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, which is 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 two current and three former U.S. officials aware of the evolution in how the government targets terrorists.
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 U.S. officials are not allowed to publicly describe the classified targeting program.
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 that in fact there will be more people at the table making the decisions, including representatives from every agency involved in counterterrorism, before they are reviewed by senior officials and ultimately the president.
The CIA's process remains unchanged, but never included the large number of interagency players the Pentagon brought 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 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 the covert wars overseas.
With Dempsey less involved, Brennan believed there was an even greater need to draw together different agencies' viewpoints, showing the American public that al-Qaida targets are chosen only after painstaking and exhaustive debate, the senior administration official said.
But some of the officials carrying out the policy are equally leery of "how easy it has become to kill someone," one said. The United States is targeting al-Qaida operatives for reasons such as being heard in an intercepted conversation plotting to attack a U.S. ambassador overseas, the official said. Stateside, that conversation could trigger an investigation by the Secret Service or FBI.