An armed MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft sits in a shelter at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, before a mission in 2008. (Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson / Air Force)
WASHINGTON — Pro-military lawmakers and U.S. analysts want the White House to resist shifting the CIA’s armed unmanned aircraft program to the Pentagon, citing operational and legal reasons to keep the spy agency in the targeted-killing business.
The Obama administration is mulling whether placing the U.S. military in charge of all aerial drone strikes — largely run by the CIA in the post-9/11 era — would allay intensifying legal concerns while increasing congressional and public scrutiny of the program.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers with national security credentials say they have major concerns about placing what has become America’s top covert tool in the fight against al-Qaida in the hands of the military.
“If the CIA can still operate its program, I think that’s fine,” Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said during a brief interview March 21. “I think the military has some ownership, but I think the CIA has some ownership, too.”
The White House review came to light following a March 6 filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., which focused on the Obama administration’s drone policy. Paul used ample time during the filibuster to question whether the administration believed it possesses the legal authority to carry out a drone strike on an American citizen inside the United States, which it eventually said it does not.
McKeon called those kinds of worries “a lot to do about nothing.” He said keeping the existing CIA drone program under Langley’s control seems wise because “I’m not concerned that we’re giving up our constitutional rights to go after terrorists — I think we’re OK with what we’ve got.”
Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., chairman of the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee, told Defense News the same day that White House, CIA and Pentagon officials must convince him the idea is wise.
“I’m not convinced that we need to change,” Young said. “I’d have to be convinced to give it to one or the other because it works very well right now.”
The longtime pro-defense lawmaker said he is worried the military is not well-versed, nor well-suited, to conduct the kinds of missions the agency has spent years perfecting.
“Both agencies are using the drones for different missions,” Young said. “My first reaction is … the military has done a good job, as has the CIA. … The missions that the military carries out and the missions that the CIA carries out are different.”
Much of the debate in Washington about the White House review has been focused on the black-or-white notion of assigning the drone-strike program to either the spy agency or the military. But Young said another option should be on the table.
“I think there’s reason to consider doing it both ways,” Young said. “What’s wrong with considering keeping it that way?”
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., a member of the House Armed Services Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, said “the overwhelming majority” of the CIA’s drone program likely will move to the military’s control. Still, Johnson predicted the intelligence community “will retain some ability to use drones.”
Advocates of handing the armed drone program to the military argue the move would strengthen the legal justifications for targeting al-Qaida leaders and operatives.
“The essential mission of the U.S. military is to capture or kill an enemy,” Jeh Johnson, until three months ago the Pentagon’s top lawyer, said in a March 18 speech at Fordham University Law School in New York. “As part of a congressionally authorized armed conflict, the foundation is even stronger.
“Furthermore, the parameters of congressionally authorized armed conflict are transparent to the public, from the words of the congressional authorization itself, and the executive branch’s interpretation of that authorization,” he said. “Lethal force outside the parameters of congressionally authorized armed conflict by the military looks to the public to lack any boundaries, and lends itself to the suspicion that it is an expedient substitute for criminal justice.”
To be sure, lawmakers on both sides of the debate have strong opinions about whether it is the job of the military or intelligence community to kill al-Qaida leaders and operatives.
On one side are lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who told reporters, “the majority of the responsibility for this should rest with the military.”
On the other side are members such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She said the CIA uses a rigorous decision process before carrying out armed strikes, but “the military [armed drone] program has not done that nearly as well.”
Anthony Cordesman, a Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst and a frequent Pentagon and intelligence community consultant, said the military’s and the CIA’s approaches to the use of drone strikes are considerably different.
“The intelligence community operates on the basis of different sources and methods, and with different time pressures, than most military actions,” Cordesman said. “So I think you probably need both.”