WASHINGTON -- The drone attack that killed a Pakistani Taliban deputy leader last week was a clear signal that despite President Barack Obama's promise of new transparency in the program, the CIA will still launch secret drone attacks on militants in north Pakistan and the administration will not have to tell anyone about it.
The CIA drone took off from Afghanistan on Wednesday and struck a compound in Pakistan's remote tribal areas where the agency believed Waliur Rehman was staying. The Pakistani Taliban later confirmed the death of Rehman, believed to be one of the key planners behind the deadly suicide bombing against a CIA base in 2009.
But White House officials would not even confirm the drone strike, much less Rehman's death. This despite the president's pledge in a national security speech May 23 that he would be more transparent about U.S. counterterrorism actions.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday would only say broadly that Obama feels a responsibility to protect U.S. forces in the "Afghan war theater" -- that includes Pakistan -- and would use a "range of abilities" to provide those forces as much protection as possible.
Obama announced new "presidential policy guidelines" last week on the standards his administration has been using when deciding to launch lethal strikes. They included a guideline to kill someone only if the person presents an "imminent threat" to national security and only if the person cannot be captured. Obama also stated his preference for using the military, not the CIA, to carry out such strikes.
But he also indicated that the CIA would continue to control and run its secret drone programs in places such as Pakistan and Yemen.
The CIA has permission from the Yemeni government to make strikes. But it operates without permission from the Pakistani government, and the newly elected administration of Nawaz Sharif has demanded an end to the program that has killed more than 3,000 people since 2004.
Dozens of key militants have been among those killed, including al-Qaida's second-in-command, Abu Yahya al-Libi, last year.
Obama's speech promising more transparency is not necessarily at odds with this week's covert strike, according to Shamila Chaudhary, a former National Security Council staffer who worked on Pakistan issues.
"He's codifying it, trying to set down in legal language" the counterterrorism program built during Obama's first term, said Chaudhary, now at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington public-policy organization.
"But Pakistan is still an exception," she said. The fact that the American drone took out one of Pakistan's enemies also probably helped mute Islamabad's reaction, she added.
United States officials briefed on the drone program say the speech's intent was to take the heat off the controversial attacks by promising that the military would do them when possible. The suggestion was that military strikes are more subject to publicly accessible congressional oversight. In fact, Congress is briefed on drone strikes by both the military and CIA but in closed, classified hearings.
But officials say the drone strikes will still be launched from bases in neighboring Afghanistan or anywhere else al-Qaida and its affiliates operate and local governments can't or won't act.
Guidelines for lethal force issued by the White House after the speech would seem to fit the Rehman case. They state that lethal action would be taken only against "a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons," and where there is "near certainty that noncombatants will not be injured or killed."
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Wednesday said in addition to the 2009 suicide attack on a U.S. base in Afghanistan that killed seven Americans working for the CIA, Rehman was behind cross-border attacks in Afghanistan against NATO troops and deadly attacks against Pakistani troops and civilians. Pakistani officials said three others killed in the drone strike also were militants.
White House guidelines
The White House guidelines also state that lethal strikes would only be taken after "an assessment that the relevant governmental authorities in the country where action is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the threat to U.S. persons."
Sharif had indicated a willingness to open peace talks with Rehman, which could have meant the man who helped carry out one of the deadliest attacks on the CIA would get away with it.
The drone strike also highlights the closing window of opportunity for the CIA to target high-level Taliban and al-Qaida-related militants while the agency still has tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops to protect its dozen-plus major bases around neighboring Afghanistan.
U.S. intelligence and military officers are also drawing down, and will be relying more on Afghan agencies and intelligence agents.
That complicates the mission Obama says will not end with U.S. troop withdrawal: hunting the al-Qaida remnants responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and keeping them from launching new attacks.
"They're still trying to come back," a senior coalition intelligence officer said in an interview Wednesday from Afghanistan.