largely killing rank and file Pakistani
Taliban, and they are the ones who are agitated by the
campaign," he added.
Because the drone strikes kill innocent civilians and
bystanders along with leaders from far away, they "infuriate
the Muslim male", said Addicott, thus making them more
willing to join the movement. The men in Pakistan's tribal
region "view Americans as cowards and weasels", he added.
Addicott retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel
in 2000 after serving for six years as senior legal adviser
to the Special Operations Forces but is still a consultant
for the U.S. military on issues of terrorism and law.
Addicot said the CIA officers expressing concern about the
blowback effects of the drone policy are "mid-grade and
They learned about the impact of drone strikes on recruiting
by extremist leaders in Pakistan from intelligence gathered
by CIA and the National Security Agency, which intercepts
electronic communications, according to Addicott.
They have informed high-level CIA officials about their
concerns that the program is backfiring, Addicott told
"The people at the top are not believers," said Addicott,
referring to the CIA. "They know that the objective is not
going to be achieved."
The complaints by CIA operatives about the drone strikes'
blowback effect reported by Addicott are identical to
warnings by military and intelligence officials reported in
April 2009 by Jonathan Landay of McClatchy newspapers.
Landay quoted an intelligence official with deep involvement
in both Afghanistan and Pakistan as saying al Qaeda and the
Taliban had used the strikes in propaganda to "portray
Americans as cowards who are afraid to face their enemies
and risk death".
The official called the operations "a major catalyst" for
the jihadi movement in Pakistan.
A military official involved in counterterrorism operations
told Landay the drone strikes were a "recruiting windfall
for the Pakistani Taliban".
The CIA operatives' opposition to the drone strikes
program extends to Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan,
all of which now have confirmed deaths from drone strikes,
according to Addicott.
The official goal of the geographical expansion of drone
strikes is to destroy or disrupt al Qaeda. But al Qaeda is
less a major organization than "a mentality" in most Middle
Eastern countries, Addicott said, and the CIA officers fear
that the strikes will only reinforce that way of thinking.
Addicott said the drone program has been driven by
President Barack Obama, rather than by the CIA. "Obama's
trying to show people that we're winning," he added.
The program was originally authorized by President George
W. Bush against a relatively short list of high-level al
Qaeda officials, and with highly restrictive conditions on
approval of each strike. The strike could not be approved
unless the target was identified with high confidence, and a
complete assessment of "collateral damage" had to ensure
against significant civilian casualties.
In early 2008, however, Bush approved the removal of
previous restraints. As recounted by David Sanger in his
2009 book, "The Inheritance", Bush authorized strikes
against targets merely based on visual evidence of a
"typical" al Qaeda motorcade or a group entering a house
that had been linked to al Qaeda or its Pakistani Taliban
As a top national security aide to Bush acknowledged to
Sanger, the shift was "risky" because, "you can hit the
wrong house or mistakenly misidentify the motorcade".
It also meant that anyone who could be linked in some way to
al Qaeda, the Taliban or "associated forces" could now be
targeted for drone attacks.
The Obama administration has continued to justify the
program as aimed at high-value targets, suggesting that it
can degrade al Qaeda as an organization by a "decapitation"
strategy, according to Addicott. However administration
officials now privately admit that the objective of the
program is to "demoralize the rank and file", he said.
That won't work, according to Addicott, because, "These are
tribal people. They don't view life and death the way we
expect them to."
In effect, the drone strikes program has become an
"attrition" strategy for Pakistan, Addicott said.
Such a strategy in Pakistan's tribal region appears to be
futile. Madrassas in the region have churned out tens of
thousands of young men with militant views, and their
activities are spread across hundreds of sites in the
region. A U.S. military intelligence official told Bill
Roggio of The Long War Journal in 2009 that there were 157
training camps and "more than 400 support locations" in the
Within the administration, it appears that the logic behind
the program is that it has to be seen to be doing
something about al Qaeda. "The argument I get from people
associated with the program," said Micah Zenko, a fellow
in Conflict Prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations,
"is the same as the one [CIA Director Leon] Panetta gave
"Very frankly," Panetta declared May 18, 2009, "it's the
only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to
disrupt the al Qaeda leadership."
Zenko, who has studied the bureaucratic in-fighting
surrounding such limited uses of military force, told IPS
drone strikes have appealed to the Obama administration
because they offer "clear results that are obtained quickly
and are easily measured".
All the other tools that might be used to try to reduce al
Qaeda influence in Pakistan and elsewhere take a long time,
require cooperation among multiple actors and have no
powerful political constituency behind them, Zenko observed.
Dissent from those who are involved in the program itself
has little effect when it is up against what is perceived as
political pressure to show progress against al Qaeda - no
matter how illusory.