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CIA Drones Have Free Rein in Pakistan for the Next Year

It's almost comical, the hand-wringing and head-butting that went into what's ultimately a non-decision, or at the least a long punt. And it doesn't help that the guy who designed Obama's new drone "playbook" doesn't have to adhere to it.
John Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser and CIA-chief nominee, is the architect of the US's new drone "playbook" (via)

Not like the spy agency's hunter-killer drones weren't already stalking Pakistan with near total autonomy from the US military, which maintains its own drone program throughout the Middle East. The Obama adminstration is reportedly close to wrapping up its so-called drone "playbook" and its most notable marker, for now, is not so much who the policy reins in but who it keeps just out of arm's reach--and thus, hidden. The CIA, in what should do away with any sense that the traditionally all-spy unit isn't going full-on paramilitary, can simply set aside the uncracked playbook for at least the next year.

It's almost ["beyond parody"](http://beyond parody), the sort of hand-wringing and head-butting that went into what's ultimately a non-decision, or at the least a long punt. And it doesn't help that the guy who designed the playbook doesn't immediately have to adhere to it.


But the administration has been pressing to set some sort of guiding drone doctrine into law for some time. It felt spurred to codify policy during the home stretch of the recent election cycle--the prospect of Romney-helmed killer strikes not having to answer to an Obama precedent was just to much to bear. The heat was off after the president won, of course, but discussions between the State Department, CIA and Pentagon over the playbook's standards seemed to have ground to a halt. So it was a move to resusciate talks: Granting the CIA a "temporary exemption" for its missions within Pakistan, the Washington Post reports, was apparently a compromise that freed up officials to forge ahead on other aspects of the playbook.

"There’s a sense that you put the pedal to the metal now, especially given the impending” withdrawal, a former U.S. official involved in playbook discussion told the Post. The CIA's exemption is expected to run “less than two years but more than one,” the former official said, noting that any push to nix the "carve-out" will be based on "facts on the ground.”

There's a sense, too, that any worries over exempting lethal CIA missions in Pakistan were put to cautious rest by the likely approval of John Brennan, Obama's top counterrorism adviser and architect of the playbook, to CIA chief. At the same time, it hints at friction within the administration over one of the drone program's more contentious tactics--"signature" strikes--which turned out to be a hot-button in playbook discussions.

Under US "signature" drone strikes, these boys will be fair game in just a few years, Buner, Pakistan, 2009 (via)

The grim irony is that compared to targeted drone blasts, signature strikes have likely taken out more suspected militants in Pakistan. The downside to greenlighting unmanned aerial strikes based purely on suspicious patterns of male behavior, like muling around weapon caches at night, not on verifiable identities? Dead civilians, the blood of which could well be the best recruitment tool for al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Not to say the playbook doesn't cover the criteria by which names "make" any of the US's mythic "kill lists", the legal thinking behind targeting US citizens abroad, and the approval chain "required" when the CIA or US military wants to carrying out a drone hit beyond declared war zones. Or that it doesn't exercise some modium of restraint: As the Post reports, "the playbook has adopted that tighter standard and imposes other more stringent rules." This includes standards for the White House's approval of drone strikes and pulling multiple agencies, including the State Department, to the table when considering additions to kill lists.

Yet for the next 12 months, minimum, none of these checks will apply to the CIA drone campaign in Pakistan, which began in earnest in the 2000s. In neighboring Afghanistan, the CIA has been ratcheting up its drone strikes "partly by loosening the criteria for strikes" from needing airtight intelligence to target identities to resting purely on speculative patterns of shady behaviour and latenight caravans. To think that the CIA, privileged to essentially go rogue for yet another year, will likewise continue pummeling Pakistan back to the Stone Age with signature (im)precision may not only undercut--for good, this time--Brennan's own claim that not a single civilian death has resulted from the drone wars. It may also do away with any notion, as critics argue, that a "playbook" doesn't equate to a long-term war waged through questionable, sometimes unconscionable aerial bombardment.

With just a few last loose ends to tie up, the drone playbook "will be done shortly,” an unnamed senior US official who took part in drafting the document told the Post. Pakistan, who for a very vocal hater (however complicit) of the US's drone strikes has fallen deafeningly silent in light of a recent rash of strikes, still isn't talking.

Reach Brian at @thebanderson