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Why the White House blessed the recent Yemen drone strikes

An MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, flies over southern Afghanistan in an undated photo.
An MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, flies over southern Afghanistan in an undated photo./

The nine drone strikes that President Obama has authorized in Yemen since an electronic intercept revealed that al Qaeda leaders wanted to launch a major terror attack are strikes that the U.S. could’ve launched earlier this year, said military and intelligence officials.

The targets had already been identified, said senior defense department officials, but the strikes were caught in a national security bottleneck after a change in policy this spring “slowed everything down.” The bottleneck vanished and the strikes were suddenly carried out after the U.S. intercepted communications in late July in which two al Qaeda leaders said they wanted to do “something big.”

The strikes, which began on July 27 and have so far killed three dozen suspected militants, are not retaliatory and so far have not eliminated the threat that led to the temporary closure of U.S. diplomatic posts across the Middle East, said officials.

A senior administration official denied that there had been any shift in policy. “This threat has changed the conditions on the ground,” said the official. “It’s not a change in guidance.”

The recent lull in drone attacks in Yemen, which lasted from June 9 to July 27, was the third pause this year. The pauses have come as the White House personnel responsible for drone strikes have changed and as the administration tweaks its criteria for when the missiles can be fired.

The first significant interruption began in late January and lasted through mid-April. The slowdown coincided with a change in jobs for John Brennan, who had overseen the strikes for the White House as Homeland Security Advisor but left to become director of the CIA in March.

Obama announced that he had chosen Lisa Monaco to replace Brennan as his top counterterror official on January 25, and she officially assumed the role of Homeland Security Advisor on March 8. The U.S. launched four strikes on Yemen between January 19 and January 23, just before Obama’s announcement about Monaco, but didn’t launch another until April 17.

“With Brennan going over to CIA and Monaco replacing him, it took time,” said a senior counterterrorism official. “This was a while coming. JSOC (the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command) was pushing for more strikes and more operations but the White House slowed everything down.”

After three drone strikes on April 17 and 21, a second lull lasted until two airstrikes on May 18 and 20. On May 23, President Obama gave a speech at the National Defense University in which he announced plans to limit the use of drones against al Qaeda and related groups outside of “the Afghan war theater.”

In tandem with the drone speech, the President issued new internal guidance to officials that tightened controls on what targets could be hit and who could make the decision to launch a drone.

What followed, sources said, was more frustration from Defense Department officials, and a third, seven-week-long interruption in drone strikes that led to a backlog of identified militant targets in Yemen.

The guidelines were intended to cut down on collateral damage to civilians, and made it harder to launch drones when civilians were present. They also took away some of the military’s freedom to act.

The White House has always had the final say on which targets are approved for drone strikes, and controls the list of permitted targets. Previously, once the White House had okayed a target, the military had some latitude to decide when to launch the actual strike. Now defense officials would have to ask for a green light every time they wanted to “push the button.”

“There was no more delegation of authority,” said the senior counterterrorism official. “Only the White House can approve a strike.”

Defense officials were left struggling to figure out what would make the grade, said the official. Monaco, who had day-to-day, operational control of the strikes, did not lessen their frustration. She applied a strict interpretation to the president’s new, tighter guidelines on when the button could be pushed and who could be targeted.

In May, around the time of Obama’s speech, senior military officials prepared “targeting packages” for Monaco, with a roster of suspected militants in Yemen that they wanted to eliminate. The “targeting packages” contain background information on the identified targets. The CIA’s packages for Pakistan are often very detailed, while the Defense Department’s research on Yemeni targets was sometimes less detailed.

The military’s roster was delivered to the White House, said the official, along with a message that eliminating the targets – most of whom were lower level militants -- was a question of “pain now, or pain later.” The White House could choose between criticism for alleged excessive use of drones or deal with the consequences of sparing the militants.

But after the targeting packages were delivered, nothing happened. None of the names were added to the White House’s approved list of drone targets.

Approximately six weeks ago, in June, military officials began to get antsy that the opportunity to hit their Yemeni targets was slipping away. There had been only two drone strikes in Yemen in May and two more in June, and then the strikes stopped.

But then, in late July, the U.S. intercepted an electronic communication in which two of al Qaeda’s top world leaders, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Nasir al-Wahishi, agreed they wanted to launch a major attack on a Muslim holiday known as Laylat al-Qadr. This year the holiday, also known as the "Night of Power,” fell on the weekend of August 3 and 4.

When the message was intercepted, said the official, things changed. After seven weeks without a drone launch in Yemen, the White House approved nine over the course of two weeks, starting on July 27. The targets were largely lower level operatives.

The first attack killed six militants in a convoy in a town controlled by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. None were in leadership positions. More strikes followed on July 30 and Aug. 1, 6, 7, 8 and 10.

A Yemeni government spokesman denied media reports that the most recent strike, which killed four al Qaeda militants over the weekend, had severely wounded al Qaeda’s master bombmaker. Mohammed al-Basha, press attaché at the Yemeni embassy in Washington, said via Twitter Wednesday morning that “Reports that #AQAP’s Chief Bombmaker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, was killed or wounded are incorrect.”

In the U.S., three separate sources at three separate agencies all said they don’t know for certain whether al-Asiri was hit in the weekend strike. One senior official said, “We just don’t know.” Two others expressed skepticism, saying there’s no evidence to support any claim he was killed or wounded.

A U.S. intelligence official told NBC News that three of those killed in Saturday’s strike had been identified, and “none were of operational significance.”

Caitlin Hayden, spokesperson for the National Security Council, which advises the president on national security, said she could not discuss specific operations or targeting decisions “beyond making clear that the policy the President announced on May 23 at the National Defense University remains our policy.”

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