As criticism builds on both sides of the aisle over the secrecy surrounding the Obama administration's drone program, it appears the government is considering a significant shift that could make the program more transparent.
Daniel Klaidman at The Daily Beast reports that, according to three unidentified government officials, the Obama administration is planning to transfer the CIA's armed drone program to the Defense Department. According to Klaidman:
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." [Daily Beast]
The shift would reportedly be part of a broader effort that the Obama administration refers to as "institutionalization," which would supposedly set clear parameters for the use of lethal drone strikes. The CIA's drone program currently operates in what amounts to a legal gray zone, at least as far as the public can tell, since much of the legal justification for targeting suspected terrorists remains classified. The recent release of a so-called white paper outlining when the U.S. can target an American citizen, for example, was roundly criticized for giving the president overly broad powers to take out "imminent" threats.
Klaidman outlines several reasons why a Pentagon-run program would be more constrained: The military, unlike the CIA, is bound by the international laws of war; the program could only be classified as "clandestine," a less secretive designation than the CIA's "covert"; and a DOD program would be subject to input from other agencies, like the State Department.
Some analysts have hailed the move. "It's clear that the CIA's unprecedented regime of drone secrecy has hit an indefensible peak," Dan Metcalfe, a former Justice Department official, tells Foreign Policy.
However, the program could potentially remain as shadowy as ever. "What matters more than which bureaucratic entity operates the drones is what the politicians ostensibly in charge of those bureaucracies want to do with them," writes Spencer Ackerman at Wired. If the Defense Department takes over the drone program, it will come under the supervision of the armed services committees in Congress, rather than the intelligence committees. Oversight "depends on the the level of interest of the committee chairman on the Title 10 [military] side," Mieke Eoyan, a former staffer on the House armed services and intelligence committees, tells Wired. "It depends on how detailed he wants to get, down in the weeds."
Furthermore, the military would not be required to notify Congress of actions taken under Title 10, while intelligence activities under Title 50 do carry such a requirement.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has already expressed reservations about the possible change. "[My] mind, certainly, is not made up," she told reporters.
She also said the military may not be as effective as the CIA in conducting drone operations. "We've watched the intelligence aspect of the drone program: How they function. The quality of the intelligence. Watching the agency exercise patience and discretion," she said. "The military program has not done that nearly as well."