How the Drone War Heated Up

| Thu May 6, 2010 11:56 AM EDT

How is it that we've been able to expand drone attacks along the AfPak border so heavily? Better intelligence? More cooperation from Pakistani authorities? In the LA Times today, David Cloud explains that in the past the White House approved attacks only on specifically named militants, but now the CIA is allowed far greater discretion:

The expanded authority, approved two years ago by the Bush administration and continued by President Obama, permits the agency to rely on what officials describe as "pattern of life" analysis, using evidence collected by surveillance cameras on the unmanned aircraft and from other sources about individuals and locations.

....Instead of just a few dozen attacks per year, CIA-operated unmanned aircraft now carry out multiple missile strikes each week against safe houses, training camps and other hiding places used by militants in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan...."The enemy has lost not just operational leaders and facilitators — people whose names we know — but formations of fighters and other terrorists," said a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We might not always have their names, but ... these are people whose actions over time have made it obvious that they are a threat."

....The CIA was directed by the Bush administration to begin using armed drones to track Osama bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda figures, as well as Taliban leaders who fled to Pakistan's tribal areas after the Sept. 11 attacks.

President Bush secretly decided in his last year in office to expand the program. Obama has continued and even streamlined the process, so that CIA Director Leon E. Panetta can sign off on many attacks without notifying the White House beforehand, an official said....The number of Predator and Reaper drones in the region is classified, but one former official estimated that the size of the fleet has at least doubled in the last year.

I imagine that this basically puts drone attacks on the same footing as manned air attacks, which have never been restricted to missions with specifically named targets. Maybe that's appropriate. But it's pretty much certain to increase civilian casualties too. There are no free lunches.

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