The CIA appears to be getting out of the drone business, said Dashiell Bennett in TheAtlantic.com. Senior U.S. officials last week indicated that the White House plans to shift control of the CIA’s lethal unmanned aircraft to the Department of Defense. That would add much-needed “transparency and accountability to what has become one of the government’s most controversial operations.” The CIA now operates the drones that target and kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other countries where the U.S. is not officially at war. Because those missions are deemed “covert,” the administration can deny their existence to Congress, shielding those responsible from accountability when a drone strike goes wrong and incinerates civilians. Under the Pentagon, however, the drone war would be subject to international military law and congressional oversight. “This is a good thing” all around, said Michael Leiter in MSNBC.com. Freed from paramilitary activities, the CIA can return to its “traditional role of strategic intelligence collection and analysis.”
But as with “everything involving drone policy, there are complications,” said Bloomberg.com in an editorial. When the military wants a drone strike on foreign soil, it first has toget the approval of that nation’s government. How will the White House respond “if al Qaida forces take harbor in a country with an anti-American government?” The president has an easy way out of that bind, said Fred Kaplan in Slate.com. It seems likely that the drone fleet will be placed under the Joint Special Operations Command, which runs theSEALs, Delta Force, and other clandestine units. Although JSOC is part of the armed forces, an executive order signed by President George W. Bush gives it “authority to conduct secret operations against al Qaida and affiliated terrorist networks worldwide.” So drone strikes could remain as frequent and far-flung as ever under the Pentagon—and “maybe even more so,” since Bush’s executive order allows JSOC to conduct its covert missions without reporting to congressional intelligence committees, as the CIA must do.
Rather than reform his drone program, Obama should scrap it, said Rafia Zakaria in AlJazeera.com. The extremists “being targeted by drones do not seem at all weakened by them.” Over the past four years, the president has ordered more than 300 drone strikes in Pakistan, killing some 2,000 Islamic militants as well as hundreds of civilians. Yet terrorist attacks in the country have continued to rise—last year there were at least 652 of them, up from 473 in 2010. Militants have wised up to being easy prey for drones in Pakistan’s sparsely populated northwest, where the war against the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaida was once centered. Many have moved to bustling cities like Karachi and Quetta, knowing the U.S. wouldn’t dare launch a Hellfire missile into an urban area.
Like it or not, this move will “entrench targeted-killing policy for the long term,” said Matthew Waxman in ForeignPolicy.com. The covert status of CIA drone strikes made “it difficult for officials to explain and justify them.” With the Pentagon in charge, the government can start talking about the program’s importance at home and abroad. The perception of stricter oversight will also “make drone policy more legitimate in the public’s eyes.” Polling shows that Americans would rather the military commanded the drone fleet than the CIA, “so this move will strengthen political backing for continued strikes.” So even if their controllers are changing, America’s killer drones are here to stay.