WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is nearing completion of a detailed counterterrorism manual designed to establish clear rules for targeted-killing operations but leaves open a major exemption for the CIA’s campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan, U.S. officials said.
The carve-out would allow the CIA to continue pounding al-Qaida and Taliban targets for a year or more before the agency is forced to comply with more stringent rules spelled out in a classified document officials have described as a counterterrorism “playbook.”
The document, which is expected to be submitted to President Obama for final approval within weeks, marks the culmination of a yearlong effort by the administration to codify its counterterrorism policies and create a guide for lethal operations through Obama’s second term.
A senior U.S. official involved in drafting the document said a few issues remain unresolved but described them as minor. The senior U.S. official said the playbook “will be done shortly.”
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The adoption of a formal guide to targeted killing marks a significant — and to some uncomfortable — milestone: The institutionalization of a practice that would have seemed anathema to many before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Among the subjects covered in the playbook are the process for adding names to kill lists, the legal principles that govern when U.S. citizens can be targeted overseas and the sequence of approvals required when the CIA or U.S. military conduct drone strikes outside war zones.
U.S. officials said the effort to draft the playbook was nearly derailed late last year by disagreements among the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon on the criteria for lethal strikes and other issues. Granting the CIA a temporary exemption for its Pakistan operations was described as a compromise that allowed officials to move forward with other parts of the playbook.
The decision to allow the CIA strikes to continue was driven in part by concern that the window for weakening al-Qaida and the Taliban in Pakistan is beginning to close, with plans to pull most U.S. troops out of neighboring Afghanistan in the next two years. CIA drones are flown out of bases in Afghanistan.
“There’s a sense that you put the pedal to the metal now, especially given the impending” withdrawal, said a former U.S. official involved in discussions of the playbook. The CIA exception is expected to be in effect for “less than two years but more than one,” the former official said.
The former official and other current and former officials interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity.
Obama’s national-security team agreed to the CIA compromise in late December during a meeting of the “principals committee,” consisting of top national-security officials, that was led by White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who has since been nominated to serve as CIA director.
White House officials said the committee will review the document again before it is presented to the president. They stressed that it is not in force until Obama has signed off. The CIA declined requests for comment.
Brennan’s aim in developing the playbook, officials have said, was to impose more consistent and rigorous controls on counterterrorism programs that were largely ad hoc after Sept. 11.
Critics see the manual as a symbol of the extent to which the targeted-killing program has become institutionalized, part of an apparatus being assembled by the Obama administration to sustain a seemingly permanent war.
The playbook is “a step in exactly the wrong direction, a further bureaucratization of the CIA’s paramilitary killing program” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s national-security project.
Some administration officials have also voiced concern about the duration of the drone campaign, which has spread from Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia where it involves both CIA and military strikes. In a recent speech before he stepped down as Pentagon general counsel, Jeh Johnson warned that “we must not accept the current conflict … and all that it entails, as the ‘new normal.’”
The discussions surrounding the development of the playbook were centered on practical considerations, officials said. One of the main points of contention, they said, was the issue of “signature strikes.”
The term refers to the CIA’s practice of approving strikes in Pakistan based on patterns of suspicious behavior — moving stockpiles of weapons, for example — even when the agency does not have clear intelligence about the identities of the targets.
CIA officials have credited the approach with shrinking al-Qaida’s upper ranks there, paradoxically accounting for the deaths of more senior terrorist operatives than strikes carried out when the agency knew the identity and location of a target in advance.
Signature strikes contributed to a surge in the drone campaign in 2010, when the agency carried out a record 117 strikes in Pakistan. The pace had tapered off over the past two years before quickening again in recent weeks.
Despite CIA assertions about the effectiveness of signature strikes, Obama has not granted similar authority to the CIA or military in Yemen, Somalia or other countries patrolled by armed U.S. drones.
In Yemen, officials said, strikes have only been permitted in cases where intelligence indicates a specific threat to Americans. That could include “individuals who are personally involved in trying to kill Americans,” a senior administration official said, or “intelligence that … (for example) a truck has been configured in order to go after our embassy in Sana’a.”
The playbook has adopted that tighter standard and imposes other more stringent rules. Among them are requirements for White House approval on drone strikes and the involvement of multiple agencies — including the State Department — in nominating new names for kill lists.
None of those rules applies to the CIA-drone campaign in Pakistan, which began under President George W. Bush. The agency is expected to give the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan advance notice on strikes. But in practice, officials said, the agency exercises near complete control over the names on its target list and decisions on strikes.