Barely a week ago, a U.S. drone launched Hellfire missiles on a Taliban convoy and hideout in the Karwan Manza region of South Waziristan. At least 50 people--most of them terrorists--were killed.
According to press reports, it was the 24th such attack by American drones inside Pakistan this year. Since 2004, there have been at least similar 48 strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas, eliminating scores of terrorists and elements of their support infrastructure.
Did we mention that many of these attacks were carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency? While the missile strikes have been widely publicized--and the CIA connection was loosely established--the extent of the agency's involvement wasn't disclosed until last year. That's when the U.K. Times reported that CIA drone operations originated from an airfield in Pakistan, with the cooperation and support of the Islamabad government.
But the program remains shrouded in secrecy. Less than a month ago, an article in Asia Times claimed that the CIA has refused to share even "basic data" with other intelligence agencies on its drone attacks against terrorist targets. According to the Times, the secrecy surrounding the program was being used to "hide abuses" and "high civilian casualties" associated with the UAV strikes.
Intelligence analysts have been unable to obtain either the list of military targets of the drone strikes or the actual results in terms of al-Qaeda or civilians killed, according to a Washington source familiar with internal discussion of the drone strike program. The source insisted on not being identified because of the extreme sensitivity of the issue.
"They can't find out anything about the program," the source told Inter Press Service (IPS). That has made it impossible for other government agencies to judge its real consequences, according to the source.
Since early 2009, Barack Obama administration officials have claimed that the predator attacks in Pakistan have killed nine of the 20 top al-Qaeda officials, but they have refused to disclose how many civilians have been killed in the strikes.
Continued U.S. reliance on the drone campaign has drawn criticism from some military experts. The left-leaning Center for a New American Security (CNAS) issued a paper in June, condemning the widespread use of UAVs to hit Al Qaida targets. Nathan Frick, the former Marine officer who serves as the think tank's CEO--and co-authored the paper--said that CIA officials claim the drone strikes have killed over 300 terrorists, but refuse to say who is included in that total. They also refuse to discuss the issue of civilian casualties, or share critical data with other intelligence organizations.
If the CIA won't provide that information to their intel partners, it's a pretty safe bet that the agency has been less-than-forthcoming with Congress. But recent revelations about the drone campaign (and the secrecy that surrounds it) didn't elicit so much as a peep from Congress. And of course, CIA Director Leon Panetta hasn't rush to the Hill to brief relevant congressional committees, or promise to cancel the program.
That's a stark contrast to the latest, phony scandal to snare the intelligence community. Last month, Mr. Panetta scrambled to terminate a secret CIA effort, purportedly aimed at kidnapping and eliminating top Al Qaida leaders. The initiative apparently began during the Bush Administration, but never moved beyond the planning stage. Members of Congress say they were never informed, and (if recent media leaks are accurate), former Vice President Dick Cheney told the agency to keep the program a secret.
As you might expect, Congressional Democrats were positively aghast. California Senator Diane Feinstein suggested that "laws might have been broken," when Mr. Cheney issued his reported directive, and the CIA went along, never bothering to inform Congress. Of course, Senator Feinstein's committee has yet to hold hearings on the matter, and some intelligence officials insist that Cheney is "getting a bad rap," since the program never came close to being operational. But Ms. Feinstein clearly understands the importance of setting the template for a story.
The irony of this ploy is simply staggering. After establishing legal restrictions and rules of engagement (in the 1990s) that made it virtually impossible to apprehend or eliminate senior Al Qaida operatives, Democrats spent much of this decade criticizing President George W. Bush for "failing" to get Osama bin Laden. Now, after learning of a plan to achieve that goal, the Democrats are atwitter, because they weren't "fully briefed."
Indeed, Congress ought to congratulate the CIA for even considering the operation. After Congressional excesses gutted the agency's operations directorate in the 1970s and 80s, it's amazing that anyone at Langley still have the guts to recommend a direct action plan. The fact it wasn't implemented speaks volumes about long-term fallout from the "reforms" implemented by Congress more than 25 years ago. In many regards, the CIA remains an organization that lives in fear of another Pike or Church Committee, and stages its operations accordingly. The days of bold action and original thinking at the agency are long since past.
Meanwhile, there's another inconvenient truth that should give the Democrats pause. Turns out the "secret" program really wasn't so secret after all. As former terror prosecutor Andrew McCarthy noted in a recent column for National Review, the CIA initiative was part of a Bush Administration finding, aimed at killing or capturing senior Al Qaida leaders. Congress was acutely aware of that finding; CIA "planning" was nothing more than an attempt to satisfy that presidential mandate. Is there an actual mandate for the CIA to brief every idea floated in response to a presidential directive? The lawyers will debate that one for years, but the logical answer is a resounding "no."
There are a number of reasons that the secret program never reached operational status. One is the enormous risk to agency operatives (or SOF personnel), on the ground, attempting to kidnap or assassinate key terrorists, in one of the most inhospitable and unforgiving environments on earth. And besides, the CIA found a more effective way to eliminate Al Qaida personnel--those drones that have killed scores of suspected terrorists since 2004.
Under President Obama, the frequency of those attacks has increased dramatically, despite Afghan complaints about collateral damage and civilian casualties. Apparently, Mr. Obama has overcome his concerns about U.S. military forces (and intelligence agencies) "air-raiding" Afghan villages.
To be fair, the drone strikes are effective, and President Obama is well advised to ramp up the effort. By one estimate, those attacks have wiped out a significant number of Al Qaida's "middle managers," although senior terror figures remain elusive. Still, the impact of CIA Predator attacks shouldn't be underestimated. Terrorists killed by those Hellfire missiles are essential for Al Qaida operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan and around the world.
So why isn't Congress concerned about the secrecy that veils the CIA drone war? Obviously, the Democrats don't want to cross the commander-in-chief, who has made Predator attacks an integral part of his anti-terror strategy. Additionally, tough questions about the UAVs would raise new questions about their basing in Pakistan, and Islamabad's assistance in the operation.
As you'll recall, those elements had never been fully confirmed until earlier this year, when they were accidentally disclosed during an open Senate hearing. The offender? None other than Diane Feinstein. Needless to say, Senator Feinstein's little slip has greatly complicated our targeting efforts in Pakistan.
You'd think that Ms. Feinstein--and her fellow Democrats--would understand that some secrets are worth keeping. We'd also hope their party would recognize the difference between a genuine national security scandal, and one largely invented for political purposes. But then again, we're talking about a party that has largely lost credibility on defense and intelligence issues, given Democrats' willingness to play politics with such matters.
Just more of the same.