US reins in drones over diplomatic concerns

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The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has quietly tightened its rules on drone strikes in Pakistan over concerns about their impact on tense relations with Islamabad, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. The disputes over drones became so protracted that the White House launched a review over the summer, in which Obama intervened, the Journal reported. The review ultimately affirmed support for the underlying CIA programme. But a senior official said, “The bar has been raised. Inside CIA, there is a recognition you need to be damn sure it’s worth it.”
The changes reportedly include granting the State Department greater sway in strike decisions, giving Pakistani leaders advance warning of more operations and suspending operations when Pakistani officials visit the United States.“It’s not like they took the car keys away from the CIA,” the Journal quoted a senior official as saying. “There are just more people in the car.” The Journal said the debate was sparked by a particularly deadly drone strike on March 17 that took place just one day after Pakistan agreed to release CIA contractor Raymond Davis. At issue in the debate over drones were so-called “signature strikes”, in which unmanned drones fire on groups of suspected militants without necessarily knowing all their identities, and which make up the bulk of operations. Such strikes are seen as more controversial than “personality” strikes, which target alleged top militants, the Journal said. According to the Journal, many officials at the Pentagon and State Department privately argued the CIA pays too little attention to the diplomatic costs of airstrikes that kill large groups of low-level fighters. “Such strikes inflame Pakistani public opinion. Observers point to the rising power in Pakistan of political figures like Imran Khan, who held large rallies to protest the drones and could challenge the current government.” However, changing the handling of the drone programme does not mean the CIA is pulling back. The agency in recent weeks has intensified strikes in Pakistan focusing on the Haqqani network, a group believed to be behind a series of attacks in Afghanistan. The Pentagon and State Department have backed those strikes as serving US interests.