Report: ‘No More Drones for CIA’ – But Don’t Celebrate Just Yet


According to an exclusive report from Daniel Klaidman at The Daily Beast, President Obama “is poised to sign off on a plan to shift the CIA’s lethal targeting program to the Defense Department.”

Officials anticipate a phased-in transition in which the CIA’s drone operations would be gradually shifted over to the military, a process that could take as little as a year. Others say it might take longer but would occur during President Obama’s second term. “You can’t just flip a switch, but it’s on a reasonably fast track,” says one U.S. official. During that time, CIA and DOD operators would begin to work more closely together to ensure a smooth hand-off. The CIA would remain involved in lethal targeting, at least on the intelligence side, but would not actually control the unmanned aerial vehicles.

One critical element of the drone war that made it so egregious was that it was a covert program run by a hyper-militarized CIA instead of the Defense Department, despite the fact that these are clearly military actions. Typically, when states shift the use of force into the realm of the secret services, it’s because the law doesn’t permit those actions (even in a legal system that grants special powers to states that would never be afforded to individuals). With the drone war run by the CIA, as Klaidman writes, “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.”

Importantly, a federal appeals court ruled last week that the CIA cannot continue to “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of the drone war, in a court case prompted by a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union. For years, the modus operandi has been for the drone war to be the world’s worst kept secret. That way the Obama administration gets the credit for being “tough on terror,” while reserving the right to disregard probing questions or inquiries.

In addition, a high level United Nations investigator last week said the drone war in Pakistan technically violates the law because it is conducted without the express consent of Islamabad, therefore a breach of Pakistani sovereignty. The UN envoy, Ben Emmerson, is leading an investigation into the drone war’s compliance with international law and international human rights law.

Add to this Rand Paul’s attention-grabbing anti-drone filibuster earlier this month and the increased public debate about drones and you end up with a significant amount of pressure on the Obama administration compared to the proverbial blank check it has received since 2009. That pressure might explain this leak to The Daily Beast. The administration is performing “damage control,” almost as if to say ‘Yeah, we know this is illegal and inhumane and starting to piss a lot of people off, but we’re working on it.’

That said, this news should be taken with a grain of salt. The Defense Department currently does control and conduct entire portions of the drone war. And shifting its entirety to the DoD doesn’t necessarily translate to greater transparency and accountability the way it does in theory. “The military’s targeted killing program,” as Klaidman puts it “is ‘clandestine’—which means it is secret but not deniable.”

Small potatoes, right? The administration will still have a drone program, it will still maintain ‘kill lists,’ it will continue to define the entire world as the battlefield and to define away any real meaning of imminence and thus any real legal restrictions on its actions. Even Klaidman readily acknowledges:

To be sure, even with these distinctions, it is not clear that the bureaucratic shift will usher in a new era of openness and accountability. For one thing, targeted killing operations will likely be run by the highly secretive Joint Special Operations Command, the umbrella organization for shadow warriors like the Navy SEALs and Delta Force. And while they run clandestine, rather than covert operations, JSOC is not known for its eagerness to advertise its operations with the press or Congress.

In fact, there’s at least a chance that the change could mean less congressional oversight rather than more. There’s nothing in the law that says the military has to brief congressional committees about its lethal activities. The CIA, on the other hand, is compelled under Title 50 to notify Congress of its intelligence activities. Says Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor and former Justice Department official during the Bush administration: “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” compared with congressional oversight of the CIA. (Still, as a matter of policy, the Obama administration has taken it upon itself to “back-brief” Congress after any of its targeted killings away from conventional battlefields.)

At the very least, I think, there is the hope that continued judicial scrutiny brought upon the administration through groups like the ACLU will now be more fruitful given the shift to DoD. But that is a distant hope, for now.

14 thoughts on “Report: ‘No More Drones for CIA’ – But Don’t Celebrate Just Yet”

  1. So effectively they are going to change from a status not much different from a state terrorist organisation, like the PLO or Hamas, to straight out War Criminals who are according to the status placed on them by Hamdin V Rumsfeld puts them unless they are actually attacking US interests as Civilians! Remember all persons on a Battlefield have at least Civilian Status under Common article 3 of the Geneva conventions!

    Well done one criminal activity to another under international law!

  2. This is a terrific day for followers of military Intel history. The CIA's long history of brown nosing, involvement in domestic affairs ( they started with the smear campaign against Joe McCarthy) and promiscuous use of drones has made them a useless organization. The military has been trying to get the drone campaign away from them for awhile now, so glad to see it is finally happening. We have over 24 Intel agencies, all at cross purposes and unable to work together ( unless you count when they all laugh at Homeland Security). Only the military should be doing Intel. Intel was never meant to be a patronage job.

  3. Domestic drone usage is ill-conceived, elitist, and end-runs our inherent Constitutional protections.

    Here are two (2), very well-produced, videos that anchor my points:

    Emmy Award-winning newscaster Shad Olson’s ‘The Great Drone Debate’, featuring US Senator John Thune (7:41):

    Here’s a mind-blowing, well-done animated short that really captures our collective angst that if the road to perdition is paved with good intentions, then domestic drones are a superhighway to an Orwellian panoptic gulag (3:22):

    For national security purposes, Americans are already subject to warrantless wiretaps of calls and emails, the warrantless GPS “tagging” of their vehicles, the domestic use of Predators or other spy-in-the-sky drones, and the Department of Homeland Security’s monitoring of all our behavior through “data fusion centers.”

    America’s promise has always been the power of the many to rule, instead of the one. Ungoverned drone usage, particularly domestically, gives power to the one. 

    1. Well I didn't mean domestically, I am opposed to their use at home, warrantless wiretaps and the like. The problem is these 26 and growing Intel agencies have all this stuff, and they end up turning it on us. Frankly Sam, if you had told me that 4 years ago Obama's election would cause leftists to have a melt down and stop war protests I never would have believed it. Or that the shadow of Vietnam would be removed from our war debates, even though Iraq ended in one huge mess.

      However I do support us having Intel. I believe, however, that only the military should do it. In the last year the DIA ( Defense Intelligence Agency) has ended using CIA reports, and is now taking over the drone program. The more they break with the clowns and brown nosers of CIA, trust me, the better off we'll be.

      Leftists always miss the divisions within government. The military is showing it is tired of CIA's nonsense, and right now, they are the only ones watching our backs.

  4. If I remember, the CIA is a byproduct of WWII's OSS run by the Army. I've heard that the FBI will have its budget cut 20%. The CIA and all intel agencies should be cut 20% also. The State Dept., CIA and FBI have offices inside of the US Strategic Command at Offutt AFB, Nebraska. If you remember, they had an assassination team run by SES Mike Furlong, posing as journalists murdering unarmed Afghanis in 2009. StratCom should have their budget cut 20% and the contracts for their new $1 billion building to house their 2,700 spies should be canceled.

  5. o the extent that communities divert law enforcement resources from violent crimes to illegal drug offenses, the risk of punishment for engaging in violent crime

  6. Aw, this was an extremely good post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to produce a superb article… but what can I say… I put things off a whole lot and never manage to get anything done.

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