Posted 10 months ago on Feb. 6, 2013, 6:11 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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Drone Strikes' Dangers to Get Rare Moment in Public Eye
Wednesday, 06 February 2013 09:16 By Scott Shane, Robert F Worth and Mark Mazzetti, The New York Times News Service | Report
Sana, Yemen - Late last August, a 40-year-old cleric named Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber stood up to deliver a speech denouncing Al Qaeda in a village mosque in far eastern Yemen.
It was a brave gesture by a father of seven who commanded great respect in the community, and it did not go unnoticed. Two days later, three members of Al Qaeda came to the mosque in the tiny village of Khashamir after 9 p.m., saying they merely wanted to talk. Mr. Jaber agreed to meet them, bringing his cousin Waleed Abdullah, a police officer, for protection.
As the five men stood arguing by a cluster of palm trees, a volley of remotely operated American missiles shot down from the night sky and incinerated them all, along with a camel that was tied up nearby.
The killing of Mr. Jaber, just the kind of leader most crucial to American efforts to eradicate Al Qaeda, was a reminder of the inherent hazards of the quasi-secret campaign of targeted killings that the United States is waging against suspected militants not just in Yemen but also in Pakistan and Somalia. Individual strikes by the Predator and Reaper drones are almost never discussed publicly by Obama administration officials. But the clandestine war will receive a rare moment of public scrutiny on Thursday, when its chief architect, John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, faces a Senate confirmation hearing as President Obama’s nominee for C.I.A. director.
From his basement office in the White House, Mr. Brennan has served as the principal coordinator of a “kill list” of Qaeda operatives marked for death, overseeing drone strikes by the military and the C.I.A., and advising Mr. Obama on which strikes he should approve.
“He’s probably had more power and influence than anyone in a comparable position in the last 20 years,” said Daniel Benjamin, who recently stepped down as the State Department’s top counterterrorism official and now teaches at Dartmouth. “He’s had enormous sway over the intelligence community. He’s had a profound impact on how the military does counterterrorism.”
Mr. Brennan, a former C.I.A. station chief in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has taken a particular interest in Yemen, sounding early alarms within the administration about the threat developing there, working closely with neighboring Saudi Arabia to gain approval for a secret C.I.A. drone base there that is used for American strikes, and making the impoverished desert nation a test case for American counterterrorism strategy.
In recent years, both C.I.A. and Pentagon counterterrorism officials have pressed for greater freedom to attack suspected militants, and colleagues say Mr. Brennan has often been a restraining voice. The strikes have killed a number of operatives of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network’s affiliate in Yemen, including Said Ali al-Shihri, a deputy leader of the group, and the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
But they have also claimed civilians like Mr. Jaber and have raised troubling questions that apply to Pakistan and Somalia as well: Could the targeted killing campaign be creating more militants in Yemen than it is killing? And is it in America’s long-term interest to be waging war against a self-renewing insurgency inside a country about which Washington has at best a hazy understanding?
Several former top military and intelligence officials — including Stanley A. McChrystal, the retired general who led the Joint Special Operations Command, which has responsibility for the military’s drone strikes, and Michael V. Hayden, the former C.I.A. director — have raised concerns that the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen are increasingly targeting low-level militants who do not pose a direct threat to the United States.
In an interview with Reuters, General McChrystal said that drones could be a useful tool but were “hated on a visceral level” in some of the places where they were used and contributed to a “perception of American arrogance.”
Mr. Brennan has aggressively defended the accuracy of the drone strikes, and the rate of civilian casualties has gone down considerably since the attacks began in Yemen in 2009. He has also largely dismissed criticism that the drone campaign has tarnished America’s image in Yemen and has been an effective recruiting tool for Al Qaeda.
“In fact, we see the opposite,” Mr. Brennan said during a speech last year. “Our Yemeni partners are more eager to work with us. Yemeni citizens who have been freed from the hellish grip of A.Q.A.P. are more eager, not less, to work with the Yemeni government.”
Christopher Swift, a researcher at Georgetown University who spent last summer in Yemen studying the reaction to the strikes, said he thought Mr. Brennan’s comments missed the broader impact.
“What Brennan said accurately reflected people in the security apparatus who he speaks to when he goes to Yemen,” Mr. Swift said. “It doesn’t reflect the views of the man in the street, of young human rights activists, of the political opposition.”
Though Mr. Swift said he thought that critics had exaggerated the role of the strikes in generating recruits for Al Qaeda, “in the political sphere, the perception is that the U.S. is colluding with the Yemeni government in a covert war against the Yemeni people.”
“Even if we’re winning in the military domain,” Mr. Swift said, “drones may be undermining our long-term interest in the goal of a stable Yemen with a functional political system and economy.”