CIA Seeks Expansion of Lethal Drone Program in Yemen

CIA Seeks Expansion of Lethal Drone Program in Yemen

Intelligence agency won't acknowledge program exists, wants more of it

If approved, a request by CIA chief David Petraeus to allow US drones to fire missiles at human targets based solely on their activities viewed from thousands of miles away, would likely accelerate a campaign of U.S. airstrikes in Yemen and increase the likelihood of innocent civilian deaths, according to a report in The Washington Post.

The policy of so-called "signature strikes" is already in place in Pakistan, and allows the CIA to authorize airstrikes based on what they see as "signatures" of militant behavior -- such as loading or building explosives -- or when operatives on the ground behave in "known patterns" that signify an al-Qaeda leader may be present.

None of the US officials quoted by The Post were identified, which has become the standard practice because the US government refuses to officially acknowledge even the existence of the drone program.

Jason Glaser, writing at this morning, says, "The CIA is officially seeking authority to expand its covert drone war in Yemen by assassinating individuals even when their identities are not known in a move that would codify what appears to already be current practice."

Jeremy Scahill, who has reported extensively from Yemen and on the US drone program generally, asks in a recent video for The Nation: Who approves these drone strikes?

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The Washington Post: CIA seeks new authority to expand Yemen drone campaign

The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed, U.S. officials said.

Securing permission to use these "signature strikes" would allow the agency to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaeda compounds or unloading explosives.

The practice has been a core element of the CIA's drone program in Pakistan for several years. CIA Director David H. Petraeus has requested permission to use the tactic against the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, which has emerged as the most pressing terrorism threat to the United States, officials said.

If approved, the change would probably accelerate a campaign of U.S. airstrikes in Yemen that is already on a record pace, with at least eight attacks in the past four months.

For President Obama, an endorsement of signature strikes would mean a significant, and potentially risky, policy shift. The administration has placed tight limits on drone operations in Yemen to avoid being drawn into an often murky regional conflict and risk turning militants with local agendas into al-Qaeda recruits.

* * * Policy fails to meet administration's own legal guidelines; Laying the groundwork for violent blowback

The Obama administration has already dramatically escalated the drone war in Yemen and although reports always describe those killed as "al-Qaeda" or as "militants," several incidents are known to have killed large numbers of civilians.

But Washington's approach to targeting is already far removed from knowing all of their victims and being sure of their affiliation with al-Qaeda. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times reported that "As the pace quickens and the targets expand, the distinction may be blurring between operations targeting militants who want to attack Americans and those aimed at fighters seeking to overthrow the Yemeni government."

The crux of the Obama administration's legal justification for killing militants outside the war zone without due process is that they present an "imminent threat" to America. The rationale is an especially weak one, but it is even weaker if the U.S. has been targeting unaffiliated partisan groups making up Yemen's many ethnic and political cleavages. And it gets even weaker if the CIA now wants to target people they don't even know. [...]

"U.S. involvement is far more than ever in Yemen. We have no evidence that all those being killed are terrorists," Abdul Salam Mohammed, director of Abaad Strategic Center, told CNN. "With every U.S. attack that is conducted in Yemen al Qaeda is only growing in power and we have to ask ourselves why that is happening."

"Drones are a weapon of terror in many ways, and the kind of hostility this is going to breed may not be worth the counter-terrorism gains," says Barbara Bodine, who was U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001.

Jeremy Scahill:Who Approves the Drones?

Which is the scariest? Targeted assassinations, the fact that Congress can no longer prevent them, or the fact that Congress doesn't seem to care about the loss of oversight? In this episode from VideoNation, author and Nation writer Jeremy Scahill explains the steps taken by the Bush administration and extended by the Obama administration in order to circumvent Congress and carry out targeted killings.

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