WASHINGTON – The CIA received secret permission to attack a wider range of targets, including suspected militants whose names are not known, as part of a dramatic expansion of its campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan’s border region, according to current and former counter-terrorism officials.
The expanded authority, approved two years ago by the Bush administration and continued by President Barack 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.
The information then is used to target suspected militants, even when their full identities are not known, the officials said. Previously, the CIA was restricted in most cases to killing only individuals whose names were on an approved list.
The new rules have transformed the program from a narrow effort aimed at killing top al-Qaida and Taliban leaders into a large-scale campaign of airstrikes in which few militants are off-limits, as long as they are deemed to pose a threat to the U.S., the officials said.
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.
As a matter of policy, CIA officials refuse to comment on the covert drone program. Those who are willing to discuss it on condition of anonymity refuse to describe in detail the standards of evidence they use for drone strikes, saying only that strict procedures are in place to ensure that militants are being targeted. But officials say their surveillance yields so much detail that they can watch for the routine arrival of particular vehicles or the characteristics of individual people.
“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. “We might not always have their names, but … these are people whose actions over time have made it obvious that they are a threat.”
In some cases, drones conduct surveillance for days to establish the evidence that justifies firing a missile, the officials said.
But some analysts said that permitting the CIA to kill individuals whose names are unknown creates a serious risk of killing innocent people. Civilian deaths caused by Western arms are a source of deep anger in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“There are a lot of ethical questions here about whether we know who the targets are,” said Loch Johnson, an intelligence scholar at the University of Georgia.
U.S. officials say the strikes have caused fewer than 30 civilian casualties since the drone program was expanded in Pakistan, a claim that is impossible to verify since the remote and lawless tribal belt is usually off-limits to Western reporters.
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