After outrage over civilian deaths, CIA turns to smaller missiles

Express April 26, 2010

WASHINGTON: The CIA is using new, smaller missiles and advanced surveillance techniques to minimise civilian casualties in its targeted killings of suspected militants.

Two counterterrorism officials said in interview to The Washington Post that evolving technology and tactics have kept the number of civilian deaths extremely low. The officials, along with other US and Pakistani officials interviewed by the The Washington Post, spoke on the condition of anonymity on the controversial drone campaign. 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 accounts 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. 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 US 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?” 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 US official described as “advance visual observation” by operatives or surveillance drones.

“We’re talking about precision unsurpassed in the history of warfare,” said a US official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the CIA programme is highly classified. Today, several small missiles are available to the CIA, including the 21-inch Small Smart Weapon. 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 US officials familiar with the missile.

The agency is also using a variety of warheads for the Hellfire, one former senior intelligence official said. Among them is a small thermo baric 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.

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