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The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret

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A video presentation of the targeting process exposed by Chatterjee offers a window into the military's decision­making apparatus. The footage, taken from a drone strike in Iraq or Afghanistan and used as part of a "post-strike analysis," shows two men setting up and firing a mortar at a U.S. military base. A "target package" – information hastily assembled by U.S. soldiers – identifies the men as insurgents, and provides details on the location of the strike and the proximity to civilian areas. When the insurgents drive away from the base, the drone follows them until military commanders watching the real-time images determine that they have reached an area where collateral damage will be limited. Then the drone unleashes a laser-guided missile called a Hellfire AGM-114 with 100 pounds of yield. "You're going to destroy the car, but you're not going to create a crater," Col. James Bitzes can be heard explaining on the video. "It's very, very accurate." The entire strike, from identifying the insurgents to launching the missile, is over in a matter of minutes.

The CIA's drone program, by contrast, has evolved in secrecy. Agency lawyers are required to sign off on drone strikes, but the process remains classified, and oversight is far less restrictive than that provided on the military side. To make matters even murkier, the CIA is conducting its drone strikes in places where the U.S. is not officially at war, including Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. "If you're in Afghan territory, it's going to be the Air Force calling in the strike," says a former CIA official with knowledge of the drone program. "If you're fully within Pakistan, it's going to be left to the CIA."

According to John Rizzo, who served as chief counsel at the CIA for six years, the process of approving drone strikes effectively required him and 10 other lawyers at the agency to "murder" people from the CIA's counterterrorism center in Langley, Virginia. Most of the lawyers are either down the hall from the CIA director's office on the seventh floor – the "power floor," as it's known within the agency – or embedded in different services, including those designated as "clandestine" and "forward deployed." When the agency wants to launch a drone strike, Rizzo explained in an interview with Newsweek, it asks a lawyer to provide legal cover for the assassination by signing off on a five-page dossier laying out the justification for the attack. The cable usually contains a list of 30 people targeted for death. Occasionally, the memos are rejected for not containing enough information. More often, Rizzo would approve the kill, writing the word "concurred" following the phrase, "Therefore we request approval for targeting for lethal operation." In his six years as chief counsel, Rizzo says, he signed off on about one kill list per month.

Drone assaults on high-value targets – known as "personality strikes" – usually require approval from a lawyer like Rizzo, the CIA chief and sometimes the president himself. But the CIA's more common use of drones – known as "signature strikes" – involves attacks on groups of alleged militants who are behaving in ways that seem suspicious. Such strikes are reportedly the brainchild of the CIA veteran who has run the agency's drone program for the past six years, a chain-smoking convert to Islam who goes by the code name "Roger." In a recent profile, The Washington Post called Roger "the principal architect of the CIA's drone campaign." When it comes to signature strikes, say insiders, the decision to launch a drone assault is essentially an odds game: If the agency thinks it's likely that the group of individuals are insurgents, it will take the shot. "The CIA is doing a lot more targeting on a percentage basis," says the former official with knowledge of the agency's drone program.

But to countries like Pakistan, what America considers a legitimate strike against terrorists appears to be little more than a militarized version of homicide. "From the perspective of Pakistani law, we probably committed a murder," says the former CIA official. "We commit espionage every day, breaking the laws of other countries." To absolve itself in the most sensitive strikes, the CIA has become skilled at using lawyers to cover its tracks. "They use paper when it is going to help them," says the former official. "Or they get on the secure phone. Or they get in an elevator casually with a lawyer and ask for his advice, like, 'There's nothing preventing me from destroying those tapes, is there?'"

From the moment Obama took office, according to Washington insiders, the new commander in chief evinced a "love" of drones. "The drone program is something the executive branch is paying a lot of attention to," says Ken Gude, vice president of the Center for American Progress. "These weapons systems have become central to Obama." In the early days of the administration, then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel would routinely arrive at the White House and demand, "Who did we get today?"

To Obama – a man famous for valuing both precision and restraint – drones represented a more targeted way of waging war, one with the potential to take out those guilty of conducting terrorism while limiting U.S. casualties. "Fewer U.S. personnel are at risk," says Brooks, the legal scholar who advised the Pentagon. "The technology makes it seem logical to go with the choice that reduces the cost of using lethal force." A senior U.S. official with intimate knowledge of the drone program says that remote-control strikes are particularly helpful in Pakistan, where there's fierce resistance to any overt U.S. presence. "We can do drone strikes without any help from the Pakistanis," says the official, noting that the missions also provoke no "political cost" in the U.S.

Over the past year, however, the president's increasing reliance on drones has caused a growing rift within the administration. According to sources in the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, Ambassador Cameron Munter was furious that the CIA was conducting drone strikes without consulting him over the potential diplomatic fallout. The strikes had stopped briefly in January 2011 after Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor, was taken into custody for killing two Pakistanis in broad daylight; the day after Davis was released, the CIA drone strikes began again. Munter, according to U.S. officials, complained to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senior military officials about the drone program, and his concerns were brought to the White House. At issue was a particularly deadly drone strike in March 2011 that the Americans claimed killed 21 militants, and the Pakistanis claimed killed 42 civilians.

The crisis sparked a miniature blowup in the White House between the president's national security team and the CIA. Last spring, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon ordered a review of the drone program – not to halt it, but to figure out a way to deploy drones that might ease the concerns of Munter and other diplomats. The prospect of any additional oversight, however modest, set off alarms at the CIA. When first confronted with the idea of the review, according to administration officials, the agency flipped out. "One CIA guy gave Donilon the 'You want me on that wall' speech," says a senior U.S. official familiar with the exchange, referring to the scene in the movie A Few Good Men in which a Marine commandant played by Jack Nicholson argues that he's above the law. Donilon tried to assuage the CIA's fears. "No – you know that's not right," he told the official, according to a White House source who witnessed the exchange. "We all are on the same side here, trying to make the country safe."

At the center of the debate was Obama's newly appointed CIA chief, Gen. David Petraeus. Petraeus sided with the White House, recognizing the need to strike a balance between maintaining a strong relationship with Pakistan and aggressively pursuing a military strategy that includes drone strikes. "Petraeus wants to be more careful," says one senior U.S. official involved in the drone program. Agency veterans struck back, complaining to The New York Times that the drone program had ground to a halt under Petraeus. Much of the slowdown, in fact, was due to political necessity: A NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November 2011 had forced the CIA to put drone strikes on a temporary hiatus. But the media campaign appears to have had the intended effect: Two days after the Times story appeared, drone strikes in Pakistan resumed.

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