WASHINGTON - Despite avowals about the need to refocus the US Central Intelligence Agency back to its missions of analysis, intelligence collecting and espionage, the paramilitary operations, including drone strikes, have proved hard to give up, according to a media report.
“In the skies above Yemen, the Pentagon’s armed drones have stopped flying, a result of the ban on American military drone strikes imposed by the government there after a number of botched operations in recent years killed Yemeni civilians. But the Central Intelligence Agency’s drone war in Yemen continues,” The New York Times reported Sunday.
In Pakistan, the newspaper said, the CIA remains in charge of drone operations, and may continue to be long after American troops have left Afghanistan.
“And in Jordan, it is the CIA rather than the Pentagon that is running a program to arm and train Syrian rebels — a concession to the Jordanian government, which will not allow an overt military presence in the country,” the Times added.
Just over a year ago John Brennan, the CIA’s newly-nominated director, said at his confirmation hearing that it was time to refocus an agency that had become largely a paramilitary organization after the Sept 11 attacks toward more traditional roles carrying out espionage, intelligence collection and analysis. And in a speech last May in which he sought to redefine American policy toward terrorism, President Barack Obama expanded on that theme, announcing new procedures for drone operations, which White House officials said would gradually become the responsibility of the Pentagon.
“But change has come slowly to the CIA,” the dispatch said.
“Some might want to get the CIA out of the killing business, but that’s not happening anytime soon,” Michael Sheehan, who until last year was the senior Pentagon official in charge of special operations and now holds the distinguished chair at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, was quoted as saying.
A number of factors — including bureaucratic turf fights, congressional pressure and the demands of foreign governments — have contributed to this delay, according to the report. At the same time, Brennan is facing a reckoning for other aspects of the CIA’s role at the forefront of the secret wars the United States has waged since 2001.
The declassification of a scathing report by the Senate Intelligence Committee about the agency’s detention and interrogation programme will once again cast a harsh light on a period of CIA history Mr Brennan has publicly disavowed. The Justice Department has been drawn into a dispute between the agency and the committee, and is looking into a charge by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s chairwoman, that the agency broke the law by monitoring computers of committee staff working on the report.
Before taking charge of the CIA last March, Brennan had spent four years as Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, a job that put him in charge of the targeted killing operations that became a signature of the Obama administration’s approach to terrorism. It also made Brennan — who before working for Obama had spent 25 years at the CIA — a powerful influence on a president with no experience in intelligence.
American officials said that in that role Brennan repeatedly cautioned Obama that the CIA’s counterterrorism mission threatened to attenuate the agency’s other activities, most notably those of penetrating foreign governments and analyzing global trends. During his confirmation hearings, Brennan obliquely criticized the performance of American spy agencies in providing intelligence and analysis of the Arab revolutions that began in 2009, and said the CIA needed to cede some of its paramilitary role to the Pentagon.
“The CIA should not be doing traditional military activities and operations,” he said.
But now Brennan is in charge of a counterterrorism apparatus that has steadily grown in budget, manpower and influence for more than a decade, the Times said. While officials said that Brennan has pushed for more resources to counter traditional adversaries like Russia and China, as well as newer threats like cyberwarfare, the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, known as the CTC, remains a powerful force both inside the agency and on Capitol Hill.
“I think that most of the CIA is behind the changes, but the CTC community has grown dramatically since 9/11 and is fighting to keep its turf,” Sheehan said. “And, they’ve been somewhat successful in that regard, especially with the drone programmes.”
Influential lawmakers from both parties have fought to protect the CIA’s role in the drone wars and prevent the proposed shift of the bulk of drone operations to the Pentagon.
Both Ms Feinstein and Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, have urged Brennan to push back against the White House policy announced last May, citing what they regard as the Pentagon’s poor performance in lethal operations outside of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the CIA continues to wage its own drone war in Yemen, launching the unmanned planes from Saudi Arabia, the dispatch said.
In Pakistan, where the CIA also is in charge of the drone programme, the pace of strikes has declined sharply, and there have been none since the government in Islamabad formally entered peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a group that tracks drone strikes.
But American officials said that the drone programme there could continue for years, and Pakistan’s government has long insisted that it be run by the CIA, not the American military, according to the Times.
This was one of the terms of the deal reached a decade ago between the Bush administration and Pervez Musharraf, then the president of Pakistan, who said he would allow armed drone strikes in the country’s tribal areas only if they were conducted as a CIA covert action and not acknowledged by either country, it said. For Pakistan to agree to any changes in this arrangement, the United States would most likely have to agree to integrating Pakistan’s military into the drone operations, the Times added.
A White House spokeswoman said there had been “no change in policy” since President Obama’s speech last May announcing changes to the targeted killing policy.
“The plan is to transition to these standards and procedures over time, in a careful, coordinated and deliberate manner,” said Caitlin Hayden, the spokeswoman. “I’m not going to speculate on how long the transition will take, but we’re going to ensure that it’s done right and not rushed.”