The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who will be killed, U.S. officials said.
Securing permission to use “signature strikes” would allow the agency to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaida compounds or unloading explosives.
The practice has been a core element of the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan for several years. But Director David Petraeus has requested permission to employ the tactic against the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen, which has emerged as the most pressing terrorism threat to the United States, officials said.
If approved, the change would probably accelerate a campaign of U.S. airstrikes in Yemen that is already on a record pace, with at least eight attacks in the past four months.
For President Barack Obama, an endorsement of signature strikes would mean a significant, and potentially risky, policy shift. Until now, the administration has placed tight limits on drone operations in Yemen to avoid being drawn into an often murky regional conflict and risk turning militants with local agendas into potential al-Qaida recruits.
A senior Obama administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations, declined to discuss what he described as U.S. “tactics” in Yemen but said that “there is still a very firm emphasis on being surgical and targeting only those who have a direct interest in attacking the United States.”
U.S. officials acknowledge that standard has not always been upheld. Last year, a U.S. drone strike inadvertently killed the American son of Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida leader. The teenager had never been accused of terrorist activity and was killed in a strike aimed at other militants.
Some U.S. officials have voiced concern that such incidents could become more frequent if the CIA is given the authority to use signature strikes.
“How discriminating can they be?” asked a senior U.S. official familiar with the proposal. Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen “is joined at the hip” with a local insurgency whose main objective is to oust the country’s government, the official said. “I think there is the potential that we would be perceived as taking sides in a civil war.”
U.S. officials said that the CIA proposal has been presented to the National Security Council and that no decision has been reached.