By ADAM ENTOUS and JULIAN E. BARNES CONNECT
Updated June 12, 2014 4:50 p.m. ET
The U.S. since last year has been secretly flying unmanned surveillance aircraft in small numbers over Iraq to collect intelligence on insurgents, according to U.S. officials.
The program was limited in size and proved little use to U.S. and Iraqi officials when Islamist fighters moved swiftly this week to seize two major Iraqi cities, the officials said.
Before the Islamist offensive, the program was expanded based on growing U.S. and Iraqi concerns about the expanded military activities of al Qaeda-linked fighters.
Officials wouldn't say what types of drones were being used but said the flights were conducted only for surveillance purposes.
A senior U.S. official said the intelligence collected under the small program was shared with Iraqi forces, but added: "It's not like it did any good." The rapid territorial gains by the Islamist forces loyal to Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, an al Qaeda offshoot, caught the U.S. by surprise, the officials said.
Following the takeover of the two Iraqi cities, administration officials have asked the U.S. military and intelligence agencies to draw up options that include limited U.S. military action in Iraq, officials said.
"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 said.
In recent weeks, U.S. has also stepped up planning for the possible evacuation of the American embassy in Baghdad, a U.S. official said. U.S. military officials say they don't believe an evacuation will be necessary and doubt Baghdad will fall to militant forces, but said expanded planning is prudent.
Administration and military officials say they are drawing up short- and long-term options to combat the Islamist threat in Iraq.
The shortlist ranges from possible U.S. airstrikes, intelligence sharing and accelerated delivery of military equipment already in the pipeline.
Long-term options include expanded training of Iraqi and Kurdish forces, officials said.
White House National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said the White House declined to comment on internal deliberations.