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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014
Commentary

Controlling the U.S. drone war

Published:

Is the Central Intelligence Agency getting an honorable discharge from the drone war?

White House officials indicate that the Defense Department will eventually take over full operation of U.S. targeted killing operations abroad, part of a wider effort by President Barack Obama to set clearer standards in the campaign against global terrorism and blunt rising criticism of unmanned operations.

A clearer counterterrorism framework is welcome, and moving the task of drone-targeting to the Pentagon will help. Yet this step is unlikely to offer much solace to Americans and others troubled by the idea that the government is killing people — including U.S. citizens — without due legal process in ways that might breach other nations’ sovereignty and broaden support for al-Qaida.

The government currently has twin drone programs. The CIA and its contractors focus mostly on Pakistan, while the Pentagon targets Yemen, Somalia and the Afghan battlefield. The CIA operation is technically covert, although administration officials have made such an open secret of it that a federal judge ruled March 15 that the government can no longer deny its existence. Putting both programs under Pentagon control would at least end this charade.

The virtues of the change are more than superficial. The Pentagon consolidation would have the benefit of making the drone war subject to international military law. It would also place it under the supervision of an institution with greater experience in the conduct of war. The shift may also help return the CIA, which has become much more involved in paramilitary activities since the Sept. 11 attacks, to its traditional role of gathering and assessing intelligence.

Like just about everything involving drone policy, there are complications. Pentagon control might require the United States to get approval from host governments for strikes. Such permission would enhance the policy’s legitimacy. At the same time, it could pose a problem if al-Qaida forces take harbor in a country with an anti-American government.

Then there’s the issue of congressional oversight. The CIA is required by law to promptly notify the House and Senate intelligence committees of every strike, and it has done a commendable job. The Pentagon is under no such obligation. If the drone switch happens, it’s essential that the congressional armed services committees take on a strong supervisory role.

If the Obama administration’s goal is to gain greater support for its approach, shuffling operations among departments won’t cut it. We would like to see a renewed emphasis on capturing rather than killing all targets, and for the U.S. to take the lead incorporating rules on drones into the law of war.

Obama is rightly removing the targeted-killing campaign from the covert shadows. Now he has to make the case that it is moral, legal and vital to our security.

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