WASHINGTON - The Central Intelligence Agency is preparing to launch a secret program to kill Al-Qaeda militants in Yemen, where months of anti-government protests, an armed revolt and the attempted assassination of the president have left a power vacuum, US officials say, reported WSJ on Tuesday. The covert program that would give the US greater latitude than the current military campaign is the latest step to combat the growing threat from Al-Qaedas outpost in Yemen, which has been the source of several attempted attacks on the US and is home to an American-born cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who the US sees as a significant militant threat. The CIA program will be a major expansion of US counterterrorism efforts in Yemen. Since December 2009, US strikes in Yemen have been carried out by the US military with intelligence support from CIA. Now, the spy agency will carry out aggressive drone strikes itself alongside the military campaign, which has been stepped up in recent weeks after a nearly yearlong hiatus The CIA declined to comment. As a rule, the CIA does not comment on allegations of prospective counterterrorism operations, said CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf. White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment on the program or any shift to the CIA. The US military strikes have been conducted with the permission of the Yemeni government. The CIA operates under different legal restrictions, giving the administration a freer hand to carry out strikes even if Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, now receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, reverses his past approval of military strikes or cedes power to a government opposed to them. The CIA program also affords the US greater operational secrecy, and because CIA drones use smaller warheads than most manned military aircraft, US officials hope they will reduce the risk of civilian casualties and minimize any anti-American backlash in Yemen. The Yemen program is modeled on the agencys covert program in Pakistan, which has killed 1,400 militants but is also unpopular in the country, where it is seen as a violation of sovereignty that costs civilian lives. Some US diplomats and military officials have begun questioning whether the pace of Pakistan drone strikes should be slowed to ease the backlash. President Barack Obama secretly approved the new Yemen program last year. It has been under development for several months because of the complicated logistics required to set up a major intelligence operation in an unstable corner of the world. The program is authorised under the same broad 2001 presidential finding that created the legal underpinnings for the program in Pakistan. That secret finding, signed by President George W. Bush shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, directed the CIA to find ways to kill or capture Al-Qaeda leaders. The Yemen program had been slated to begin in July, but the launch time may be moved back a few weeks to accommodate planning and logistical needs, US officials said. The last known CIA strike in Yemen using an unmanned aircraft was conducted in 2002. The US is increasingly concerned about the deteriorating security situation in Yemen, worries heightened by signs that Islamist militants are trying to seize control of towns in southern Yemen. Theyre looking to take advantage of an opportunity that has arisen, a US intelligence official said of the recent movements in the south. Whether theyre going to succeed or not is an open question. The CIA has been ramping up its intelligence gathering efforts in Yemen in recent months in order to support a sustained campaign of drone strikes.