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.
A senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations, declined to talk about what he described as U.S. “tactics” in Yemen, but he said that “there is still a very firm emphasis on being surgical and targeting only those who have a direct interest in attacking the United States.”
U.S. officials acknowledge that the standard has not always been upheld. Last year, a U.S. drone strike inadvertently killed the American son of al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki. The teenager had never been accused of terrorist activity and was killed in a strike aimed at other militants.
Some U.S. officials have voiced concern that such incidents could become more frequent if the CIA is given the authority to use signature strikes.
“How discriminating can they be?” asked a senior U.S. official familiar with the proposal. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen “is joined at the hip” with a local insurgency whose main goal is to oust the country’s government, the official said. “I think there is the potential that we would be perceived as taking sides in a civil war.”
U.S. officials said that the CIA proposal has been presented to the National Security Council and that no decision has been reached. Officials from the White House and the CIA declined to comment.
Proponents of the plan said improvements in U.S. intelligence collection in Yemen have made it possible to expand the drone campaign — and use signature strikes — while minimizing the risk of civilian casualties.
They also pointed to the CIA’s experience in Pakistan. U.S. officials said the agency killed more senior al-Qaeda operatives there with signature strikes than with those in which it had identified and located someone on its kill list.
In Pakistan, the CIA “killed most of their ‘list people’ when they didn’t know they were there,” said a former senior U.S. military official familiar with drone operations.
The agency has cited the Pakistan experience to administration officials in arguing, perhaps counterintuitively, that it can be more effective against al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate if it doesn’t have to identify its targets before an attack. Obama, however, ruled out a similar push for such authority more than a year ago.
Increasing focus on Yemen
The CIA, the National Security Agency and other spy services have deployed more officers and resources to Yemen over the past several years to augment counterterrorism operations that were previously handled almost exclusively by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command.
The CIA began flying armed drones over Yemen last year after opening a secret base on the Arabian Peninsula. The agency also has worked with the Saudi and Yemeni intelligence services to build networks of informants — much the way it did in Pakistan before ramping up drone strikes there.
The agency’s strategy in Pakistan was centered on mounting a drone campaign so relentless that it allowed no time between attacks for al-Qaeda operatives to regroup. The use of signature strikes came to be seen as critical to achieving that pace.
The approach involved assembling threads of intelligence from multiple sources to develop telltale “signatures” of al-Qaeda activity based on operatives’ vehicles, facilities, communications equipment and patterns of behavior.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official said the CIA became so adept at this that it could tell what was happening inside an al-Qaeda compound — whether a leader was visiting or explosives were being assembled, for example — based on the location and number of security operatives surrounding the site.