The Obama administration has said that strikes by the CIA’s missile-firing Predator and Reaper drones are authorized only against “specific operational leaders of al Qaeda and associated forces” involved in the 9/11 terror attacks, who are plotting “imminent” attacks on Americans. President Obama has said, “It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative.” Furthermore, in a September 6, 2012 interview with CNN, Obama said, “It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they (sic) move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States.”
Copies of top-secret intelligence reports reviewed by McClatchy newspapers show that drone strikes in Pakistan over a four-year period didn’t adhere to those standards. Reports list killings of alleged Afghan insurgents, whose organizations were not on the list of terrroist groups at the time of 9/11; of suspected members of Pakistan’s extremist groups that didn’t exist in September 2011; and of unidentified individuals described as “other militants” and/or “foreign fighters.”
Micala Zenko, an expert with the Council of Foreign Relations, accuses the U.S. of “misleading the public about the scope of who can be legitimately targeted.” It is also the case that drone operators aren’t always sure whom they are targeting.
The Obama administration has never acknowledged the use of so-called “signature strikes,” in which unidentified individuals are killed after surveillance shows behavior the U.S. government associates with terrorists — such as being present when ammunition is being loaded or unloaded from a truck. The administration has not revealed details, such as the intelligence used to select targets and how much evidence is needed to place an individual on a CIA “kill list.”