Even before the latest outbreak of violence and chaos in Iraq, the United States was flying secret drone missions in the country in an attempt to gather intelligence on the movements of Al-Qaeda-linked militants.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the clandestine surveillance missions have been going on since last year with the consent of the Iraqi government. Senior White House officials said the program was expanded as concerns over the possibility of a rebellion grew, but they acknowledged the activity provided little useful information for both the US and Iraq.
The secret missions were reportedly run for surveillance purposes only, though it was not revealed exactly what type of drones were used.
One official, who was unnamed by the Journal, noted that whatever intelligence gleamed was shared with the Iraqi government, but added, "It's not like it did any good."
The news comes as militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have gained control of at least two Iraqi cities, including the country's second-largest in Mosul. Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, has also fallen into rebel hands.
Although the New York Times reported Wednesday that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had previously asked the US to consider using airstrikes to diminish the threat of ISIS, President Obama has so far declined to do so, reluctant to recommit the American military to operations in Iraq after withdrawing back in 2011.
Now that the Al-Qaeda-affiliated ISIS is making gains in northern Iraq, however, the White House has asked the Pentagon to put together a list of available options, one of which could include an even more expanded drone program to potentially help Iraqi forces combat insurgents or make way for US airstrikes.
Additionally, increasing intelligence-sharing operations and delivering military equipment are also on the table, as well as long-range options such as training Iraqi and Kurdish troops.
"They're looking at everything and anything and have been told explicitly by the White House to think outside the box of what is possible," a senior U.S. official told the Journal.
As RT reported on Thursday, President Obama himself declared that when it comes to responding to the violence in Iraq, “I don’t rule out anything”
“The basic principal obviously is that we, like all nations, are prepared to take military action whenever our national security is threatened,” he said.
While Obama said ensuring that militants do not gain a foothold in either Iraq or Syria is in the interest of the US, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney later told reporters that putting American troops on the ground is not in the cards. Airstrikes, however, are a possibility.
Even if the US determines that military action is justified, many experts believe it would do little to stabilize Iraq in the long term without substantial political reform on the part of the Iraqis. Speaking with the New York Times, former CIA analyst and National Security Council official Kenneth Pollack said the Maliki government needs to establish a government that’s more open to the disaffected Sunnis who’ve lent their support to the ISIS.
“U.S. military support for Iraq could have a positive effect but only if it is conditioned on Maliki changing his behavior within Iraq’s political system,” he said. “He has to bring the Sunni community back in, agree to limits on his executive authority and agree to reform Iraqi security forces to make them more professional and competent.”