Flashcard: Predator Drone Strikes

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Reading the news can sometimes be a frustrating experience. Too often, journalists use jargon they expect their readers to know, or they fail to give context because they imagine readers have been assiduously following previous stories. In our Flashcard series, The Atlantic aims to decode the concepts and terms readers encounter every day but seldom see explained. Today's installment: We dig into the facts about the CIA's Predator drone strikes in Pakistan.

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The News

In the past 48 hours, there have been at least four Predator drone strikes in Waziristan, killing at least 18 people and injuring many others.

The Gist

The Central Intelligence Agency's Counterterrorism Center is responsible for a classified program that uses unmanned drones equipped with Hellfire missiles to target senior Al Qaeda leaders and allied militants in Pakistan. According to unofficial tallies kept by journalists, there have been more than 160 separate strikes since the CIA began the operation in 2004.

Pakistan's government is not only aware of the program, select members of the government and military are given access to targeting data before strikes are launched, and they are often given real-time video feeds of the operations themselves. Pakistan's government routinely provides information about the strikes to journalists. The CIA refuses to discuss the program, although one official acknowledges that it is "denied" -- as in supposedly clandestine -- but clearly not stealthy.

The CIA insists that it has found ways to minimize the chances for unwarranted civilians casualties, and that when Pakistanis protest the strikes, they're being fed by militants who want to discredit the Pakistani government and the United States. The number of innocent people who have been killed is disputed; estimates range from a little over a dozen to several hundred. The CIA's targeting list is not limited to members of Al Qaeda: drones now target militants and drug lords. The Obama administration has increased the use of drone strikes. In an interview earlier in the year, CIA director Leon Panetta said that Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan was significantly weaker, implying that the CIA's campaign has been successful. In June, a United Nations official who monitors extra-judicial killings formally questioned the legality of the program, given that the CIA is not a military entity and the rules of engagement are unclear to people who happen to be innocently living in the combat zone.

Other U.S. entities, including Joint Special Operations Command task forces, operate out of Pakistan, but they generally do not use drones to assassinate leaders. Rather, they use drones for surveillance and tracking. For a while, there has been a high-level dispute between senior counter-terrorism planners in the military and civilians in the CIA about the overall utility of the program. To simplify, the military intelligence community generally finds the Pakistani strikes to be counter-productive and not aimed at the network that sustains and nourishes the insurgency in Afghanistan. The CIA counters that it has decapitated the leadership of Al Qaeda, significantly degrading the network's ability to function. The military responds that the insurgency in Afghanistan has never been worse, and that special forces and intelligence gathering techniques have been more productive in breaking the links between Islamic militant cells of any stripe. They point to the CIA's inability to kill Baitullah Meshud, an influential Al Qaeda-linked militant in Waziristan.

A classified executive order permits both the CIA and special operations forces to target militants whose aim for a worldwide caliphate. This notion is used to justify the expansion of these operations worldwide. But the UN official insists that they operate in an "accountability void."

When he was Director of National Intelligence, Adm. Dennis Blair wanted to better integrate the CIA's drone program into the national intelligence strategy. His efforts were resisted by the CIA.

The CIA is said to use relatively older technology because they do not want to pass to the Pakistanis newer technology that might be laundered to militant groups. Most Predators used by the CIA are MQ-1As, and are launched from the Shamzi Airfield in Baluchistan.

These Predators are older, and they are loud, and they do not have advanced infrared and foliage-penetration capabilities and many of them had relatively weak encryption systems until recently. However, these Predators are very precise and their navigation and guidance systems are said to be very accurate.

Intelligence for the strikes is analyzed at a joint Army intelligence and CIA facility in Charlottesville, Virginia. The strikes themselves are coordinated with the Combined Air Operations Center, which is located in the Middle East and is responsible for all air assets in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater of war. There have been reports that the CIA has begun to use Reaper drones, which have a more advanced optics package and a longer, well, battery life. But sources dispute this, insisting that the Air Force -- conventional forces and special operations forces -- use the roughly 30 Reapers that have been produced to date, and mostly in Afghanistan.



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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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