CIA seeks expansion in drone fleet: Report

WASHINGTON – The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is urging the White House to approve significant expansion of its fleet of armed drones that the agency uses to target suspected militant targets, The Washington Post reported on Friday.

A report in the newspaper said the move would extend the spy service’s decade-long transformation into a paramilitary force.

The report, which cites unnamed US officials, says the proposal by Central Intelligence Agency Director David H. Petraeus would bolster the agency’s ability to sustain its campaigns of lethal strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.

If approved, the CIA could add as many as 10 drones, the officials said, to an inventory that has ranged between 30 and 35 over the past few years, The Post said.

“The outcome has broad implications for counterterrorism policy and whether the CIA gradually returns to an organisation focused mainly on gathering intelligence, or remains a central player in the targeted killing of terrorism suspects abroad,” the newspaper noted.

A White House panel, known as the Counterterrorism Security Group, headed by President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, is evaluating the proposal.

A US official told the Post that the request reflects a concern that political turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa has created new openings for al Qaeda and its affiliates.

“With what happened in Libya, we’re realising that these places are going to heat up,” the official said, referring to the Sept. 11 attack on a US diplomatic outpost in Benghazi. No decisions have been made about moving armed CIA drones into these regions, but officials have begun to map out contingencies. “I think we’re actually looking forward a little bit,” the official said.

The CSG, which includes senior officials from the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies, is directly involved in deciding which alleged al Qaeda operatives are added to ‘kill’ lists.

Meanwhile, the number of strikes in Pakistan has dropped from 122 two years ago to 40 this year, according to the New America Foundation. But officials said the agency has not cut back on its patrols there, despite the killing of Osama bin Laden and a dwindling number of targets.

The agency continues to search for bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and has carried out dozens of strikes against the Haqqani network, a militant group behind attacks on US forces in Afghanistan.

The CIA also maintains a separate, smaller fleet of stealth surveillance aircraft. Stealth drones were used to monitor bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Their use in surveillance flights over Iran’s nuclear facilities was exposed when one crashed in that country last year.

CIA Predators that are used in Pakistan are flown out of airstrips along the border in Afghanistan, the Post report said.

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