Administration Internal Divisions Over Drone Strikes in Pakistan?

The Wall Street Journal’s ace national security reporting team – Adam Entous, Siobhan Gorman, Julian Barnes, several others – reported in a very interesting story today that divisions have emerged at the senior levels of the Obama administration over the strategic utility of drone strikes in Pakistan. The issue is between the unquestioned effectiveness of the strikes – unquestioned by all parties in the internal debate, according to the article – and the apparently deleterious effects on relations with Pakistan. CIA director Panetta is on one side, in favor of the strikes, and the US ambassador to Pakistan, career FSO Cameron Munter (who was two years ahead of me at Claremont High School, as it happens), is on the other. According to the article, continuing the program as it stands has prevailed for now, with more review down the road. But the article includes some additional tidbits, including a remark in passing that although the Pakistani government puts the civilian casualties of drone strikes in the hundreds, the CIA puts it at around 30. The article also adds that the Pakistani government would like to have equal say in the agreed target list:

U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, backed by top military officers and other State Department officials, wants the strikes to be more judicious, and argues that Pakistan’s views need to be given greater weight if the fight against militancy is to succeed, said current and former U.S. officials.

Defenders of the current drone program take umbrage at the suggestion that the program isn’t judicious. “In this context, the phrase ‘more judicious’ is really code for ‘let’s appease Pakistani sensitivities,’ ” said a U.S. official. The CIA has already given Pakistani concerns greater weight in targeting decisions in recent months, the official added. Advocates of sustained strikes also argue that the current rift with the Pakistanis isn’t going to be fixed by scaling back the program.

Meanwhile, on the broader topic – one that intersects with the drone and targeted killing debate – of CIA and military special ops intertwining, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius (by all accounts one of the most plugged-in people in DC in the intelligence community, though I disagree with his take on drones) has a very interesting column on the issuance of a series of executive orders on the linkages between them.

One consequence of the early “war on terror” years was that the lines between CIA and military activities got blurred. The Pentagon moved into clandestine areas that had traditionally been the province of the CIA. Special Forces began operating secretly abroad in ways that worried the CIA, the State Department and foreign governments.

The Obama administration is finishing an effort to redraw those lines more carefully, issuing a series of new executive orders (known as “EXORDS”) to guide the military’s intelligence activities, sometimes through what are known as “special access programs,” or SAPs.

The power of combining CIA and military resources was shown in the May 2 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The firepower came from the Navy SEALs, a Special Forces unit that normally functions under the Title 10 war-fighting authority of the military. Because the SEALs were operating inside Pakistan, a country with which the United States isn’t at war, the CIA supervised the mission under Title 50, which allows the agency to conduct “deniable” activities overseas.

The system worked in the Abbottabad raid. But over the past 10 years, there have been instances when crossing the traditional lines created potential problems for the United States. It’s especially important to understand these boundaries now as Gen. David Petraeus prepares to take over as CIA director. If the rules aren’t clear, people at home and abroad may worry about a possible “militarization” of U.S. intelligence.

The issue, I think, is more than simply internally drawing the lines, important as that is. In a piece in last week’s Weekly Standard, I argue that the administration needs to do a much better job of publicly articulating the legal basis for how it sees the intertwining of Title 10 and Title 50 operations – military and CIA. (Bobby Chesney has been writing about this over at Lawfare.)

Added:  Thanks, Glenn, for the Instalanche!  When I say “ace” national security reporting team, I mean it.  The WSJ seems to have quite deliberately built a team of smart, inquisitive, aggressive reporters who look for things way beneath the surface and don’t simply sit around and wait for someone to call with a leak.  I have vast respect for people like Peter Finn at the Post or Scott Shane at the Times, but what seems (to someone from the outside) to give the Journal an edge is the way in which its folks work as a reporting team.