WASHINGTON -- Despite protests from other countries, the United States is expanding a top-secret effort to kill terrorism suspects with drone-fired missiles as it pursues an increasingly decentralized al-Qaida, U.S. officials say.
The CIA's failed attempt to assassinate al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Pakistan on Jan. 13 was the latest strike in the government's "targeted killing" program, a highly classified initiative that officials say has broadened as the terrorist network splintered into smaller cells and fled its haven in Afghanistan.
The strike killed as many as 18 civilians, including children, and triggered widespread protests in Pakistan. Similar U.S. attacks using Predator unmanned aircraft equipped with Hellfire missiles have angered citizens and political leaders in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.
Little is known publicly about the targeted-killing program. The Bush administration has refused to discuss how many strikes it has made, how many people have died or how it decides whom to target. No U.S. officials were willing to speak about it on the record because the program is classified.
Although it is unknown how many times the targets have been missed, several U.S. officials confirmed at least 19 occasions since Sept. 11 in which Predators successfully fired Hellfire missiles on suspected terrorist leaders overseas. The Predator strikes have killed at least four senior al-Qaida leaders, but also many civilians.
Critics dispute the program's legality under U.S. and international law and say it is administered with little oversight outside the CIA. U.S. intelligence officials insist that it is one of their most tightly regulated, carefully vetted programs.
Lee Strickland, a former CIA counsel who retired in 2004 from the agency's Senior Intelligence Service, confirmed that the Predator program has grown to keep pace with the spread of al-Qaida commanders.
Many groups of Islamic militants are now believed to be operating in lawless pockets of the Middle East, Asia and Africa where it is perilous for U.S. troops to try to capture them.
"Paradoxically as a result of our success, the target has become even more decentralized, even more diffused and presents a more difficult target, no question about that," said Strickland, now director of the Center for Information Policy at the University of Maryland.
"It's clear that the U.S. is prepared to use and deploy these weapons in a fairly wide theater," Strickland said.
High-ranking U.S. and allied counter-terrorism officials said the effort has grown from targeting a few senior al-Qaida commanders after the Sept. 11 attacks to a more loosely defined effort to kill potentially scores of suspected terrorists.
"We have the plans in place to do them globally," said a former counter-terrorism official who worked at the CIA and State Department, which coordinates efforts with other governments.
"In most cases we need the approval of the host country to do them. However, there are a few countries where the president has decided that we can whack someone without the approval or knowledge of the host government."
The CIA and the Pentagon have deployed at least several dozen of the Predator drones throughout Iraq, Afghanistan and along the borders of Pakistan, U.S. officials confirmed. The CIA has also sent the remote-controlled aircraft into the skies over Yemen and some other countries believed to be al-Qaida havens, a U.S. counter-terrorism official said.
The Predator, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San Diego, looks like a mosquito with a 49-foot wingspan. It makes an easy-to-detect buzzing sound, can hover above a target for many hours and flies as low as 15,000 feet to get good reconnaissance footage. They are often operated by CIA or Pentagon officials at computer consoles in the United States.
The drones were designed to provide aerial surveillance and have been used for that purpose since at least the mid-1990s. After the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush ordered a rapid escalation of a project to arm the Predators with missiles.
Now the Predator is an integral part of the military's counter-insurgency effort, especially in Iraq. But the CIA also maintains a more secretive - and more controversial - Predator program that targets suspected terrorists operating outside combat zones.
The CIA does not acknowledge that a targeted-killing program exists, and some attacks have been explained away as car bombings or other incidents. It is not known how many militants or bystanders have been killed by Predator strikes, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is significant number.
Among the senior al-Qaida leaders killed in Predator strikes were military commander Muhammad Atef in Afghanistan in November 2001 and Qaed Sinan Harithi, a suspected organizer of the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen, in 2002. Last year, Predators took out two al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan: Haitham al Yemeni in May and Abu Hamza Rabia in December, one month after another missile strike missed him.
In the attack on al-Zawahiri, the missiles incinerated several houses in the village of Damadola near Pakistan's northwestern border with Afghanistan. But Zawahiri was not there, U.S. officials now believe. Pakistan said it is still investigating whether the strikes killed other high-ranking militants.
There were some well-publicized failures before the strike. In February 2002, an armed Predator tracked and killed a tall man in flowing robes along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The CIA believed it was firing at Osama bin Laden; the victim turned out to be someone else.
Today, documents and interviews suggest that the U.S. policy on targeted killings remains a work in progress.
A U.N. report in the wake of the 2002 Yemen strike called it "an alarming precedent and a clear case of extrajudicial killing" that was in violation of international laws and treaties. The Bush administration has said it does not recognize the mandate of the U.N. special body in connection with its military actions against al-Qaida, according to Amnesty International.
Paul Pillar, a former CIA deputy counter-terrorism chief, said the authority claimed by the Bush administration is murky.
"I don't think anyone is dealing with solid footing here. There is legal as well as operational doctrine that is being developed as we go along," Pillar said.
Pillar, who was also the CIA's national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia before retiring last year, said there has long been disagreement within the intelligence community over whether targeted killings were legally permissible, or even a good idea.
The 9/11 Commission concluded that vaguely worded laws and policies gave little reassurance to those responsible for pulling the trigger that they would not face disciplinary action - or even criminal charges.
Although Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan issued executive orders in 1976 and 1981, respectively, prohibiting U.S. intelligence agents from engaging in assassination, the Bush administration claimed the right to kill suspected terrorists under war powers given to the president by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks.
It is the same justification Bush has used for a recently disclosed domestic spying effort and a CIA "rendition" program to seize suspected terrorists overseas.
Strickland, like some other officials, said the Predator program serves as a deterrent to foreign governments, militias and other groups that might be harboring suspected al-Qaida cells.
"Conversely," he said, "you have to note that this can also create local animosity and instability."
Josh Meyer writes for the Los Angeles Times.