WASHINGTON — Contrary to assurances it has deployed U.S. drones only against known senior leaders of al-Qaida and allied groups, the Obama administration has targeted and killed hundreds of suspected lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified "other" militants in scores of strikes in Pakistan's rugged tribal area, classified U.S. intelligence reports show.
The administration has said that strikes by the CIA's missile-firing Predator and Reaper drones are authorized only against "specific senior operational leaders of al-Qaida and associated forces" involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks who are plotting "imminent" violent attacks on Americans.
"It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative," President Barack Obama said in a Sept. 6, 2012, interview with CNN. "It has to be a situation in which we can't capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States."
Copies of the top-secret U.S. intelligence reports reviewed by McClatchy, however, show that drone strikes in Pakistan over a four-year period didn't adhere to those standards.
McClatchy's review found that:
• At least 265 of up to 482 people who the U.S. intelligence reports estimated the CIA killed during a 12-month period ending in September 2011 were not senior al-Qaida leaders but instead were "assessed" as Afghan, Pakistani and unknown extremists.
• At other times, the CIA killed people who only were suspected, associated with, or who probably belonged to militant groups.
"The United States has gone far beyond what the U.S. public — and perhaps even Congress — understands the government has been doing and claiming they have a legal right to do," said Mary Ellen O'Connell, a Notre Dame Law School professor.
In a response to McClatchy, the White House defended its targeting policies, pointing to public statements by senior administration officials that the missile strikes are aimed at al-Qaida and associated forces.