In his second term, former President Barack Obama put a series of checks in place on the U.S. drone warfare program: moving authority to conduct strikes from the Central Intelligence Agency to the more transparent Defense Department, ordering that targeted individuals pose a "continuing and imminent threat" to U.S. personnel, giving the president final approval for killing or capturing high-value terrorism suspects, and requiring "near-certainty" that civilians wouldn't be killed in strikes outside active war zones, in places like Yemen and Somalia. President Trump has already given the CIA back drone-attack authority, U.S. officials tell The Wall Street Journal, and he's planning to relax the other rules, too, The Washington Post reports.
Trump told the CIA it could conduct drone strikes again soon after his inauguration, before CIA Director Mike Pompeo was confirmed, and the CIA has already used this authority, The Journal reports, including a February strike targeting senior al Qaeda leader Abu al-Khayr al-Masri in Syria and probably a strike on a Pakistan village earlier in March. The Pentagon must publicly report most of its drone strikes, including casualty estimates; the CIA does not. Under Obama, the CIA could use drones to find or monitor terrorism suspects, but the military had to fire the missiles.
Civil libertarian and human rights groups did not view Obama's solution as adequate, but they say Trump's is worse. "There are a lot of problems with the drone program and the targeted killing program, but the CIA should be out of the business of ordering lethal strikes," said the ACLU's Christopher Anders. The CIA can help locate targets, he told The Wall Street Journal, but it "should be a foreign intelligence gathering and analysis organization — not a paramilitary one."
Senior members of the National Security Council are still working on the new, looser drone warfare rules, which Trump has to approve, and is expected to, The Washington Post says. Obama had put the current rules in place as a check on any drone-happy predecessors but also as a way to encourage other drone-equipped nations to show similar restraint. Some military officials had chafed at the restrictions. "We are seeking ways to accelerate our operations against terror groups, and be more nimble and agile in our speed of response," says Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis. "But we always will maintain a commitment to minimizing, avoiding civilian casualties."