It Looks Like Shifting the CIA's Drone Program to the Pentagon Won't Change Much


Credit: david_axe / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Yesterday the Daily Beast reported that the White House is preparing to transfer the CIA's drone program to the Pentagon. From the Daily Beast:

The move could potentially toughen the criteria for drone strikes, strengthen the program's accountability, and increase transparency. Currently, the government maintains parallel drone programs, one housed in the CIA and the other run by the Department of Defense. The proposed plan would unify the command and control structure of targeted killings and create a uniform set of rules and procedures. The CIA would maintain a role, but the military would have operational control over targeting. Lethal missions would take place under Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which governs military operations, rather than Title 50, which sets out the legal authorities for intelligence activities and covert operations. "This is a big deal," says one senior administration official who has been briefed on the plan. "It would be a pretty strong statement."

While the unnamed senior official might think that the move "would be a pretty strong statement" there are reasons to think that not much will change. As Spencer Ackerman over at Wired's Danger Room explains, reforms to the drone program require political will, not institutional changes:

If the Obama administration decides to give the U.S. military control of the CIA's drone effort, the institutional changes to the controversial global drone strikes will be minor. That's because the important leverage points over the drones — and the global, targeted-killing program they support — are political, not institutional.

Daniel Klaidman at The Daily Beast reports that President Barack Obama is nearing a decision to divest the CIA of its lethal drone fleet. According to Klaidman, the CIA will "remain involved in lethal targeting," but uniformed personnel will pull the trigger from now on. "It looks like the White House may now be preparing to launch a campaign to counter the growing perception — with elites if not the majority of the public — that Obama is running a secretive and legally dubious killing machine," Klaidman writes. 

Except he'll still be running one. The CIA conducts armed drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, among other places. The U.S. military conducts armed drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, and has extensive airbases and support networks for drone strikes in east Africa and now in Niger. Military launchpads are often — but not always — launchpads for the CIA's drones, too. And the CIA sometimes borrows the Air Force's drone fleet. In short, the military infrastructure for the drone strikes is robust and global.

Aside from the fact that shifting the CIA's drone policy over to the Pentagon will not change the nature of the drone missions it is likely that the administration's use of drones will also not be more transparent or accountable under the change:

There's an argument that giving the military control over the drones will lead to greater transparency around them. Maybe, but not necessarily.

The congressional reporting requirements for so-called Title 50 programs (stuff CIA does, to be reductive) are more specific than those for Title 10 (stuff the military does, to be reductive). But the armed services committees tend to have unquestioned and broader oversight functions than the intelligence committees enjoy, not to mention better relationships with the committees: Witness the recent anger in the Senate intelligence committee that the CIA lied to it about its torture programs. The military is more likely than the CIA to openly testify about future drone operations, allow knowledgeable congressional staff into closed-door operational briefings and allow members of Congress to take tours of drone airbases.

But that's not to say that there will necessarily be more transparency of the military's drone programs. Much depends on congressional prerogative, rather than institutional requirements. A summary offered by a former Special Operations Command lawyer last year (.pdf), piggybacking off one from a former CIA lawyer, was: "If the activity is defined as a military activity ('Title 10?) there is no requirement to notify Congress, while intelligence community activities ('Title 50?) require presidential findings and notice to Congress." (For a good overview of how how the military can compartmentalize and limit access to information on its activities, including to Congress, read this blog post from Robert Caruso.) "Moving lethal drone operations exclusively to DOD might bring benefits. But DOD's lethal operations are no less secretive than the CIA's, and congressional oversight of DOD ops is significantly weaker," former Justice Department lawyer Jack Goldsmith tells Klaidman. Mieke Eoyang, a former House intelligence committee staffer, tells Danger Room that oversight "depends on the the level of interest of the committee chairman on the Title 10 [military] side. It depends on how detailed he wants to get, down in the weeds."

Read more from Reason on drones here

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  1. I’ve been thinking–wouldn’t drones from space be freakier and more effective in the psychological warfare sense? Launch them ballistically, then have them come screaming down at high speed, blowing up stuff and people per the strict scrutiny provided by the disposition matrix.

    1. The disposition matrix

      Perfect. All that’s left is the prognostication engine.

      1. I know a man who can tell if you’re witch.


        1. Somehow youtube is recommending boobs when I click your link.

    2. blowing up stuff and people per the strict scrutiny provided by the disposition matrix.

      You mean any military-age male in the middle east, right?

      1. And by military-age male you mean anyone, right?

        1. Well, you know, those people in burquas might be men disguised as women, so best to murder them to be sure.

          It’s like the shit I constantly see at PoliceOne when a cop shoots someone because he grabbed a cellphone: “Cellphone guns are real and we have a right to go home to our families. Good shoot.” They act as if every cellphone is probably a gun even though I can’t recall ever seeing a story when one was actually used. Same goes for men in wedding parties in Pakistan dressing as women so they won’t get murderdroned to death…10k miles away from America without a gun in their hand.

        2. No, no, we only target military-aged males, which is defined as ‘any male who can pick up a handgun’. All those wimminz just need to learn not to stand next to, or near, or in the same grid square, as a military-aged male.

        3. “And by military-age male you mean anyone, right?”

          Since our women our now available for combat roles, why should we restrict our targets to men?

          1. Not killing women in equal proportion to men would be sexist.

            Equality NOW!

      2. Disposition matrix,
        We know you’re out there.
        You’re in hiding,
        And you hold your meetings.
        We can hear you coming,
        And we know what you’re after.
        We’re wise to you this time.
        We won’t let you kill the laughter.
        Wise to you this tiiimmme.

    3. Or maybe we should develop a 5 MW laser. Then all you’d need is a targeting system and a large spinning mirror and you could vaporize a human target from space.

      1. Or maybe we should develop a 5 MW laser. Then all you’d need is a targeting system and a large spinning mirror and you could vaporize a human target pop the world’s largest bag of Jiffy Pop from space.


  2. The drone program is the most immoral, unconstitutional and evil action our nation has perpetrated in possibly the last century. Those who participate in it are the lowest of all humanity, and they deserve to be drawn and quartered and their heads put on pikes around the National Mall as a warning to those that would ignore the basic rights of all mankind.

    1. And it’s going to get worse, Ken.

    2. And yet you continue to help pay for it.

      1. You mean I have money stolen from me to pay for it?

        1. It wasn’t stolen. It was extorted.

          1. Eh? Extortion is simply theft via the threat of violence. It’s a subset of theft.

            1. Still, it’s more accurate. Robbery is theft. Burglary is theft. Taxation is neither. Taxation is extortion. Call it what it is.

    3. Welcome to the future.

    4. LOL. No logic? Compensate with hyperbole!

  3. So I kill you with my left hand, instead of my right…big deal, I still kill you.

    Sucks to have DoD be the O! assassination squad, should this turn out to be true.

    1. How bad will it suck to see one of these murderdrone pilots sporting his medals (that will sit above your Bronze Star with V insignia)?

      Fuck any soldier that doesn’t refuse these unlawful orders. I’m sorry if that offends any prior or active military people on here, but anybody that participates in this program deserves what I said above.

      1. Sloop

        For the sake of argument, let’s say the operations in which drone strikes are taking place was an actual declared war by Congress.

        Why are these “unlawful” orders?

        1. They are unlawful under the constitutional requirements of a declaration of war for starters. And if they were in a declared war, they might well be unlawful based on what is defined as a combatant. These are civilians, for all intents and purposes. Unless they are uniformed military personnel or have actively taken up arms against us, which is highly debatable in the case of many murderdrone bombing victims, they are not to be targeted.

          I will note here that the firebombing of Dresden, in my opinion, was unlawful under the same grounds.

          1. In my opinion this whole terrorism thing should be treated as a law enforcement, not war.

            Part of war is demoralizing your opponent’s populace to the point where political leaders are pressurized into telling their soldiers to stop fighting.

            In this fight there is no central leadership that can tell its fighters to stand down.

            This is what happens when war is declared on an idea instead of another political organization.

            1. This is what happens when war is declared on an idea instead of another political organization.

              See also: War On Drugs.

              1. Drugs, poverty, terrorism, whatever.

                This whole notion that war can be waged against inanimate objects or against ideas is irrational emotive nonsense.

          2. Respectfully, Please read pages 2 and 3.


            1. OK, I read it. And everything contained therein backs up what I am saying. Look at “Undetermined Status” and “Noncombatants”. Then on page 3, look at the targeting requirements. No way in hell our murderdrone campaign passes any of these tests. If it did, our government would disclose the position, responsibilities and actions taken by the people murdered in our attacks that have killed countless “collateral” civilians.

              1. But they are NOT undetermined status. The meme around here, that any male of military age is a combatant is simply false. The military certainly doesn’t kill people without being fairly certain the guy is up to no good. These drones surveil subjects for hours or days before making determinations. Many times other intelligence is used to determine if the subject is a combatant or unlawful combatant.

                Unlawful Combatants. Unlawful combatants are individuals who directly participate in hostilities without being authorized by governmental authority or under international law to do so. For example, bandits who rob and plunder and civilians who attack a downed airman are unlawful combatants. Unlawful combatants who engage in hostilities violate LOAC and become lawful targets. They may be killed or wounded and, if captured, may be tried as war criminals for their LOAC violations.

                1. Please explain to me how a guy in Yemen is engaging in hostilities against the US. Show your work.

                  1. Could be in any number of ways. They may have evidence he’s funding bad guys in Afghanistan.

                    I do fully agree with Sloopy’s assertion that war must be declared, but not necessarily on a nation-state. Which is where we have gone askew. I also believe the AUMF is not as broad as people claim. For the AUMF to be valid, one must prove a direct link between the individual and 9-11.

                2. If it did, our government would disclose the position, responsibilities and actions taken by the people murdered in our attacks that have killed countless “collateral” civilians.

                  That would reveal the sources and:

                  a. Put them in physical danger.
                  b. Render them unusable in the future.

                  Killing “collateral” civilians isn’t “unlawful”.

                  …the LOAC recognizes that a military target need not be spared because its destruction may cause collateral damage that results in the unintended death or injury to civilians or damage to their property. Commanders and their planners must take into consideration the extent of unintended indirect civilian destruction and probable casualties that will result from a direct attack on a military objective and, to the extent consistent with military necessity, seek to avoid or minimize civilian casualties and destruction.

          3. I will note here that the firebombing of Dresden, in my opinion, was unlawful under the same grounds.

            Confirming that your ‘grounds’ should and must be ignored.

            1. Sloop is sorta right. Under the rules in place now, the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo would be war crimes. But they weren’t at the time, IIRC. The Geneva Conventions explicitly preclude such actions, but the Conventions were not signed until 1949. The Conventions were, in large part, a reaction to what was done in WWII. The world couldn’t go ex post facto (plus winners write the rules), but they could try to make sure the worst excesses of the past weren’t repeated.

      2. If it saves the life of one American service member, then it’s all worth it.

        Why do you hate service members?


          1. AIRMAN SAFETY, you mean?

  4. One advantage of having them all in the DoD is that the Administration of the day wouldn’t be able to pick and choose which regulations apply. The oversight of the DoD and of the CIA are different, one is not always better, but letting the executive choose which one needs to be followed is worse than just picking one.

    The problem of the military operating drones all over the place is a problem with a broad interpretation of the AUMF, which is why it should be repealed, as Sen. Paul has tried to do, and if needed, more narrowly focused.

    1. The problem of the military operating drones all over the place is a problem with a broad interpretation of the AUMF, which is why it should be repealed, as Sen. Paul has tried to do, and if needed, more narrowly focused that we have not declared war on any of these nations.


      1. Have you read the AUMF? It’s overly broad. The Administration interpretation is too broad, but Congress should never have passed it. In any case, Congress has to clearly express its displeasure with the President to reign in the Executive (over any issue.)

        1. I agree with your last sentence wholeheartedly. That said, the AUMF is bullshit. Only a Declaration of War should authorize military action against a sovereign nation.

          1. There’s no magical words in the Constitution about declaring war. The Iraq AUMF, for instance, was probably a valid declaration of war.

            The AUMF against terror, on the other hand, was, in my mind, likely an overbroad and vague act. Overbroad, because it really ceded some of Congress’ inherent war-declaring power to the president, and vague, well, probably don’t have to explain that one.

            1. Yeah, I am talking about Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and all of the other countries we’ve never declared hostilities against. That said, I still believe in teh Declaration Of War being a necessary step to invading, bombing or otherwise attacking a sovereign nation.

              1. There’s no need to declare war on any of these countries. Declaring on the group(s) we are fighting is sufficient.

                1. Look, if Congress were to declare war on all Nazis, what does that mean? We kill them off until they’re all dead? Until they each surrender themselves to our custody?

                  Wars against countries are easier to understand–we fight them until hostilities cease, someone surrenders, or something tangible like that. There are exceptions to that, like the Korean War, but it’s largely a known quantity.

                2. I want something more specific than ‘bad guys I think are bad’, Cyto. A hell of a lot more specific, in fact.

                3. Pakistan, by a stretch, but still can be done, maybe. Somalia and Yemen…a stretch too far.

          2. Some of the people being killed now were either toddlers or not even born when 9/11 happened.

            Thinking of that always puts a little more perspective on the issue for me.

            1. Sentimentality is not perspective.

  5. The CIA supposedly isn’t supposed to operate inside the U.S. Not that the DoD would ever consider a drone strike here or anything

    1. Well they already said they wouldn’t do a strike here unless it was something like Pearl Harbor, 9/11 or another situation where it was necessary. IOW, they believe they have a blank check to use murderous weapons against Americans wherever and whenever they want, due process be damned.

      If this happened with GWB, people would rightfully be calling for his impeachment.

  6. Does anybody think it will be pretty damn funny when Team Red becomes the dovish party and Team Blue becomes the hawkish party if Paul gets the GOP nomination in 2016? It’s not as if the Donks front-runners (Hillary and Biden) aren’t bloodthirsty assholes that voted for and supported every military action and infringement on basic freedoms imposed on us over the past 12+ years.

    1. It’ll be a nice return to the early 20th century where progressives were meddling, war-mongering, prohibitionist busybodies.

      Hopefully we don’t end up with another Wilson.

      1. I’m sure we will eventually, even if Paul wins.

  7. “It Looks Like Shifting the CIA’s Drone Program to the Pentagon Won’t Change Much”

    In other words:
    What difference, at this point, does it make?

    The rhetorical comeback of all time and useful for any inquiry

  8. Rheinmetall demos laser that can shoot down drones


    Seems like it would be an awesome anti-drone weapon, without need for aiming/ballistics calculations or guidance systems for missiles/rockets. We just need a portable power source…


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