John Brennan accepted President Obama’s nomination as CIA director on January 7 2013. (Peter da Souza/White House)
John Brennan has now completed his first year as director of the CIA. In that time there has not been a confirmed report of a civilian casualty from a CIA drone strike in Pakistan, according to an analysis of Bureau drone strike data.
The frequency of drone attacks and casualty rates – the number of people killed in each strike on average – have been declining in Pakistan since 2010, the Bureau’s data shows. Civilian casualties have also declined. These trends have continued through Brennan’s tenure at CIA headquarters in Langley.
And there has not been a reported drone strike for more than two months in Pakistan.
There are several possible causes for the falls in frequency and death tolls of drone attacks on Pakistan, including increased public scrutiny of the drone campaign, and the mood within Pakistan, where drones – and particularly civilian casualties – have become increasingly politically controversial.
Brennan was closely involved in the drone campaign for years before taking over at Langley, having served since January 2009 as President Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser. Obama’s inauguration that month heralded a considerable increase in the frequency of drone strikes and the numbers of people killed.
This analysis of the Bureau’s data, from 2004 to the most recent attack on Christmas Day 2013, shows that two previous directors, Michael Hayden and Leon Panetta, oversaw the bloodiest period in the CIA’s drone programme in Pakistan.
Though Brennan has been in post for only a year, he has been a highly influential figure in Obama’s covert wars since before the president’s inauguration.
‘There are things the agency has been involved in since 9/11 that in fact have been a bit of an aberration from the traditional role’
– John Brennan
In the weeks after the election, Obama made Brennan his chief adviser on counter-terrorism. From an office in the basement of the White House, Brennan began to craft the policies and procedures for targeted killings beyond the boundaries of ‘hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan.
CIA drones targeted Pakistan more times in President Obama’s first year in office than in the previous five years combined. But officials were reportedly trying to find ways to codify the lethal strikes in those first few months of the new administration.
It was Brennan who reportedly told Obama about the catastrophic failure of the first two CIA drone strikes of his presidency, according to Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman’s book Kill or Capture. On January 23 2009 CIA drones hit two houses in Pakistan’s tribal belt but both attacks missed their intended targets. At least 14 civilians were reportedly killed.
The career intelligence officer has spoken publicly in defence of the US’ use of drones. On June 29 2011 he said during a speech that US strikes in Pakistan were ‘surgically precise’ and had not killed a civilian since August 30 2010. The Bureau’s data shows this claim was untrue – the CIA killed at least 72 civilians in 117 strikes in that time. In April 2012 he defended the use of drones against al Qaeda as legal, ethical and wise.
The drone programme generally seems to be subject to external influence. At the time of writing there has not been a strike in Pakistan for 75 days. This is the longest gap between drone strikes and follows a request from Islamabad to suspend attacks during protracted peace talks between the Pakistani government and the Pakistan Taliban, according to anonymous US officials.
The declining frequency of strikes, which has continued during Brennan’s tenure as CIA director, could be due to external factors such as the fractious US-Pakistani relationship, or it could indicate the CIA’s gradual disengagement from targeted killings.
At his confirmation hearings for the post of CIA director, Brennan alluded to possible changes in the agency’s role in the covert drone war. He told the committee: ‘There are things the agency has been involved in since 9/11 that in fact have been a bit of an aberration from the traditional role.’
He added: ‘The CIA should not be doing traditional military activities and operations.’
In the year since, there have been several suggestions that the CIA would lose control of the drone campaign over Pakistan to the Pentagon’s elite and secretive unit, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
Though it does appear the US is taking greater care in its drone strikes in Pakistan, US drones killed, on average, more civilians per strike in Yemen last year than any year before. There have been two confirmed US drone strikes already in 2014, killing at least five people, and possibly a further seven attacks killing at least nine.
Both the CIA and JSOC operate drones over Yemen and the Bureau cannot always identify which strikes are by the military and which by the CIA. However the CIA reportedly flies lethal operations from a drone base in Saudi Arabia.
The CIA has had seven different directors in the nine years since the first strike in Pakistan. Leon Panetta was director from February 2009 to June 2011 – a time in the job that ‘would be known for the CIA’s aggressive – some would come to believe reckless – campaign of targeted killings’, according to New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti in his book The Way of the Knife.
Panetta reportedly had a close relationship with Obama. According to both Klaidman and Mazzetti, two months after the CIA killed Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistan Taliban, Panetta reportedly went to the White House with a list of requests that would drastically expand the CIA’s targeted killing programme. President Obama granted each demand, reportedly saying: ‘The CIA gets what it wants.’
There were more drone strikes during Panetta’s tenure than all other CIA directors combined. The intensity of the drone campaign meant a considerable number of people were killed. In total at least 1,482 people were killed in 223 strikes – at least 212 of them reportedly civilians.
Panetta’s predecessor, Michael Hayden, was director from 2006 to February 2009. In that time the CIA launched little over a fifth of the strikes they would go on to carry out under Panetta. But strikes under Hayden were far bloodier. The total casualty rate during Panetta’s time was over six people killed in each strike on average, and one civilian killed in each strike on average. Under Hayden drones were killing on average over eight people per strike and more than three civilians per strike.