In the skies above Yemen, the Pentagon’s armed drones have stopped flying, a result of the ban on US military drone strikes imposed by the government there after a number of botched operations in recent years killed Yemeni civilians. But the CIA’s drone war in Yemen continues.
In Pakistan, the CIA remains in charge of drone operations, and may continue to be long after the US troops have left Afghanistan.
And in Jordan, it is the CIA rather than the Pentagon that is running a programme to arm and train Syrian rebels — a concession to the Jordanian government, which will not allow an overt military presence in the country.
Just over a year ago, John O 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 organisation after the September 11 attacks toward more traditional roles carrying out espionage, intelligence collection and analysis. In a speech last May in which he sought to redefine the US 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.
“Some might want to get the CIA out of the killing business, but that’s not happening anytime soon,” said Michael A Sheehan, who until last year was the senior Pentagon official in charge of special operations and now holds a distinguished chair at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Centre.
A number of factors — including bureaucratic turf fights, congressional pressure and demands of foreign governments — have contributed to this delay. At the same time, Brennan is also facing a reckoning for other aspects of the CIA’s role at the forefront of the secret wars the US has waged since 2001.
The declassification of a 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 Brennan has publicly disavowed. The US Justice Department has been drawn into a dispute between the agency and the committee, and is looking into a charge by Sen 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 counter-terrorism adviser. Now, Brennan is in charge of a counter-terrorism apparatus that has steadily grown in budget, manpower and influence for more than a decade. While officials said that Brennan has pushed for more resources to counter traditional adversaries like Russia and China, as well as newer threats like cyber warfare, the agency’s counter-terrorism centre, known as the CTC, remains a powerful force both inside the agency and on Capitol Hill.
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 Feinstein and Rep 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.
A number of bungled drone strikes carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command in Yemen led the government there in recent months to temporarily ban drone strikes, which are launched from a US base in Djibouti.
Officials said that the ban, not previously reported, came after a military drone strike in December killed a number of civilians who were part of a wedding procession in a desolate region south of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.
Meanwhile, the CIA continues to wage its drone war in Yemen, launching the planes from Saudi Arabia.
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 US officials said that the drone programme there could continue for years, and Pakistan has long insisted that it be run by the CIA, not US military.
In recent weeks, heads of several intelligence agencies have faced accusations from lawmakers that US spies were caught by surprise when Russia annexed Crimea. Particular criticism has been reserved for the Defence Intelligence Agency, responsible for intelligence collection about foreign militaries.
Even if the CIA eventually does give up the work of firing missiles and dropping bombs in far-flung regions of the earth, Brennan insists that its counter-terrorism mission will endure. “Despite rampant rumors that the CIA is getting out of the counter-terrorism business, nothing could be further from the truth,” the CIA director said during a speech last month at the Council on Foreign Relations. The agency’s covert action authorities and relationships with foreign spy services, Brennan said, “will keep the CIA on the frontlines of our counter-terrorism efforts for many years to come.”