May 22, 2012
A change has been made in how the U.S. determines which terrorists should be targeted for drone attacks.
WASHINGTON — White House counterterror chief John Brennan has seized the lead in choosing which terrorists will be targeted for drone attacks or raids, establishing a new procedure for both military and CIA targets.
The effort concentrates power over the use of lethal U.S. force outside war zones within one small team at the White House.
The process, which is about a month old, means Brennan’s staff consults with the State Department and other agencies as to who should go on the target list, making the Pentagon’s role less relevant, according to two current and three former U.S. officials aware of the evolution in how the government goes after terrorists.
In describing Brennan’s arrangement to the Associated Press, the officials provided the first detailed description of the military’s previous review process that set a schedule for killing or capturing terror leaders around the Arab world and beyond.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because U.S. officials are not allowed to publicly describe the details of the classified targeting program.
One senior administration official argues that Brennan’s move adds another layer of review that augments rather than detracts from the Pentagon’s role.
The Pentagon is still able to carry out its own internal procedures to make recommendations to the secretary of defense, the official said.
The CIA keeps its own list of targets, though it overlaps with the Pentagon’s. Brennan’s effort gives him greater input earlier in the process, before making final recommendations to President Barack Obama.
Officials outside the White House expressed concern that drawing more of the decision-making process to Brennan’s office could turn it into a pseudo military headquarters, entrusting the fate of al-Qaida targets to a small number of senior officials.
Under the new plan, Brennan’s staff compiles the potential target list and runs the names past agencies such as the State Department at a weekly White House meeting, the officials said.
Previously, targets were first discussed in meetings run by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen at the time, with Brennan being just one of the voices in the debate. Brennan ultimately would make the case to the president, but a larger number of officials would end up drawn into the discussion.
The new Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has been more focused on shrinking the U.S. military as the Afghan war winds down and less on the covert wars overseas.
With Dempsey less involved, there is an even greater need to draw together different agencies’ viewpoints, some in the administration believe, showing the American public that al-Qaida targets are chosen only after painstaking and exhaustive debate. This could be especially true in an election year, when drone strikes can be politically sensitive.