US Military Drones Over Yemen

ABC News' Luis Martinez Reports:

US officials tell ABC News that the US military has been flying Predators over Yemen since early this year. The drones are only intended to carry out surveillance and reconnaissance of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) targets. Air strikes in Yemen that began late last year have been from U. S. cruise missiles targeted with help from the drones flying overhead. The US can only conduct the strikes with approval from the Yemeni government, but there haven’t been any US missile strikes since May when Yemen ceased approving them in response to an airstrike in May that killed a Provincial Deputy Governor.

The drones fly from the US base in Djibouti across the Red Sea and fly either above Yemeni territory or along the coastline.

In a rare admission, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr Qirbi told CNN this weekend that U.S. drones were used in "surveillance operations" and there was "intelligence information that is exchanged about the location of the terrorists by the Americans." But he said the Yemeni Air Force conducts the airstrike missions, which really wasn’t the case in the strikes prior to May.

A US official says that over the past year, the CIA has stepped up its focus on Yemen and there has been discussion of the agency doing even more.

There have been several media reports recently about what that might entail with the most recent one being in the LA Times that the Obama administration is considering having the CIA take over the mission with its armed Predator drones taking out terror targets much as it does in Pakistan.

The US military has a small number of military trainers in Yemen, that number stood at 12 in July which was the last time the number was publicly disclosed. Officials won’t say how many there are today because the number fluctuates, but once the counterterrorism aid money is in the pipeline the number of trainers will increase.

A recent article in the WSJ described discussion of placing US military assets in Yemen under CIA control. Pentagon officials strenuously denied such a plan was under serious consideration at the Pentagon. One US official said there has been discussion of this in the past, but it never goes anywhere.

It all comes down to the legal protections military members have if they’re caught while conducting a mission. There’s a legal distinction between the covert missions the military conducts and clandestine operations carried out by the CIA. For example, military troops conducting covert operations still have legal protections because they’re in uniform, but personnel who conduct clandestine operations don’t have those protections as the government can deny their clandestine activity.

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