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Why the CIA isn't handing over its drone assassins to the military

Why the CIA isn't handing over its drone assassins to the military


...even though so much of Washington thinks it should

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MQ-1 Predator drone -- credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Snyder
MQ-1 Predator drone -- credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Snyder

On Tuesday, Foreign Policy reported some surprising news: despite earlier rumors, the CIA will continue running its drone program separately from the Pentagon, at least for the time being. More than six months after the initial reports, progress has slowed to a standstill. It might sound like a simple procedural shift, but the decision is probably the most consequential choice the president has faced on drones so far, and keeping unmanned strikes in the CIA arsenal is exactly what many drone activists were trying to stop. As Hina Shamsi of the ACLU put it, "Getting the CIA out of the killing business is critically important, just like getting it out of the torture and detention business was." The Council on Foreign Relations had been lobbying hard for the change, calling it "a meaningful first step toward greater transparency." So why are the CIA’s drones such a problem?

"Getting the CIA out of the killing business is critically important."

The answer lies in the strange protocol of drone strikes, where the CIA faces fewer checks and less accountability than the Pentagon. President Obama signs off on every Pentagon drone strike, but many CIA strikes are planned with no consultation with the White House, and little to no input from anyone outside the agency. Similarly, the military is bound by international law, at least officially, while the CIA gives itself a freer rein. At every step, the CIA program faces fewer checks on its power.

The CIA is also more secretive about its drone actions, which makes abuse harder to uproot. CIA strikes are classified as "covert," which means the government is to officially deny they ever took place. The reason for this is somewhat unclear since, for Pakistanis at least, there's rarely any doubt as to who is behind the loud, visible missile strikes. But the policy gives the agency political cover and makes it even less accountable to the public. When a mission goes bad, it can be covered up, and any challenge to the program has to be make it through a long and difficult legal battle.

Many CIA strikes are planned with no consultation from the White House

This is not to say that the Pentagon program is anywhere close to blameless. The Joint Special Operations Command, which runs the Pentagon’s drone program, is still managing drones far outside the bounds of conventional warfare. Pentagon drones have made their way to Yemen and as far as Saudi Arabia, by some reports. Taking away the CIA’s drones wouldn’t stop targeted killing by drones, or the overall shift towards covert ops. But it would move the drone program toward something less steeped in secrecy, and more open to political reforms down the road.

More than that, it would mean shifting the CIA back towards its original mission of intelligence gathering. It’s not an easy shift, as insiders have noticed, and it’s not likely to happen fast, but many see it as a necessary change. CIA director John Brennan said as much during his nomination hearing, stating point-blank: "The CIA should not be doing traditional military activities and operations." There’s a lot of history to back him up. When the agency fails, historically, it's because the agency finds itself setting policy in the guise of intelligence gathering. Histories of the agency, most recently Tim Weiner's brutal Legacy of Ashes, detail dozens of occasions, from miscalculating Chinese involvement in the Korean War to George Tenet's infamous "slam dunk" on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The drone program seems likely to bring more of the same, with any accountability vanishing as information struggles up the chain of command.

"The CIA should not be doing traditional military activities."

Seen in that light, this week’s decision seems like a puzzling step. The hope was that, by folding both the programs into the Pentagon, President Obama could begin to scale back the sprawl, and help assuage fears of endless, automated war. The political will seemed to be there, inside and outside the agency — but as reforms approached, the power of quick, deniable strikes was apparently too tempting to give up. Most of the parties will still say consolidation is a good idea… just not yet, not now. As an unnamed official told Foreign Policy: "This is [still] the policy, and we're moving toward that policy, but it will take some time." Unfortunately for reformers, how much time is anyone’s guess.