Is CIA Too Good at Drone Assassination to Pass the Baton to the Pentagon?

Friday, November 08, 2013
Predator drone firing a missile

For the sake of having greater transparency, President Barack Obama promised back in May that the Department of Defense would take over the drone program operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to assassinate foreign terrorist threats. But the transition of this killing operation from one agency to another has stalled, in part because Pentagon officials don’t want to ruin a good thing—namely, the CIA’s success in “neutralizing” targets.


“The transfer was never expected to happen overnight,” Gordon Lubold and Shane Harris wrote for Foreign Policy. “But it is now clear the complexity of the issue, the distinct operational and cultural differences between the Pentagon and CIA and the bureaucratic politics of it all has forced officials on all sides to recognize transferring drone operations from the [CIA] to the Defense Department represents, for now, an unattainable goal.”


Lubold and Harris were told by one U.S. official that the “physics of making” the transfer has proven “remarkably difficult.”


Another government source told them the switch would occur, it’s just going to require more time.


One key obstacle is the fact that the Pentagon doesn’t want to take over drone assassinations and find their way of running the program isn’t as efficient in killing targets as the CIA.


“Officials at the CIA and the Defense Department are loathe to try and fix a program that they don’t think is broken, even if it has become a political liability for Obama, who has faced constant pressure from human rights activists, his political base, and a growing chorus of libertarian Republicans to scale back the program and subject it to greater public scrutiny,” Lubold and Harris wrote.


The “pitfalls of transferring operations” stem from such aspects as the different ways the Pentagon and the CIA use intelligence to locate a threat and eliminate them.


“The [CIA] can do it much more efficiently and at lower cost than the military can,” a former intelligence official told Foreign Policy. Another said the military requires a larger support team to operate its drones, which results in a longer deployment time.


Additionally, the military is not legally permitted “to conduct hostile actions outside of a declared war zone,” such as Pakistan, wrote Lubold and Harris, so “keeping the drones with the CIA…offers legal cover.” Years of quiet Pakistani government approval for U.S. drone strikes has been with the understanding that they were purely covert.


There’s also the notion that “after years of conducting drone strikes, the CIA has developed an expertise and a taste for them,” Lubold and Harris found, while the Defense Department’s “appetite to take over that mission may not run very deep.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

The CIA, Not The Pentagon, Will Keep Running Obama's Drone War (by Gordon Lubold and Shane Harris, Foreign Policy)

UN Report Challenges Legality of Armed Drones (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Federal Appeals Panel Orders CIA to Reveal Info about Drones (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)


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