WASHINGTON — About once a month, staff members of the congressional intelligence committees drive across the Potomac River to C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., and watch videos of people being blown up.
As part of the macabre ritual the staff members look at the footage of drone strikes in Pakistan and other countries and a sampling of the intelligence buttressing each strike, but not the internal C.I.A. cables discussing the attacks and their aftermath. The screenings have provided a veneer of congressional oversight and have led lawmakers to claim that the targeted killing program is subject to rigorous review, to defend it vigorously in public and to authorize its sizable budget each year.
That unwavering support from Capitol Hill is but one reason the C.I.A.’s killing missions are embedded in American warfare and unlikely to change significantly despite President Obama’s announcement on Thursday that a drone strike accidentally killed two innocent hostages, an American and an Italian. The program is under fire like never before, but the White House continues to champion it, and C.I.A. officers who built the program more than a decade ago — some of whom also led the C.I.A. detention program that used torture in secret prisons — have ascended to the agency’s powerful senior ranks.
Although lawmakers insist that there is great accountability to the program, interviews with administration and congressional officials show that Congress holds the program to less careful scrutiny than many members assert. Top C.I.A. officials, who learned the importance of cultivating Congress after the resistance they ran into on the detention program, have dug in to protect the agency’s drone operations, frustrating a pledge by Mr. Obama two years ago to overhaul the program and pull it from the shadows.
Perhaps no single C.I.A. officer has been more central to the effort than Michael D’Andrea, a gaunt, chain-smoking convert to Islam who was chief of operations during the birth of the agency’s detention and interrogation program and then, as head of the C.I.A. Counterterrorism Center, became an architect of the targeted killing program. Until last month, when Mr. D’Andrea was quietly shifted to another job, he presided over the growth of C.I.A. drone operations and hundreds of strikes in Pakistan and Yemen during nine years in the position.
In secret meetings on Capitol Hill, Mr. D’Andrea was a forceful advocate for the drone program and won supporters among both Republicans and Democrats. Congressional staff members said that he was particularly effective in winning the support of Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who was chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee until January, when Republicans assumed control of the chamber.
Ms. Feinstein for years has tried to beat back criticism of the program from some liberal Democrats and human rights groups who have raised questions about civilian casualties. C.I.A. officials have assured her, she has said, that there are hardly any civilian deaths in the strikes.
“The figures we have obtained from the executive branch, which we have done our utmost to verify, confirm that the number of civilian casualties that have resulted from such strikes each year has typically been in the single digits,” Ms. Feinstein said in 2013.
But the recent accidental deaths of the hostages are only the latest example of how difficult it is for the C.I.A. to know exactly whom it is killing. The White House provided a public accounting of the deaths only because the victims were Westerners. The government has never offered a detailed explanation of attacks that witnesses say killed women and children.
The confidence Ms. Feinstein and other Democrats express about the drone program, which by most accounts has been effective in killing hundreds of Qaeda operatives and members of other militant groups over the years, stands in sharp contrast to the criticism among lawmakers of the now defunct C.I.A. program to capture and interrogate Qaeda suspects in secret prisons.
But both programs were led by some of the same people. The C.I.A. asked that Mr. D’Andrea’s name and the names of some other top agency officials be withheld from this article, but The New York Times is publishing them because they have leadership roles in one of the government’s most significant paramilitary programs and their roles are known to foreign governments and many others.
When Ms. Feinstein was asked in a meeting with reporters in 2013 why she was so sure she was getting the truth about the drone program while she accused the C.I.A. of lying to her about torture, she seemed surprised.
“That’s a good question, actually,” she said.
Mr. D’Andrea was a senior official in the Counterterrorism Center when the agency opened the Salt Pit, a notorious facility in Afghanistan where prisoners were tortured. His counterterrorism officers oversaw the interrogation and waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. His actions are described in the withering Senate Intelligence Committee report about torture that was released late last year, although he was not identified publicly.
The drone program has been largely immune from the criticism in Congress that other C.I.A. programs have attracted. In 2009, for example, when it became public that the agency had once hired the private security firm Blackwater to hunt and kill suspected terrorists, a member of Congress called Mr. D’Andrea a “murderer” during a private briefing, even though the Blackwater program had never carried out any lethal operations. Mr. D’Andrea was furious about his treatment, a former colleague recalled. But he received no similar personal attacks for his leadership of the drone program.
It was two years ago that Mr. Obama gave a speech pledging to pull the targeted killing program from the shadows, and White House officials said they wanted to shift the bulk of drone operations from the C.I.A. to the Pentagon, with the stated intent of making the program somewhat more transparent. But the intelligence committees have resisted the plan, in part because Mr. D’Andrea and other top agency officials have convinced lawmakers that the C.I.A. strikes are more precise than those conducted by the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command.
As part of a bureaucratic reshuffling last month by John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, Mr. D’Andrea has been replaced as head of the drone program by Chris Wood. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Mr. Wood held leadership roles in Alec Station, the group that led the hunt for Qaeda suspects and was central to the interrogation program. He ultimately was in charge of that unit and would later serve as station chief in Kabul. Most recently, he supervised all operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr. Wood now runs a targeted killing program that is the subject of multiple investigations that Mr. Obama announced last week.
And yet the president has given no indication that he intends to shut down the drone program, and both he and his aides continue to praise it as a method of warfare that offers the White House an alternative to messy wars of occupation like in Iraq and Afghanistan. A leitmotif of Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012 was his administration’s success in killing high-ranking Qaeda operatives in Pakistan — even if it was never mentioned that the C.I.A. was doing the killing.
Despite the drone program reforms that Mr. Obama announced in May 2013, White House officials have shown little enthusiasm for ensuring that many of them are adopted. It is the C.I.A., not the Pentagon, that continues to carry out of all of the drone strikes in Pakistan and most of those in Yemen. An internal administration proposal to create a counterterrorism center at the Pentagon, modeled after the C.I.A. unit that runs the drone strikes, was quietly scrapped.
When Mr. Brennan, a former top White House counterterrorism adviser who remains close to Mr. Obama, became C.I.A. director in late 2013, he announced an intention to dial back the paramilitary operations that have transformed the agency since the Sept. 11 attacks. His goal, he said during his confirmation hearings, was to refocus the agency on the traditional work of intelligence collection and espionage that had sometimes been neglected.
But that effort too is slow going, and Mr. Brennan has not pushed forcefully for moving drone operations away from the C.I.A., something he advocated when he was in the White House during Mr. Obama’s first term. In a sign of the continued prominence of military operations inside the agency, Mr. Brennan recently named Greg Vogel, a former agency paramilitary officer, to take over the C.I.A.’s vaunted Directorate of Operations. That position has traditionally gone to C.I.A. officers who ascended the ranks because of their success in traditional espionage work.
Mr. Vogel, identified in news accounts as “Spider” and in a memoir by the former C.I.A. Director George J. Tenet as “Greg V.,” was one of the first C.I.A. officers to enter Afghanistan when the war began in 2001. He was credited during that time with saving the life of Hamid Karzai, the future Afghan president, during a bomb strike. He later served as the C.I.A. station chief in Kabul and eventually became the head of the agency’s Special Activities Division, which runs many paramilitary operations.
The C.I.A. launched its first drone strike in Pakistan in 2004, at a time of growing concern in the government about abuses inside the agency’s detention and interrogation program. Many in Congress expressed horror at the grim details of torture carried out in the secret C.I.A. prisons, even if some senior lawmakers had been briefed about many of the interrogation methods during the birth of the program in 2002.
Operatives in the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center drew a lesson from this experience. They have given regular briefings to the intelligence committees about the drone strikes and made sure to have both committee members and their staffs visit the C.I.A. to watch the drone videos.
Sometimes, lawmakers have used the briefings to ask questions about why specific terrorism suspects have not yet been killed, and to express their dismay that the C.I.A. is not being aggressive enough in its killing operations. One such instance was in 2013, when senior Republicans on the House and Senate intelligence committees were furious after they heard that the C.I.A. had not yet killed Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, an American citizen who had become a top Qaeda operations officer and was hiding in Pakistan.
At the time, there was a debate in the government about whether Mr. Obama should authorize another drone strike against an American citizen — the first since the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011 — and whether it might be possible to capture, rather than kill, Mr. Farekh.
The Republican lawmakers, Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina and Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, said during the closed sessions that the administration was being timid, and urged that Mr. Farekh be hunted and killed.
He was eventually arrested by Pakistani security forces the next year, and is on trial in Brooklyn.