In a change that could have a major impact on the PR of the Obama administration, President Obama is switching the operation of the controversial drone program from the CIA to the Defense Department, according to a report on The Daily Beast.
The move is intended to increase the transparency of the program, something for which Obama was roundly attacked by liberals during his first term.
One big result of the move could be to toughen the criteria for drone strikes, since the Defense Department has clearer protocols on lethal force. It would also put the drone program on firmer legal footing, which has been a cause for concern for the President, according to the Daily Beast.
The Defense Department operates its own drone program, but the White House is considering consolidating it with the CIA’s program, which would unify the command and control structure of targeted killings and create a uniformed set of rules and procedures.
“This is a big deal,” one senior administration official told the Daily Beast. “It would be a pretty strong statement.”
One of the main differences between a drone program run by the Defense Department and the CIA is that the CIA drone program is “covert.” According to the Daily Beast, that means it is not only highly classified, it’s deniable under the law. So in theory the CIA can lie about the existence of the program or about particular operations. The military’s targeted killing program, however, is “clandestine”—which means it is secret but not deniable.
But critics say that even under Defense, the U.S. can still conduct as many secret drone strikes as it wants without oversight.
During the change-over, the two agencies would work together, with the CIA lending its years of expertise to Defense. Officials expect the process to be complete in the next year.
“You can’t just flip a switch, but it’s on a reasonably fast track,” says one U.S. official.
The effort is being led by new CIA director John Brennan, who was the mastermind behind the drone program as Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser. According to the Daily Beast, Brennan has grown uncomfortable with the ad hoc and sometimes shifting rules of the CIA drone program.
According to some estimates, the CIA and the U.S. military have undertaken more than 300 drone strikes and killed about 2,500 people — many of them civilians. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 2004 and 2013, CIA drone attacks in Pakistan killed as many as 3,461 people — up to 891 of them civilians.
The United States drone strikes in Pakistan are a violation of that nation’s sovereignty, the head of a U.N. team investigating the legality of the U.S. drone program, Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, said after he made a secret fact-finding trip to Pakistan and met with officials there.
Back in January, Emmerson held a news conference in London to announce his inquiry into the impact on civilians of the targeted killing program, as well as the legal underpinnings. That investigation took him to Pakistan, where he said his findings were clear after meetings with officials.
President Obama has stepped up covert CIA drone strikes on al-Qaida and Taliban militants in Pakistan’s tribal region along the Afghan border since he took office in 2009.