WASHINGTON -- Contrary to assurances it has deployed U.S. drones only against known senior leaders of al Qaida and allied groups, the Obama administration has targeted and killed hundreds of suspected lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified other militants in scores of strikes in Pakistans rugged tribal area, classified U.S. intelligence reports show.
The administration has said that strikes by the CIAs missile-firing Predator and Reaper drones are authorized only against specific senior operational leaders of al Qaida and associated forces involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks who are plotting imminent violent attacks on Americans.
It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative, President Barack Obama said in a Sept. 6, 2012, interview with CNN. It has to be a situation in which we cant capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States.
Copies of the top-secret U.S. intelligence reports reviewed by McClatchy, however, show that drone strikes in Pakistan over a four-year period didnt adhere to those standards.
The intelligence reports list killings of alleged Afghan insurgents whose organization wasnt on the U.S. list of terrorist groups at the time of the 9/11 strikes; of suspected members of a Pakistani extremist group that didnt exist at the time of 9/11; and of unidentified individuals described as other militants and foreign fighters.
In a response to questions from McClatchy, the White House defended its targeting policies, pointing to previous public statements by senior administration officials that the missile strikes are aimed at al Qaida and associated forces.
Micah Zenko, an expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, a bipartisan foreign policy think tank, who closely follows the target killing program, said McClatchys findings indicate that the administration is misleading the public about the scope of who can legitimately be targeted.
The documents also show that drone operators werent always certain who they were killing despite the administrations guarantees of the accuracy of the CIAs targeting intelligence and its assertions that civilian casualties have been exceedingly rare.
McClatchys review is the first independent evaluation of internal U.S. intelligence accounting of drone attacks since the Bush administration launched Americas secret aerial warfare on Oct. 7, 2001, the day a missile-carrying Predator took off for Afghanistan from an airfield in Pakistan on the first operational flight of an armed U.S. drone.
The analysis takes on additional significance because of the domestic and international debate over the legality of drone strikes in Pakistan amid reports that the administration is planning to broaden its use of targeted killings in Afghanistan and North Africa.
The U.S. intelligence reports reviewed by McClatchy covered most although not all of the drone strikes in 2006-2008 and 2010-2011. In that later period, Obama oversaw a surge in drone operations against suspected Islamist sanctuaries on Pakistans side of the border that coincided with his buildup of 33,000 additional U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan. Several documents listed casualty estimates as well as the identities of targeted groups.