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Capitol Hill hawks object stripping CIA of drones

Published time: April 02, 2013 23:07
Reuters / U.S. Air Force / Tech. Sgt. Ricky Best / Handout

Reuters / U.S. Air Force / Tech. Sgt. Ricky Best / Handout

Conservative lawmakers have urged the Obama administration to leave the CIA in charge of aerial drone strikes, claiming it would be best for operational and legal purposes.

The plea comes in response to the White House-backed effort to shift control of the drone program to the Pentagon, thereby addressing transparency concerns. Although no final decision has been made, a senior US official recently told NPR that the change is a “distinct possibility.”

Three senior US officials also told the Daily Beast that the move would “toughen the criteria for drone strikes, strengthen the program’s accountability, and increase transparency.”

It remains unclear how exactly the move would increase transparency, especially since some believe the program would likely be transferred to the Joint Special Operations Command – a sector that is equally, if not more secretive than the CIA.

Regardless of where the program could be moved to, pro-military lawmakers and US analysts told Defense News that the CIA should remain in charge of America’s targeted-killing operations, which has become a major tool in targeting suspected al-Qaeda terrorists.

“Both agencies are using the drones for different missions,” Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee, told Defense News. “My first reaction is … the military has done a good job, as has the CIA. … The missions that the military carries out and the missions that the CIA carries out are different.”

The congressman said the change is unnecessary, especially since the targeted-killing program “works very well right now.” He believes the military lacks the CIA’s experience in conducting such operations and should not be given the same responsibility.

Some lawmakers have been open to the idea of letting both agencies play a part in the US drone program, as long as the CIA can continue to fulfill its mission.

“If the CIA can still operate its program, I think that’s fine,” said Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “I think the military has some ownership, but I think the CIA has some ownership, too.”

But those who advocate moving the drone program to the Pentagon say that it would strengthen the justification for targeting and killing suspected al-Qaeda leaders and operatives, since “the essential mission of the US military is to capture or kill an enemy,” said Jeh Johnson, a former top lawyer for the Pentagon, in a March 18 speech. He also believes that since Congress has a say in the operations of the military, lawmakers would also have more of an input on the use of drones.

“Furthermore, the parameters of congressionally authorized armed conflict are transparent to the public, from the words of the congressional authorization itself, and the executive branch’s interpretation of that authorization,” he added, addressing students at the Fordham University Law School. “Lethal force outside the parameters of congressionally authorized armed conflict by the military looks to the public to lack any boundaries, and lends itself to the suspicion that it is an expedient substitute for criminal justice.”

The US has not made any official decisions regarding the future of its drone program, but outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta hinted at a possible change in an NBC interview last month, suggesting the even if the program were moved to the military, most of its operations would remain covert.

As the White House allegedly continues to contemplate its move, pro-military lawmakers and analysts hope that the CIA can retain some element of control over the program, while some Americans continue to advocate for the transparency that they believe the move will create.

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