President Obama Relaxed Drone Rules For CIA Operations In Pakistan

President Obama Relaxed Drone Rules For CIA Operations In Pakistan

6:40pm Apr 30, 2015

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The killings revealed last week of two hostages - an American and an Italian - have raised new questions about how the CIA operates in Pakistan. Warren Weinstein and Giovanni La Porto were aid workers. They were killed in January by a U.S. drone strike aimed at al-Qaida militants. The Wall Street Journal reports the CIA conducted that strike under a secret waiver approved by President Obama in 2013. Now, for more, we turn to The Journal's Adam Entous. Welcome to the program.

ADAM ENTOUS: Great to be here.

CORNISH: So there is a specific set of rules - right? - for drone strikes that the president has issued under a kind of guidance. What are those rules?

ENTOUS: Well, he laid it out in a speech at National Defense University in 2013. And he didn't reveal all the rules. The actual guidance that he issued is - remains classified. But he did talk about three of them. He said that operations targeting individuals needed to have near certainty that there would be no civilians killed or injured in those strikes. He also said that the CIA and the Pentagon, when conducting strikes like this, need to know that there is an imminent threat to the United States posed by the militants that they intend on targeting. And another guideline that he laid out was the idea that the United States is not going to kill people in order to punish them for acts that they did in the past. This is about preventing them from attacking the United States or U.S. persons or assets overseas in the future.

CORNISH: So, for the CIA, which one of these points did they get a waiver from?

ENTOUS: The waiver covered that they needed to have evidence of imminent threat. And the argument - the lawyers concluded that al-Qaida core in Pakistan constitutes, by its nature, an imminent threat to the United States. And therefore, in that narrow area where the CIA conducts a drone program, they would not have to show imminent threat in carrying out the strikes.

CORNISH: There's no way to know this fully, but is there a sense of how things might have gone differently in this case if the CIA was subject to the same rules for drone strikes as they are in other countries?

ENTOUS: Right. It's really difficult to know how a change in the rules would affect a particular strike, and this one in particular. If the CIA was required in this case to show that the militants at this compound posed an imminent threat to the United States, they might have been required to gather more intelligence in order to make that case before launching the strike. That might have delayed the strike, but it's unclear if that would have had an impact in sparing the two hostages, which the United States had no idea were hidden in the compound.

CORNISH: Help us understand the thinking - why Pakistan is different, why the CIA would get a waiver in this case and whether people are rethinking that.

ENTOUS: Right. So Pakistan is important because this is the staging area for al-Qaida and other militant groups that are looking to cross the border into Afghanistan and attack American forces there. Attacking al-Qaida in Pakistan is a way to prevent them from later attacking U.S. forces across the border. So the White House and the president said that there would be a thorough review of this incident in order to ensure that mistakes like this do not happen again. And within this debate within the administration, several members of the president's inner circle are making the case that now is the time to rein in the program.

But it's really hard to tell what direction this is going to go in the end because of strong support, not only within the administration for the drone program and wanting to have the flexibility to use it, but also within the Congress. You have very powerful committees, members of the president's own party, who very much support this program and don't want to see it go away.

CORNISH: That's Wall Street Journal correspondent Adam Entous. Thank you so much for coming in to speak with us.

ENTOUS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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