Obama’s drone killing program slowly emerges from the secret state shadows

By | March 26, 2013

Obama's drone killing program slowly emerges from the secret state shadows

How much difference does it make for a Pentagon finger to fire a Hellfire missile, rather than the CIA’s? Some, but not enough

Should we be happy or worried that the CIA may, someday soon, no longer be able to order a drone pilot to shoot a Hellfire missile in some faraway land?

According to several news reports, the Obama administration may be moving full control over its targeted killing program to the Department of Defense, provoking reactions among human rights advocates ranging from handwringing to cautious praise.

Over the past five years, the CIA and Pentagon have split who has authority over particular strikes. It may not have mattered to the approximately 4,700 people left dead across several countries, but jockeying for control between the Pentagon and the CIA over who has authority over specific strikes and specific countries has been a background theme of the Obama administration’s killing program.

Newly confirmed CIA Director John Brennan, who was the architect of the program while serving as the White House counterterrorism advisor, was long reported to have sought to switch all authority over the killing program away from the CIA and to the Pentagon. News reports this week say that the White House is now considering a proposal to do just that, although maybe on an extended timetable, and maybe with the CIA retaining control for an even longer period over the drone campaign in Pakistan.

Our hope is that just as President Obama ordered the CIA out of the torture and prison business, he will order the CIA out of the killing business. The CIA should go back to — if it ever truly was there — its core function of collecting and analyzing foreign intelligence.

That said, the CIA will not be gone from the killing program. In the parlance of modern warfare, the goal of combat is to “find, fix, and finish” the enemy. A top congressional staffer told me that the CIA will still “find and fix”, which means the CIA will locate targets and keep them within American crosshairs. The military alone, however, will have authority to order and carry out the “finish”, which seems most often to mean kill the target, but can mean capture or arrest.

In some respects, this could be similar to what occurred after Obama ordered the CIA’s secret prisons closed and the torture and abuse of detainees to stop. The CIA can still identify persons for questioning and advise on the questions, but it can no longer be the prison warden, inquisitor, or torturer. While it may still retain an important role in the killing program, taking away the CIA’s authority to order the trigger pulled is a big shift.

Although shifting all authority to the military to “finish” a target won’t make the program lawful or wise, it will have some real-world effects. The question is what could this shift mean for applicable domestic legal authority, where and how often strikes will be carried out, congressional oversight, and transparency?

The cause of angst in the intelligence community is that the CIA losing authority to order strikes could mean the end of the armed drone program as a covert operation. This is a big deal. Under American law, a covert operation is one that is designed and executed not only to be secret in its operations, but more importantly, to be set up so that its sponsorship by the United States government can and will be denied….


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