It's worth pausing at that line about the "tight limits" on current drone operations in Yemen. Here's how Jeremy Scahill, who reported on the ground there, described the reality of American policy:
For years, the elite Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA had
teams deployed inside Yemen that supported Yemeni forces and conducted
unilateral operations, consisting mostly of cruise missile and drone
attacks. Some of the unilateral strikes have killed their intended
targets, such as the CIA attack on Awlaki. But others have killed
civilians--at times, a lot of civilians. And many of these have been in
Abyan and its neighboring province of Shebwa, both of which have
recently seen a substantial rise of AQAP activity. President Obama's
first known authorization of a missile strike on Yemen, on December 17,
2009, killed more than forty Bedouins, many of them women and children,
in the remote village of al Majala in Abyan. Another US strike, in May
2010, killed an important tribal leader and the deputy governor of Marib
province, Jabir Shabwani, sparking mass anger at the United States...
The October drone strike that killed Awlaki's 16-year-old son,
Abdulrahman, a US citizen, and his teenage cousin shocked and enraged
Yemenis of all political stripes. "I firmly believe that the [military]
operations implemented by the US performed a great service for Al Qaeda,
because those operations gave Al Qaeda unprecedented local sympathy,"
says Jamal, the Yemeni journalist. The strikes "have recruited
thousands." Yemeni tribesmen, he says, share one common goal with Al
Qaeda, "which is revenge against the Americans, because those who were
killed are the sons of the tribesmen, and the tribesmen never, ever give
up on revenge." Even senior officials of the Saleh regime recognize the
damage the strikes have caused.
Put another way, the status quo, with its relatively greater protections, resulted in dozens of dead innocents and, according to some experts, created the conditions for blowback. And since Scahill did his reporting, the pace of drone strikes has increased, "with about as many strikes so far this year as in all of 2011," the Post reports. "Which U.S. entity is responsible for each strike remains unclear." Also secret are the identities of the people targeted and the people killed, a confluence of opacity that make abuses likely and more dead innocents all but certain.
As Michael Hastings outlines
The first major success of drones - the 2002 strike that took out the
leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen - also resulted in the death of a U.S.
citizen. More recently, a drone strike by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in
2010 targeted the wrong individual - killing a well-known human rights
advocate named Zabet Amanullah who actually supported the U.S.-backed
government. The U.S. military, it turned out, had tracked the wrong
cellphone for months, mistaking Amanullah for a senior Taliban leader. A
year earlier, a drone strike killed Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the
Pakistani Taliban, while he was visiting his father-in-law; his wife was
vaporized along with him. But the U.S. had already tried four times to
assassinate Mehsud with drones, killing dozens of civilians in the
failed attempts. One of the missed strikes, according to a human rights
group, killed 35 people, including nine civilians, with reports that
flying shrapnel killed an eight-year-old boy while he was sleeping.
Another blown strike, in June 2009, took out 45 civilians, according to
credible press reports.
It remains unclear what role the White House itself plays in
selecting the names that wind up placed on the kill lists. Some U.S.
officials have described a secret panel within the National Security
Council that keeps a list of targets to kill or capture. The panel,
which has no paperwork authorizing its existence, is said to involve top
counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who was a staunch advocate of
the Bush administration's decision to torture prisoners at Guantánamo.
Other U.S. officials familiar with the targeting process say the idea of
a secret panel overstates the case. The NSC, they insist, isn't
involved in the vast majority of drone strikes on a daily basis -
especially the majority of "signature strikes" launched by the CIA. That
means the CIA still has broad authority to curate its own kill lists,
with limited oversight from the White House. As one former CIA official
put it: "The NSC decides when the president needs to be involved - and
what fingerprints to leave, if any."
Yet the debate we're having is about giving the CIA more