The CIA is using new, smaller missiles and advanced surveillance techniques to minimize civilian casualties in its targeted killings of suspected insurgents in Pakistan's tribal areas, according to current and former officials in the United States and Pakistan.
The technological improvements have resulted in more accurate operations that have provoked relatively little public outrage, the officials said. Pakistan's government has tolerated the airstrikes, which have killed hundreds of suspected insurgents since early 2009, but that support has always been fragile and could quickly evaporate, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.
The CIA declines to publicly discuss its clandestine operations in Pakistan, and a spokesman would not comment on the kinds of weapons the agency is using. But two counterterrorism officials said in interviews that evolving technology and tactics have kept the number of civilian deaths extremely low. The officials, along with other U.S. and Pakistani officials interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the drone campaign is both classified and controversial.
Last month, a small CIA missile, probably no bigger than a violin case and weighing about 35 pounds, tore through the second floor of a house in Miram Shah, a town in the tribal province of South Waziristan. The projectile exploded, killing a top al-Qaeda official and about nine other suspected terrorists.
The mud-brick house collapsed and the roof of a neighboring house was damaged, but no one else in the town of 5,000 was hurt, according to U.S. officials who have reviewed after-action reports.
The agency, using 100-pound Hellfire missiles fired from remotely controlled Predator aircraft, once targeted militants largely in rural settings, but lighter weapons and miniature spy drones have made killings in urban areas more feasible, officials said.
According to an internal CIA accounting described to The Washington Post, just over 20 civilians are known to have died in missile strikes since January 2009, in a 15-month period that witnessed more than 70 drone attacks that killed 400 suspected terrorists and insurgents. Agency officials said the CIA's figures are based on close surveillance of targeted sites both before and after the missiles hit.
Unofficial tallies based on local news reports are much higher. The New America Foundation puts the civilian death toll at 181 and reports a far higher number of alleged terrorists and insurgents killed — more than 690.
The drone strikes have been controversial in Pakistan, where many view them as an infringement on national sovereignty. In the past the strikes have spawned protests, as well as angry denunciations in newspaper editorials and in speeches by opposition politicians.
The clamor over the strikes has died down considerably over the past year, however, and Pakistani officials acknowledge that improved accuracy is one of the reasons. Pakistani security officials say that better targeting technology, a deeper pool of spies in the tribal areas, and greater cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistani intelligence services have all led to strikes that cause fewer civilian deaths.
Still, the drone strikes are often cited by Pakistanis as a prime reason for their displeasure with U.S. policy in the region. Pakistan has repeatedly asked for its own armed drones so that it can carry out the strikes — a move that could help the government with the perception that it has ceded authority to the United States. The United States has agreed to provide Pakistan with surveillance drones but has declined to arm them.
Peter Bergen, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said the agency's accounting of the effects of the drone campaign can neither be confirmed nor refuted without greater access to the tribal areas for outsiders or independent scrutiny of CIA video of the strikes.
Officials say CIA targeteers are increasingly driven to avoid civilian deaths, in part to tamp down any political blowback from Pakistan and from U.S. and international human rights groups. Current and former officials point to the relative absence of complaints from local and regional leaders as evidence of the success of their efforts.
"Where are the photos of atrocities? Where are the protests?" asked one U.S. official who closely monitors the program. "After civilian deaths in Afghanistan, there are always press reports. Why don't you ever see that in Pakistan?"
Peter Warren Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, noted that while Americans use words such as "efficient" and "costless" to describe the campaign, some Pakistanis view it as war without honor.
"The civilian-casualties narrative is a misnomer; it's not a driver of perceptions," said Singer, the author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century." He said that in the tribal areas, the technology itself can be seen as evil because it is so alien.
The fear of collateral damage has led to what officials describe as a rigorous process for confirming the identity of terrorism suspects — a process that includes what one U.S. official described as "advance visual observation" by operatives or surveillance drones. But new tools and weapons are equally important, the officials said.
"We're talking about precision unsurpassed in the history of warfare," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the CIA program is highly classified.
Diameter of a coffee cup
Today, several small missiles are available to the agency, including the 21-inch Small Smart Weapon, created by Lockheed Martin. Weighing 35 pounds and having roughly the diameter of a coffee cup, the Scorpion, as it is now called, was designed to be launched from the Predator. It causes far less destruction than a Hellfire, and it can be fitted with four different guidance systems that allow it to home in on targets as small as a single person, in complete darkness, according to U.S. officials familiar with the missile.
A Lockheed spokesman declined to say whether the CIA is currently using the Scorpion, which, according to a Lockheed brochure, is intended for "precision attack using a small, lethal warhead against targets in areas requiring low collateral damage." The agency is also using a variety of warheads for the Hellfire, one former senior intelligence official said. Among them is a small thermobaric warhead, which detonates a cocktail of explosive powders on impact to create a pressure wave that kills humans but leaves structures relatively intact. The wave reaches around corners and can penetrate the inner recesses of bunkers and caves, according to weapons experts.
The CIA's expanded arsenal also includes surveillance drones that carry no weapons, two former intelligence officials said. These "micro-UAVs" — unmanned aerial vehicles — can be roughly the size of a pizza platter and are capable of monitoring potential targets at close range, for hours or days at a stretch. At night, they can be nearly impossible to detect, said one former official who has worked with such aircraft.
"It can be outside your window and you won't hear a whisper," the official said.
Correspondent Griff Witte and staff writer Karen DeYoung in Islamabad and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.