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Drone Combat: Program Caught in Intel-Military Tug of War

May. 20, 2014 - 06:44PM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
Air Force's hunter-killer UAV now flying in Afghan
Military and intelligence factions are squaring off over who should control the US armed drone program. (RINZE KLEIN RNLA/US Air Force)
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WASHINGTON — An old-fashioned turf war is brewing in the US Senate over one of the country’s most controversial counterterrorism tools: control over America’s armed drone program.

Longtime Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told CongressWatch last week that he hopes to insert into the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) language that would give the Defense Department control over the program.

But Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., made clear on Tuesday that if the bill contains such language, McCain can expect a fight on the upper chamber floor.

“Well, I think that would present a complication for all of us because if it’s going to be done, how it’s done is all important,” Feinstein told reporters. “The intelligence people are really experts at this. The military really isn’t.”

McCain and other pro-military members want to give the military operational and budgetary control over the drone program, which for years has been the backbone of President Obama’s targeted-killing campaign against al-Qaida and similar groups.

The McCain camp said the military is best suited to continue killing terrorist suspects, and moving the program under the Defense Department would increase transparency of the super-secret program. The Feinstein-led side is skeptical of the military’s ability to use what she sees as the CIA’s rigorous decision process before carrying out armed strikes.

The debate appeared to be unexpectedly settled late last year when House Republicans, in a move that was not publicly disclosed until a Washington Post report, slipped a provision into a 2014 government-wide omnibus spending bill that prohibited the White House from carrying out its planned transition of control over the drone program from CIA to the Pentagon.

McCain, during a brief interview last Thursday, said SASC members “are talking” about an amendment that would overturn the omnibus provision.

“I want it to happen,” McCain said. “It should be shifted to DoD, in my opinion.”

The full SASC was slated to begin marking up its 2015 NDAA on Wednesday afternoon. ■

Email: jbennett@defensenews.com.

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