CIA’s role in drone strikes encourages secrecy, lawmakers say
Nearly two years ago, President Barack Obama called for moving the drone war from the CIA to the Defense Department to give the controversial counterterrorism program greater oversight.
But resistance by key members of Congress and a desire to retain an added level of secrecy and measure of deniability has kept implementation in limbo. While the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command does have purview over some of the drone operations aimed at killing terrorists, the CIA still maintains control over the drone war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it’s been targeting Al Qaeda leaders.
Now, in the wake of the announcement Thursday that an American and an Italian being held hostage were killed in January strikes in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, the fact that the CIA, and not the Defense Department, apparently oversaw the mission could be responsible for the secrecy that kept the information from the families and public for two months.
“Having separate programs hurts oversight,” said Rachel Stohl, a senior associate at The Stimson Center, a Washington think tank that participated in a taskforce of retired generals and counterterrorism officials who studied the issue last year. “Who do you look to to get information from? It makes it far more challenging for a congressional committee, or the Justice Department or the public to know what is happening and where.”
“I don’t think the CIA should be in the business of carrying out wars,” she added. “The military should be well equipped and well positioned to do these kinds of strikes. This could be the tragic event that forces a reassessment of this policy.”
But congressional leaders have previously sought to slow the handover.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, inserted a classified amendment in a spending bill last year requiring the administration to certify that giving the Pentagon a greater role would not have negative impacts on the war on terrorism before implementing any change.
“The transition has stalled,” said a U.S. government official with direct knowledge who was not authorized to speak publicly. “Part of it is that confidence in DoD is not as strong. There may be places where DoD can’t operate. There is a deniability that may not apply in a DoD operation. It helps both us and possibly any country that might not want to cooperate” to keep knowledge of operations as limited as possible.
Yet, there has also been strong backing for making the change from the likes of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who last year said putting the program in the Defense Department would instill “adequate oversight.”
In a speech at the National Defense University in 2013, Obama himself called for handing the mission to the Defense Department as part of a series of policy changes to the drone program, which now requires the president to personally sign off on the targeted killing of the highest-level terrorists.
In the January strikes, however, drone operators were not exactly sure who they were striking, officials said Thursday, only that they were targeting senior-level Al Qaeda operatives. They said U.S. officials did not have any intelligence suggesting hostages were also being kept at the compound.
Currently, the CIA and Pentagon split responsibility for conducting drone surveillance and attacks by region. The CIA pursues so-called core Al Qaeda terror leaders in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, where there is deep opposition to the program from the Pakistani government, while the military goes after Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and the militant group al Shabaab in Somalia, where there has been more support from the governments.
The Pentagon’s campaign against al Shabaab has been one of the most successful recent drone campaigns; American drones have decimated the terror group’s leadership after Obama ordered an offensive following the 2013 al Shabaab terror attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
The U.S. ability to pursue terrorists in Yemen, however, has been curtailed since the collapse of the government there, defense officials acknowledge. Although American drones, which operate from neighboring countries, can continue to surveil terrorists and attack them if necessary, the Pentagon says it is much more effective to be able to coordinate with Yemeni or other troops on the ground.
Scores of U.S. military drones have also been operating over Syria and Iraq since last year when Obama ordered the air war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The military-directed strikes by definition must follow standards of international law, while CIA operations have historically been more opaque and get less oversight from congressional committees.
Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations who wrote the 2014 analysis, said via email Thursday that the latest development only underscores the need to consolidate the operations under the umbrella of the U.S. military.
“U.S. targeted killings are needlessly made complex and opaque by their division between two separate entities: JSOC and the CIA,” he wrote in a recent paper. “Although drone strikes carried out by the two organizations presumably target the same people, the organizations have different authorities, policies, accountability mechanisms and oversight.”
The taskforce convened on drone policy last year by The Stimson Center concluded that “while rare exceptions may be warranted, as a general principle, the military should be the entity responsible for the use of lethal force outside the United States, while the CIA should focus on intelligence collection and analysis.”
Others seized on the news to call on the Obama administration and Congress to review the bidding.
“Unfortunately, the president’s stated commitment to transparency can’t be squared with the secrecy that still shrouds virtually every aspect of the government’s drone program,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, one of the leading proponents in the past for giving the Pentagon greater oversight of the drone mission, called on Thursday for a new examination of the drone effort.
“The American public has a right to know about actions taken on its behalf even — and sometimes especially — when those operations go wrong,” he said. “In the weeks ahead, we will be examining this operation to make sure that the high standards that have been set were, in fact, met, and whether there are any other steps that can be taken to further reduce the risk of loss of innocent life.”
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