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White House changes drone strike protocol

WASHINGTON -- White House counterterror chief John Brennan has seized the lead in guiding the debate on which terror leaders will be targeted for drone attacks or raids, establishing a new procedure to vet both military and CIA targets.

The move concentrates power over the use of lethal U.S. force outside war zones at the White House.

The process, about a month old, means Brennan's staff consults the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies as to who should go on the list, making a previous military-run review process in place since 2009 less relevant, according to current and former officials aware of the evolution in how terrorists are targeted.

In describing Brennan's arrangement to The Associated Press, the officials provided the first detailed description of the military's previous review process that set a schedule for killing or capturing terror leaders around the Arab world and beyond.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because the targeting program is classified.

One senior administration official argues that Brennan's move adds another layer of review that augments rather than detracts from the Pentagon's role. The official says there will be more people at the table making the decisions, with every agency involved in counterterrorism represented, before they are reviewed by senior officials and ultimately the president.

The CIA's process, unchanged, never included the large number of interagency players the Pentagon is bringing to the table for its debates.

And the move gives Brennan greater input earlier in the process, before senior officials make the final recommendation to President Barack Obama. Officials outside the White House expressed concern that drawing more of the decision-making process to Brennan's office could turn it into a pseudo-military headquarters, entrusting the fate of al-Qaida targets to a small number of senior officials.

Previously, targets were first discussed in meetings run by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen at the time, with Brennan being just one of the voices in the debate.

The new Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has been more focused on shrinking the U.S. military as the Afghan war winds down and less on covert wars.

Some of the officials carrying out the policy are equally leery of "how easy it has become to kill someone," one said.

Drone strikes are highly controversial in Pakistan. Obama met briefly on the sidelines of the NATO summit with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Pakistan has closed transit routes used by NATO to send supplies to troops in Afghanistan in response to a U.S. airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

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