Reporting from Washington — The CIA passed up a chance last year to kill Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of an anti-American insurgent network in Pakistan that is closely linked to Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, when it chose not to fire a missile at him from a Predator drone because women and children were nearby, U.S. and Pakistani officials say.
The incident was one of at least three occasions in the last six months when a militant was identified on video and a shot was available, but U.S. officials decided not to fire in order to avoid civilian casualties, said a senior Pakistani official familiar with the drone program.
Killing civilians in drone attacks on insurgents in Pakistan's tribal regions has generated a powerful anti-American backlash across the country. The anger has been a major public relations problem for both the Obama administration and the government of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who subscribe to a delicate arrangement under which Pakistani authorities help with intelligence information for the strikes but officially deny involvement.
The Pakistani official, who spoke on condition he not be named, said allowing high-value targets to escape reflected a decision by the U.S. since August to use greater caution in the drone strikes. A strike Aug. 22 destroyed a militant hide-out in North Waziristan, killing 13 members of the Afghan Taliban but also four women and three children who were living among them, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.
The U.S. officials said there had been no policy change and that there always have been occasions when the CIA decided not to fire at a target in the midst of civilians. Those officials would confirm only the Haqqani incident. But they cited two other occasions in the last year when missiles that had already been fired from drones were diverted off target to avoid killing civilians. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a classified program.
Another factor driving the change, according to a former CIA official, is that the U.S. can afford to forgo an opportunity to kill a senior militant because intelligence and technology improvements to drone operations give the CIA confidence it will get the chance for a clearer shot.
In the past, if the agency passed up an opportunity to strike, the worry was, "Will we ever see that person again. Is this it?" according to the former CIA official. That is less of a concern now, he said.
Members of Congress who received classified briefings on the drone program are satisfied with the efforts made to avoid killing civilians, even if it means passing up opportunities to strike high-value targets, according to congressional sources.
One of the U.S. officials also asserted that no civilian has been killed in more than 75 strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas since the Aug. 22 strike, suggesting that the CIA, which runs the drone program in Pakistan, has been more judicious in its attacks. And despite a substantial increase in drone strikes in recent months, senior Pakistani officials said complaints about civilian deaths have been scant.
Both the U.S. and Pakistani governments have an interest in getting out a message that they are taking care to avoid civilian deaths. Independent groups that monitor media reports to track U.S. strikes in Pakistan said they cannot confirm the U.S. statistics.
But the New America Foundation, which researches the drone program, estimates that as few as zero and as many as 18 civilians have been killed by U.S. drones since the August hit. Overall, the level of noncombatant deaths dropped from 25% of the total in prior years to an estimated 6% in 2010, according to calculations by the foundation's Katherine Tiedemann.
The report concerning Sirajuddin Haqqani suggests that sensitivity about civilian casualties has increased. When a CIA missile took out another Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in 2009, it also reportedly killed his wife and other family members.
Haqqani is a top-priority CIA target who leads an insurgent network that operates in North Waziristan. He is believed to be responsible for cross-border attacks in Afghanistan, and U.S. officials think the Haqqani network helped plan the 2009 suicide bombing at an Afghan base that killed seven CIA officers.
In an April interview, Haqqani admitted planning the January 14, 2008, attack against the Serena Hotel in Kabul that killed six people, including an American citizen. He also admitted to having planned an April 2008 assassination attempt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The State Department, which is offering a $5-million reward for information about his location, says he "has coordinated and participated in cross-border attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan."