Report: Trump Gives CIA Authority for Drone Strikes

By Paul D. Shinkman, Senior National Security Writer

President Donald Trump has granted the CIA authority to conduct lethal drone strikes once again, according to a news report, rolling back the limits his predecessor Barack Obama imposed on the spy agency's paramilitary operations.

The Wall Street Journal on Monday reported Trump decided to return the authority to the CIA after meeting with top agency officials on Jan. 21, a day after taking office. Trump had made accelerating the fight against the Islamic State group and other terrorist organizations a key component of his campaign.

The Journal reported the CIA has already conducted at least one strike, killing Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a senior al-Qaida leader in Syria and son-in-law of Osama bin Laden. It's unclear whether the agency has conducted other strikes outside of Syria; the Pentagon did not claim credit for what appears to be an airstrike in Pakistan near the Afghanistan border, which it usually would have if it were responsible.

Military officials reportedly scrambled to determine how to respond to the president's decision and renewed shared authority for drone strikes with their intelligence counterparts, the Journal reported.

Where as previously, National Security Council officials or even the president himself would authorize these strikes, the new rules Trump has reportedly enacted allow CIA supervisors and others managing these covert operations to give the OK themselves.

"To me, it looks like taking the gloves off the CIA to be able to go after these militants, or suspected militants," says Karl Kaltenthaler, a professor at the University of Akron and an expert in the intersection of drones and modern warfare.

The CIA first began experimenting with arming drones to contribute to targeting high value leaders in the Global War on Terror in the early 2000s using the Air Force's MQ-1 Predators, relatively obscure technology at the time. The George W. Bush administration conducted a total of 57 drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks the numbers.

The program surged under Obama, whose administration ordered 563 strikes in those countries during his tenure, aligned with the president's campaign pledge of bringing troops home from wars in the Middle East and employing instead small footprints of special operations forces abroad and low-risk methods of killing, like drones.

The Air Force announced last month it planned to retire its Predator fleet to focus on newer technology, like the larger MQ-9 Reaper.

Obama's emphasis on drones was met with controversy, particularly following reports in Afghanistan, the tribal areas of Pakistan's northwest region and in Yemen of errant strikes that killed civilians, prompting Obama to turn over responsibility for drone strikes to the military, which under its authorities for war must report them to Congress. It remains unclear whether the CIA needs to or does so for each of its covert drone activities.

The relative ease of carrying out strikes with no risk to U.S. forces also was met with pushback, particularly over the 2011 extrajudicial killing of an American, Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida leader living in Yemen.

In an attempt to impose greater transparency on the controversial form of killing amid this criticism, Obama said in 2013 the U.S. would limit using drone strikes only to situations where direct military action to kill or capture the target was impossible.

In April 2015, an apparent U.S. military drone strike targeting al-Qaida operatives at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border killed two Western hostages, 73-year-old American aid worker Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian, who the U.S. didn't realize was inside the compound.

In June 2015, a U.S. drone killed al-Qaida leader Nasir al-Wahishi in Yemen using a controversial technique known as a "signature strike," where the strike is not pre-planned but rather is based on a pattern of activity targeting officials observe at the time, allowing for faster response time to kill terrorists but widening the potential margin of error.

The authorities Trump has granted to the CIA restore much of the power it once had.

"The Trump administration is basically unravelling all of the 2013 presidential policy guidance," Kaltenthaler says of Trump's directive. "These are now covert operations, the government can't say anything about these in the public sphere, they can't even confirm or deny that these operations even took place." 

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