CIA may lose drone program

Targeted killing program would move to Pentagon, controversies largely in tow

By Natasha Lennard

Published March 20, 2013 5:17PM (EDT)

The CIA's controversial targeted killing program may be coming to an end, according to three senior U.S. officials who spoke to the Daily Beast. The spy agency may gradually stop overseeing the "disposition matrix" that determines who is targeted by armed drones, and the program would shift to the Pentagon's control. The same concerns about unfettered executive power to determine life or death with drones strikes would, however, remain. But according to the Daily Beast's Daniel Klaidman, transitioning the program "could potentially toughen the criteria for drone strikes, strengthen the program’s accountability, and increase transparency."

As part of a pattern traced for some months (particularly by the Washington Post's Greg Miller), in shifting the drone program from the CIA to the Pentagon, the Obama administration would codify shadow wars as fully integrated into modern U.S. warfare -- the stuff of Defense Department oversight. Klaidman reported:

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. Officials told The Daily Beast that a potential downside of the agency’s relinquishing control of the program was the loss of a decade of expertise that the CIA has developed since it has been prosecuting its war in Pakistan and beyond. At least for a period of transition, CIA operators would likely work alongside their military counterparts to target suspected terrorists.

The policy shift is part of a larger White House initiative known internally as “institutionalization,” an effort to set clear standards and procedures for lethal operations.

One major difference exists between how the Pentagon and the CIA deal with secretive missions, as the Atlantic Wire noted. Namely that unlike the CIA, the Department of Defense cannot deny the existence of its clandestine activities:

[O]ne of the most important distinctions between CIA operations and military ones is the difference between "covert" and "clandestine." The military can keep its "clandestine" activities classified or secret—like say a SEAL team raid to kill a wanted terrorist. But if Congress or a judge asks, they can't pretend they didn't happen. The CIA, on the other hand, is allowed to declare certain missions to be "covert." (Like say, sneaking American citizens out of a hostile country.) That means that, legally, they can deny that program even exists, shielding those responsible from accountability and hiding them from the public.

But, as a recent federal court decision regarding CIA responses to FOIAs illustrated, the CIA can no longer treat the drone program as fully "covert" anyway -- it's been publicly discussed by officials. As such, there is no need for the drone program to reside in CIA hands to maintain covert status -- that's already gone.

In moving the drone program, the administration will abate some concerns about the CIA's creeping militarization. However, as Klaidman details, the CIA will remain enmeshed in targeted killing operations with the Pentagon for some time yet. Civil liberties groups have nonetheless given tepid praise to the announcement. "Ending the CIA’s role as a paramilitary killing organization would be an important step in the right direction,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, in a statement, adding, "As important as this change would be, the killing program is still wrapped in unwarranted secrecy, and is still unlawful in its scope, dangerous, and unwise. Far greater transparency and accountability for targeted killings must accompany any change of responsibility, and it remains to be seen whether the secretive Joint Special Operations Command will address those concerns.”

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cia Counterterror Defense Department Disposition Matrix Drones Pentagon Targeted Killing