U.S. denies role in two recent drone strikes in Pakistan

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ISLAMABAD -- When news of the two latest drone strikes emerged from Pakistan's tribal belt in early February, it seemed to be business as usual by the CIA.

Local and international media reports, citing unnamed Pakistani officials, carried typical details: swarms of U.S. drones had swooped into remote areas, killing a total of as many as nine people, including two senior al-Qaida commanders. In Islamabad, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry lodged an official protest with the U.S. Embassy.

Yet there was one problem, said three U.S. officials with knowledge of the drone program: The United States did not carry out those attacks. "They were not ours," said one of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the program's secrecy. "We haven't had any kinetic activity since January."

What exactly occurred in those remote tribal villages, far from outside scrutiny, is unclear. But U.S. officials' best guess is that one, or possibly both, of the strikes were carried out by Pakistan's military and falsely attributed to the CIA to avoid Pakistani public criticism. "The Pakistan air force does not generally undertake standalone strikes such as these because it is not equipped with the appropriate strike weapons," a Pakistani military source said.

If the U.S. guess is true, it is a striking irony: In the drone campaign's early years, the Pakistani army falsely claimed responsibility for U.S. drone strikes in a bid to mask CIA activities on their soil. Now, U.S. officials suggest, the military may be using the same program to disguise its own operations.

More broadly, the phantom attacks underscore long-standing difficulty of gaining reliable information about the U.S. drone program in the remote, largely inaccessible tribal belt -- especially with the program under sharp scrutiny in Washington.

For the past month, John O. Brennan, President Barack Obama's counterterrorism adviser and pick to lead the CIA, has been dogged by congressional questions about the drone program's lack of transparency, particularly when it comes to killing U.S. citizens abroad.

The biggest obstacle to confirming details of strikes is their location: They usually hit hostile, virtually closed-off areas. Foreign reporters are barred from the tribal belt, and the few local journalists who operate there feel pressure from both the military and the Taliban.

That murkiness has often suited both the CIA's and Pakistani military's purposes. It allows the U.S. side to conduct drone strikes behind a curtain of secrecy, largely shielded from public oversight and outside scrutiny. For the Pakistanis, it lets them play both sides: publicly condemning strikes, while quietly supporting others, such as the missile attack that killed Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in 2009.

Still, the information vacuum also puts U.S. officials at a disadvantage in answering accusations that the drones kill large numbers of innocent civilians alongside bona fide militants. State Department officials complain that they cannot effectively counter civilian death claims they believe are hugely inflated because the program is classified, a subject of lively debate inside the administration, one official said.

But the private controversy over the latest strikes suggested another phenomenon: manipulation of drone reports themselves.

If U.S. claims are correct, the last U.S. drone strike occurred Jan. 10, marking the longest drone campaign pause since November 2011, when the CIA stopped strikes for 55 days after U.S. warplanes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a disputed border clash.

Some analysts think the lull may be tied to Mr. Brennan's nomination, pointing to a similar slowdown in Yemen, the other major U.S. drone operation theater. Others cite more prosaic explanations, such as intelligence delays or bad weather.

Viewed from Washington, a handful of erroneously reported strikes may seem inconsequential.

Yet in Pakistan, they carry greater significance, igniting huge, sometimes violent anti-American demonstration that make drones a toxic subject for generals and politicians alike. But the U.S. claims about the two attacks this month suggest that they may also be trying to have the best of both worlds.

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