How crucial have drone strikes become to the CIA? A senior official involved with them just became the agency's new top spy.
CIA Director Leon Panetta named John D. Bennett the next chief of the National Clandestine Service, the operations side of the agency. Bennett, a retired Marine and four-time agency station chief who returned in 2007 CIA after a brief retirement, previously headed the Special Activities Division. That's the CIA's paramilitary wing.
While that division doesn't oversee the drone strikes, it is - and Bennett was - involved with them in ways we haven't yet been able to precisely learn, according to our sources. (This AP story claims that Bennett actually directed the drones while in Pakistan during the Bush administration.) Panetta put it this way in a statement: "He has been at the forefront of the fight against al-Qa'ida and its violent allies."
Bennett's exact role with the drones may not be clear. What isn't in question is that the drones are one of the highest profile (and most controversial) programs that the CIA has operated in years. The Panetta and the agency swears up and down is a hugely effective counterterrorist tool. Continuing a pattern from the end of the Bush administration, the Obama-era CIA has sharply ratcheted up the use of missiles fired from drones to kill terrorist targets in Pakistan. The New America Foundation tallies that there have already been 46 drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan from January 1 to July 15, compared to 53 in 2009, 36 in 2008 and just 9 from the program's 2004 inception to 2007. Check out this GoogleMap and you'll see they're concentrated in a rather compact area. All this has raised questions about whether it's time to admit to ourselves that we're at war in Pakistan.
With the rise of the drones has come a rise in questions about their ethics and legality. Specifically: how many civilians die in drone strikes? The numbers are in dispute and are difficult to determine, considering the difficulty to conduct fieldwork in tribal Pakistan, so most researchers rely on media accounts of civilian deaths that may or may not be accurate. New America says around a third of drone deaths are civilians. A different study, by the University of Massachusetts's Brian Glyn Williams, found a far lower result, claiming that fewer than four percent of drone deaths can be "confirmed as civilian." I was recently told by sources in Pakistan that there are new studies underway.
Then there's the strategic and legal implications. Counterinsurgency theorist-practitioners like David Kilcullen have warned the drones could lead to blowback - hardly surprising, seeing the relationship between even low levels of civilian casualties and radicalization in nearby Afghanistan. As to their legality, the State Department's top lawyer, Harold Koh, gave a speech in March claiming that the congressional Authorization to Use Military Force against al-Qaeda passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks provides all the authority necessary to go after the terrorist group worldwide - even outside of active theaters of war.
Whether or not Bennett is a big cheese in the drones, he's clearly not afraid of "direct action" against militant types. That appears to be the kind of culture Panetta wants his operators to embrace. His statement praises Bennett for understanding "the hardships and benefits of tough jobs." Get ready for some more tough jobs in the months ahead.
Photo: U.S. Army