SIGONELLA NAVAL AIR STATION, Italy — One of the U.S. government’s worst-kept secrets is the CIA’s program to hunt and kill suspected terrorists with armed drones. Everybody knows the CIA does it. The agency, however, refuses to publicly acknowledge the covert program, a fig leaf that has obscured the CIA’s operations and limited official accountability.
So ears perked up Friday when Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta not once, but twice made cracks about the agency’s fleet of unmanned Predator drones while visiting troops in Italy.
Panetta, who served as CIA director prior to becoming Pentagon chief in July, jokingly told an auditorium full of sailors at the U.S. naval base in Naples that he was enjoying his new job because of all the firepower at his disposal.
“Obviously I have a hell of a lot more weapons available to me here than I had at the CIA,” he said. “Although the Predators aren’t bad.”
A few hours later, during a stop at the Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily, Panetta made another reference to the CIA’s armed drones.
Standing in front of an unarmed Global Hawk surveillance drone, Panetta lauded the role played by the U.S. military’s Predator fleet in the war in Libya. The use of Predators, he added slyly, ”is something I was very familiar with in my past job.”