REPORTING FROM NAVAL AIR STATION SIGONELLA, ITALY -- The U.S. government does not officially acknowledge that CIA drones are carrying out airstrikes in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries. But Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta came closer than usual Friday in off-the-cuff remarks in Italy.
Speaking to U.S. and NATO troops, first in Naples and later in Sicily, Panetta twice referred to the Predator drones he controlled in his previous job as CIA director. It was a rare on-the-record confirmation of the agency’s use of the unmanned aircraft by a senior U.S. official, even though the program has become an open secret in Washington.
When officials talk about the CIA drones, they usually do so anonymously or refer simply to “counter-terrorism operations."
“Having moved from the CIA to the Pentagon, obviously I have a hell of a lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had at the CIA, although the Predators aren’t bad,” he said in a speech to sailors and Marines at the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet headquarters in Naples.
Panetta was in Italy for briefings on the NATO air campaign in Libya, which has made extensive use of U.S. Air Force drones. But those operations, because they are controlled by the Pentagon, are not even nominally secret.
A few hours later, addressing U.S. and NATO troops on the tarmac at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, Panetta's thoughts again turned to the CIA drones as he praised the Libya operation.
“This was a complicated mission, there’s no question about it,” he said, noting that it involved “the use of Predators, which is something I was very familiar with in my past job.”
As he spoke, Panetta was standing next to a U.S. Air Force Global Hawk surveillance drone. After he finished, an Air Force Predator armed with Hellfire missiles rolled down the runway and took off, presumably bound for Libyan airspace.
Panetta stopped short of confirming that CIA Predators were conducting airstrikes. Last week, when Anwar Awlaki, a U.S. citizen considered a key leader of the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in Yemen, President Obama confirmed his death but didn’t say how it was carried out. Unnamed U.S. officials later said the operation was a CIA-led drone strike.
Panetta’s comments were not the first time he has spoken publicly about CIA drones. He once described the program to reporters as “the only game in town” for going after militants in remote places. Asked in a PBS interview shortly after moving to the Pentagon about allegations of civilian casualties from CIA drone strikes, Panetta said the agency chose its targets carefully.
But his comments Friday went further than he had in the past by specifically acknowledging the CIA is flying Predators.
Panetta made the comments 10 years to the day after the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan. In the months before the invasion, the CIA began secretly flying the then-new unarmed Predators, equipped with aerial video cameras, over Afghanistan to look for Osama bin Laden. But a move to outfit the aircraft with missiles languished for months.
It was not until after Sept. 11, 2001, that the first Predators armed with Hellfire missiles became operational and were rushed to Afghanistan. Hundreds have entered the U.S. fleet in the decade since — and killed hundreds of suspected militants, mostly in Pakistani border regions.
With their surveillance and striking capabilities, they have become the signature weapon of the U.S. battle against militants over the last decade. At a stop in Brussels earlier in his weeklong trip, Panetta urged NATO allies to move ahead with a plan to buy five Global Hawks for the alliance.
“Over these years — and especially this year — we have dealt heavy blows to Al Qaeda’s leadership,” Panetta said in a statement Friday on the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. The statement did not mention drones.
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta walks to a briefing in Naples with Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa. Credit: Pool Photo.