covert affairs

The CIA Is Losing Its Drone Privileges

Undated handout image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force shows a MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. The U.S. government has authorized the killing of American citizens as part of its controversial drone campaign against al Qaeda even without intelligence that such Americans are actively plotting to attack a U.S. target, according to a Justice Department memo.
Photo: Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force/Reuters/Corbis

With concerns about the transparency of the government’s drone program at an all-time high, the Obama administration is planning to at least change the conversation. The Daily Beast’s Daniel Klaidman reports that the CIA will cede control of targeted killings to the Pentagon, which runs a parallel drone program, in a process called “institutionalization,” with the aim of codifying the process of hunting terrorists. “This is a big deal,” said a government source. “It would be a pretty strong statement.” According to Klaidman, “The move could potentially toughen the criteria for drone strikes, strengthen the program’s accountability, and increase transparency.” Potentially.

From the Daily Beast:

Perhaps most important is that the CIA’s program is “covert”—which is to say it is not only highly classified, it’s deniable under the law. That means the CIA, in theory, can lie about the existence of the program or about particular operations. The military’s targeted killing program, however, is “clandestine”—which means it is secret but not deniable.

Or not: One legal expert pointed out, “Moving lethal drone operations exclusively to DOD might bring benefits. But DOD’s lethal operations are no less secretive than the CIA’s, and congressional oversight of DOD ops is significantly weaker.” Klaidman weighs the consequences of the shift in much more detail here; as much as they are about logistics, they are also about public perception.

The changes could take place within a year, but will definitely occur during Obama’s presidency, and may even come with a big speech about his plan, along with new CIA chief John Brennan, to “institutionalize” counterterrorism. “Barack Obama has got to be concerned about his legacy,” said one former adviser. “He doesn’t want drones to become his Guantanamo.”

The CIA Is Losing Its Drone Privileges