WASHINGTON — Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain says the panel will include language that would shift America's armed drone program to the Pentagon, rather than leave the matter to the full chamber.
"We're going to be discussing that, but it's clear that the president wants it. I'm in agreement with the president that it needs to be transferred. But we're still looking at language to try and make that happen."
Asked by CongressWatch whether he would include whatever language he prefers in the version of the committee's 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) or offer it as a floor amendment later this year, McCain replied: "In committee."
For weeks, McCain has signaled he intends to use the committee's 2016 defense authorization bill to codify something President Barack Obama once endorsed: shifting control of the program to the military.
"I can understand, when it was a very small operation, why it would be done by the intelligence agencies, such as U-2s and other reconnaissance aircraft, for many years," he said recently on CNN. But the targeted-killing program, of which America's drone fleet is the workhorse, "has reached the point where it's an integral part of the conflict and a very essential one.
"I think it should be conducted [with]and oversight and administered by the Department of Defense. I don't believe the drone program ought to be run out by the CIA," McCain said, adding it "should be operated exclusively out of the Pentagon."
As McCain mentioned, Obama has stated his preference that the backbone of his targeted-killing program be shifted from the spy agency to the military. That was in 2013, but his administration has yet to initiate the transfer.
And in early 2014, congressional appropriators quietly slipped into the classified annex of a massive government bill a provision blocking the transfer. McCain wants to change that.
The provision would be opposed by pro-CIA lawmakers who prefer leaving the armed drone program under the purview of the spy agency, like Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Those two are the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, giving them ample sway on national security matters, including their ability to get leadership to allow votes on their floor amendments.
In the wake of a US drone strike in Pakistan last month that killed an American and an Italian hostage — and al-Qaida operatives — both Burr and Feinstein have defended the drone program and the CIA's handling of it.
In an April 23 statement, Feinstein made sure to mention her belief that the Intelligence Committee should remain the lead Senate panel overseeing the drone program.
"The role of the Senate Intelligence Committee is to conduct extensive oversight of counterterrorism operations, and these efforts will continue," Feinstein said, calling for a new committee review of "all procedures and safeguards to make sure every measure is taken to prevent the deaths of innocent civilians."
She is calling for a yearly report from the executive branch on all civilian and enemy deaths that resulted from American drone strikes.
"We must be certain our counterterrorism strategy is aimed at defeating terrorist organizations," and that counterterrorism operations," said Feinstein, who chaired the Intel Committee last session, "and that counterterrorism operations, which I believe to be highly successful at removing individual terrorist targets, are furthering that goal."
It's likely McCain's coming drone language will set off a new turf war over the program, again pitting him against Feinstein.