WASHINGTON - The Obama administration's counterterrorism accomplishments are most apparent in what it has been able to dismantle, including CIA prisons and entire tiers of al-Qaida's leadership. But what the administration has assembled, hidden from public view, may be equally consequential.
In the space of three years, the administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries. The apparatus involves dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force cockpits in the Southwest and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents.
Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts. But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation's security goals.
The rapid expansion of the drone program has blurred long-standing boundaries between the CIA and the military. Lethal operations are increasingly assembled a la carte, piecing together personnel and equipment in ways that allow the White House to toggle among separate legal authorities that govern the use of lethal force.
In Yemen, for instance, the CIA and the military's Joint Special Operations Command pursue the same adversary with nearly identical aircraft. But they alternate taking the lead on strikes to exploit their separate authorities, and they maintain separate kill lists that overlap but don't match. CIA and military strikes this fall killed three U.S. citizens, two of whom were suspected al-Qaida operatives.
The convergence of military and intelligence resources has created blind spots in congressional oversight. Intelligence committees are briefed on CIA operations, and the JSOC reports to armed services panels. As a result, no committee has a complete, unobstructed view.
With a year to go in President Obama's first term, his administration can point to undeniable results: Osama bin Laden is dead, the core al-Qaida network is near defeat and members of its regional affiliates scan the sky for metallic glints.
Those results, delivered with unprecedented precision from aircraft that put no American pilots at risk, may help explain why the drone campaign has never attracted as much scrutiny as Bush-era detention or interrogation programs. Although human-rights advocates and others are increasingly critical of the drone program, the level of public debate remains muted.
Senior Democrats barely blink at the idea that a president from their party has assembled such a highly efficient machine for the targeted killing of suspected terrorists. It is a measure of the extent to which the drone campaign has become an awkward open secret in Washington that even those inclined to express misgivings can only allude to a program that, officially, they are not allowed to discuss.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, described the program with a mixture of awe and concern. Its expansion under Obama was almost inevitable, she said, because of the technology's growing sophistication. But the pace of its development, she said, makes it hard to predict how it might come to be used.
"What this does is it takes a lot of Americans out of harm's way ... without having to send in a special ops team or drop a 500-pound bomb," Feinstein said in an interview in which she was careful to avoid explicit confirmation that the programs exist. "But I worry about how this develops. I'm worried because of what increased technology will make it capable of doing."
Another reason for the lack of extensive debate is secrecy. The White House has refused to divulge details about the structure of the drone program or, with rare exceptions, who has been killed. White House and CIA officials declined to speak for attribution for this article.
An essential tool
Inside the White House, according to officials who would discuss the program only on condition of anonymity, the drone is seen as a critical tool whose evolution was accelerating even before Obama was elected. Senior administration officials said the escalating number of strikes has created a perception that the drone is driving counterterrorism policy, when the reverse is true.
"People think we start with the drone and go from there, but that's not it at all," said a senior administration official involved with the program. "We're not constructing a campaign around the drone. We're not seeking to create some worldwide basing network so we have drone capabilities in every corner of the globe."
Nevertheless, for a president who campaigned against the alleged counterterror excesses of his predecessor, Obama has emphatically embraced the post-Sept. 11 era's signature counterterrorism tool.
When Obama was sworn into office in 2009, the nation's clandestine drone war was confined to a single country, Pakistan, where 44 strikes over five years had left about 400 people dead, according to the New America Foundation. The number of strikes has since soared to nearly 240, and the number of those killed, according to conservative estimates, has more than quadrupled.
The number of strikes in Pakistan has declined this year, partly because the CIA has occasionally suspended them to ease tensions at moments of crisis. One lull followed the arrest of an American agency contractor who killed two Pakistani men; another came after the U.S. commando raid that killed bin Laden. The CIA's most recent period of restraint followed U.S. military air strikes last month that inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border. At the same time, U.S. officials have said the number of "high-value" al-Qaida targets in Pakistan has dwindled to two.
Many more drones now
Administration officials said the expansion of the program under Obama has largely been driven by the timeline of the drone's development. Remotely piloted aircraft were used during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, but only in recent years have they become advanced and abundant enough to be deployed on such a large scale.
The number of drone aircraft has exploded in the past three years. A recent study by the Congressional Budget Office counted 775 Predators, Reapers and other medium- and long-range drones in the U.S. inventory, with hundreds more in the pipeline.
About 30 of those aircraft have been allocated to the CIA, officials said. But the agency has a separate category that doesn't show up in any public accounting, a fleet of stealth drones that were developed and acquired under a highly compartmentalized CIA program created after the Sept. 11 attacks. The RQ-170 model that recently crashed in Iran exposed the agency's use of stealth drones to spy on Iran's nuclear program, but the planes have also been used in other countries.
The escalation of the lethal drone campaign under Obama was driven to an extent by early counterterrorism decisions. Shutting the CIA's detention program and halting transfers to Guantanamo Bay left few options beyond drone strikes or detention by often unreliable allies.
Key members of Obama's national security team came into office more inclined to endorse drone strikes than were their counterparts under President George W. Bush, current and former officials said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former CIA Director and current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan seemed always ready to step on the accelerator, said a former official who served in both administrations and supported the program.
The only member of Obama's team known to have formally raised objections to the expanding drone campaign is Dennis Blair, who served as director of national intelligence.
Program critic fired
During a National Security Council meeting in November 2009, Blair sought to override the agenda and force a debate on the use of drones, according to two participants.
Blair has since articulated his concerns publicly, calling for a suspension of unilateral drone strikes in Pakistan, which he argues damage relations with that country and kill mainly midlevel militants. But he now speaks as a private citizen. His opinion contributed to his isolation from Obama's inner circle, and he was fired last year.
Obama himself was "oddly passive in this world," the former official said, tending to defer on drone policy to senior aides whose instincts often dovetailed with the agendas of the CIA and JSOC.
The senior administration official disputed that characterization, saying Obama doesn't weigh in on every operation but has been deeply involved in setting the criteria for strikes and emphasizing the need to minimize collateral damage.
"Everything about our counterterrorism operations is about carrying out the guidance that he's given," the official said.