Soon after a U.S. military drone killed about a dozen people on a remote road in central Yemen on Dec. 12, 2013, a disturbing narrative emerged. Witnesses and tribal leaders said the four Hellfire missiles had hit a convoy headed to a wedding, and the Yemeni government paid compensation to some of the victims’ families. After an investigation, Human Rights Watch charged that “some, if not all those killed and wounded were civilians.”…
As a result, the Yemen attack has become fodder in a growing debate about the White House proposal for the CIA to eventually turn over its armed drones and targeted killing program to the military. The Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which carried out the December strike, insists that everyone killed or wounded in the attack was an Al Qaeda militant and therefore a lawful military target, U.S. officials say. “This was not a wedding,” said a congressional aide briefed by the military. “These were bad guys.”
The CIA, which runs a separate drone killing program in Yemen, saw it differently. According to two U.S. officials who would not be quoted discussing classified matters, the CIA informed the command before the attack that the spy agency did not have confidence in the underlying intelligence. After the missiles hit, CIA analysts assessed that some of the victims may have been villagers, not militants. The National Counterterrorism Center, which coordinates terrorism intelligence from multiple agencies, is somewhere in the middle, saying the evidence is inconclusive.
By all accounts, the target was Shawqi Ali Ahmad Badani, a mid-level leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a virulent offshoot of Al Qaeda. Badani, who escaped unharmed, is suspected of being the ringleader of plots that forced the State Department to temporarily close 19 U.S. diplomatic missions in the Mideast and Africa in August 2013.
The disagreement among U.S. intelligence analysts — all of whom have access to aerial video, communications intercepts, tips from Yemenis and other intelligence — shows that drone targeting is sometimes based on shaky evidence. To some members of Congress, the Yemen strike shows something else: The Joint Special Operations Command is not as careful as the CIA and shouldn’t be given responsibility for drone killings.
Yemen’s government apparently agrees. It demanded that the command stop drone strikes in the country, but let the CIA continue. The CIA launched three strikes last month (April 2014) that killed as many as 67 people. “The amount of time that goes into a strike package at CIA is longer and more detailed than a strike package put together” at the Defense Department, said the same congressional aide. “Their standards of who is a combatant are different. Standards for collateral damage are different.” Pentagon officials dispute that, saying that the joint command follows the policy President Obama disclosed in a speech a year ago. It bars drone strikes unless there is a “near certainty” that civilians won’t be killed.
Excerpt from KEN DILANIAN , Debate grows over proposal for CIA to turn over drones to Pentagon, LA Times, May, 11, 2014