The findings by the President's Intelligence Advisory Board may signal a turning point in the terrorism fight. The document was distributed to senior national security officials at the White House whose public remarks in recent weeks suggest that they share some of the panel's concerns.
John Brennan, Obama's former top counterterrorism adviser who was sworn in as CIA director this month, told Congress in February that he planned to evaluate the "allocation of mission" at the agency. He described the scope of CIA involvement in lethal operations as an "aberration from its traditional role."
U.S. intelligence officials cautioned that any course adjustments are likely to be more incremental than wholesale. One reason is continued concern about the al-Qaeda threat. But another is the influence accumulated by counterterrorism institutions such as the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, as they have expanded over the last decade.
Even Brennan made it clear that the CIA will not relinquish its fleet of armed drones, saying in written answers submitted to lawmakers as part of his confirmation that the agency had a long paramilitary history and "must continue to be able to provide the president with this option."
Still, the advisory board's previously undisclosed report reflects a broader concern that has emerged about central aspects of the way counterterrorism operations are being prosecuted nearly 12 years after they began.
Last year, Brennan led an effort to impose tighter rules on the targeted killing of terrorism suspects overseas. In recent weeks, the administration has been forced to disclose details about the legal basis for drone strikes on U.S. citizens abroad amid an uproar in Congress.