Predators' Progress

The CIA’s secret war in Pakistan has been bolstered by reinforcements of Predator spy-and-strike drones that have become the U.S.’s dominant weapon to find and kill senior al Qaeda leaders.

HUMAN EVENTS has learned that the CIA is launching the Predators from two bases inside Pakistan operated by the country’s notorious Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), the country’s CIA.

It was the ISI that helped put the Taliban in power in Afghanistan, providing too a safe haven for Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorists to plot attacks against the West. More recently, some ISI members are believed to be helping militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghanistan border.

Still, the CIA and ISI have a working arrangement for the launch of Predators. Because the American military is barred by Pakistan from operating in the tribal areas, the Predator has become the U.S.’s lead weapon to kill al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in the region.

An intelligence source said the Predator fleet in Pakistan has doubled over the passed year from a figure put at "less than a half dozen."

The intelligence source said the mountain ranges along the border have strong wind currents that make it difficult to launch the Predators from Afghanistan. That is why the access to the ISI bases is critical if the CIA is to conduct its unofficial war. The agency does not acknowledge publicly that it is conducting an air war in Pakistan.

With a go-ahead from President Bush and the tacit approval of the newly elected government in Islamabad, the agency has stepped up strikes this year.

The U.S. has launched an unprecedented 20 air strikes since August, most of which were performed by Predators.

A military source told HUMAN EVENTS that the CIA all along had good intelligence on the whereabouts of key leaders. But it was handcuffed by the former government of President Pervez Musharraf, who feared a backlash from a restive Muslim population.

"They are now putting out more sorties based on operational intelligence," said this source. "They know exactly where to go. We’ve had good intelligence. We’re now operating on it. We’re taking the handcuffs off. We’ve know this for a long time. The president has decided to act and take the handcuffs off our forces."

The source said the intelligence comes from "all sources." A key asset is a network of receivers placed along the Afghanistan mountain range that soak up radio and cell phone communications for quick translation by the National Security Agency.

Bin Laden is believed to be in hiding in the tribal areas. The flow of intelligence is getting so good some hold out hope that a Predator may find and kill the world’s top fugitive in the coming months.

In a speech to the Atlantic Council Nov. 13, CIA Director Michael Hayden spoke of the difficulty of spying on the huge territories that make up Pakistan’s tribal zones.

Hayden said, "Beyond that remoteness — remember, I’m talking about the hunt for bin Laden — beyond that remoteness, the sheer challenge of surveying every square mile of that inhospitable and dangerous region, part of the explanation for his survival lies in the fact that he has worked to avoid detection. He is putting a lot of energy into his own survival, a lot of energy into his own security. In fact, he appears to be largely isolated from the day-to-day operations of the organization he nominally heads."

He added, "Killing, capturing, disrupting al Qaeda’s senior leaders, wherever they may find or seek sanctuary, is absolutely essential in thwarting attacks on the West. That’s the key lesson from 9/11. Our understanding of this enemy and what it will take to defeat him changed on that day."

Early Predator models fly at relatively low altitude for short periods of time. But a new version, the MQ-9 Reaper, can fly at 50,000 feet and stay aloft longer. It carries improved optics so ground stations get a better view of potential targets, and is armed with satellite-guided bombs as well as Hellfire missiles.