But on Jan. 23, 2009 – Obama’s third day in office – a Predator drone flying over Pakistan released a Hellfire missile that slammed into a suspected Taliban compound, killing 18 people inside.
The CIA strike was the first of more than 500 that would take place over the next eight years, a campaign that, according to most estimates, has killed at least 3,000 militants and hundreds of civilians. For all he did to check the CIA’s powers, Obama will more likely be remembered as the president who unleashed the agency’s fleet of armed drones.
Obama inherited that lethal capability, which the agency had initially developed to target Osama bin Laden, and then employed it sporadically as it scoured Pakistan’s tribal belt for senior al-Qaida operatives. But the program expanded under Obama’s watch in important and sometimes initially invisible ways.
The pace of the campaign’s strikes in Pakistan surged from several dozen in 2008 to 117 in Obama’s second year.
The acceleration was enabled by Obama’s secret embrace of a controversial tactic known as “signature strikes,” which meant the CIA could fire at suspicious gatherings of suspected militants without actually knowing who they were.
The program also spread geographically, as the agency added drone bases in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other locations, platforms used for both armed and unarmed flights over conflicts in Yemen and Syria.
Obama came to be branded as the drone president long before he could bring himself to publicly utter the word.
That didn’t happen until 2013, when Obama delivered a speech at the National Defense University and acknowledged – awkwardly – the existence of “remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones.”
That a former constitutional law professor would come to rely so heavily on an unprecedented – and critics argued extrajudicial – program of targeted killings was a source of tension that Obama seemed to struggle with throughout his tenure.
“The very precision of drone strikes and the necessary secrecy often involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites,” Obama said. “It can also lead a president and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.”
Obama sought repeatedly to address the accountability issue. His national security team spent much of his first term developing a counterterrorism playbook designed to impose tighter rules on drone strikes, detailing the criteria for selecting targets and specifying the White House or CIA approvals required before a Hellfire missile could be fired.
The White House released white papers summarizing the secret memos that served as the drone program’s legal foundation, seeking to assure the public that strikes were permitted only on suspected terrorists who posed an “imminent threat” and only when capture was not feasible.
Although welcomed by civil liberties groups, the administration’s measures never succeeded in quieting critics who saw the CIA drone operations as excessively secretive, legally dubious and tactically counterproductive.
The rise of the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria and the resilience of al-Qaida appeared to have only added to Obama’s warning that drone strikes should not be considered “a cure-all for terrorism.”
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