DOD Won’t Be Taking Over Drone Strikes Anytime Soon

In today’s Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on the AUMF, Carl Levin asked Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict Michael Sheehan whether CIA should get to use drone strikes, in addition to DOD. (at 1:29)

Levin: Should the use of these drones be limited to the Department of Defense or should other government agencies be allowed to use such force as well, for instance the CIA.

Shaheen: Mr. Chairman, the President has indicated that he has a preference preference for those activities be conducted under Title 10 [that is, DOD], we’re reviewing that right now, but I think we also recognize that that type of transition may take quite a while depending on the theater of operation.

That language — depending on the theater of operation — would seem to suggest the problem is target country dependent. Which is to say, the CIA will not give up its authority to use drones in Pakistan and/or Yemen anytime soon.

The reasons why that’s true presented in this Defense Week article aren’t all that convincing. The article starts with the claim that moving CIA’s drone targeting to DOD wouldn’t make much difference, in part because it’s always a uniformed Air Force pilot pulling the trigger to kill someone.

It does point to some nifty toys that CIA has acquired through its more “agile” contracting regime.

The CIA has outfitted its Air Force UAVs, all purchased from General Atomics, with special features, sources say. They say the agency has a more “agile” contracting process than the Air Force.

The refits include four-bladed propellers, which enable the CIA UAVs to take off from shorter runways and may give them a higher operating ceiling as well. With more blades, “you can slice through more air,” one UAV expert said.

The UAVs assigned to the CIA also carry more advanced sensors. For example, they shoot high-definition, 1080p full-motion video, while the Air Force UAV sensors offer just standard definition. Air Force drones may be used as much to gather intelligence as for airstrikes, where CIA UAVs are configured so they can watch, gather intelligence, and eventually kill.

But in either case — at least this article claims — whether DOD or CIA flies the drones, the targeting relies on Counterterrorism Center intelligence.

One former intelligence officer points out that the most important part of the entire program isn’t the UAVs at all. It’s the intelligence that officials use to pick their targets. And that’s the part the Air Force would have the most difficult time getting, if it were not for the CIA.

“Where is the intelligence going to come from in the first place?” he asked rhetorically. “The targeting? It’s the CTC,” the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.

Which of course doesn’t explain what about the theaters in which CIA owns the drones  rather than DOD (which the article agrees are Pakistan and Yemen) would make it so hard to transition.

I suspect the reasons are different for each. In Pakistan, we’re facing a new Prime Minister in Nawaz Sharif who has claimed to be skeptical of drones. And we’re facing the tensions between Pakistan’s security establishment and its democratic government that necessitate a thoroughly unconvincing kabuki about whether Pakistan consents.

There’s a similar tension in Yemen, too. In addition, I suspect we’re captive to what our drone base hosts in Saudi Arabia want. And there was never much chance they were going to accept a partner other than the old Riyadh Station Chief, John Brennan, run their drone program.

In other words, nothing will change anytime soon. As has been clear in every single piece that simultaneously said DOD would be taking over drone killing even while admitting there would be exceptions tied to Brennan for quite some time.

Surprise: Obama’s National Security people are going to keep saying they’re moving drones to DOD, even while admitting they don’t mean that’s happening right now.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

5 replies
  1. Snoopdido says:

    When I read that Defense Week article last night, I thought their conclusion that moving the terrorist drone strike capability from the CIA to DOD “would be difficult to implement” was absolute nonsense. Pure bunk!

    When Aram Roston of Defense Week concluded that it also “would make little difference”, he apparently was unaware of the irony that this statement would defeat the entire premise of his article.

    Roston postulates that the Air Force would have to duplicate the targeting intelligence function currently provided by the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, but that too is pure bunk.

    Roston seems to be unaware that the DOD’s JSOC has been running terrorist drone strikes for years now in Yemen and Somalia, and somehow manages to acquire targeting intelligence (often provided by the CIA).

    Any change of organization to where the majority of terrorist drone strikes takes place is not going to change where the majority of their targeting intelligence comes from. It will continue to be provided by the current acquisition processes of both the CIA and DOD.

    All in all I found the Defense Week article to be underwhelming in its purported understanding of the real issues regarding whether the CIA or DOD performs the majority of terrorist drone strikes. Stuff like the perceived and real differences between operating under Title 10 or Title 50.

  2. joanneleon says:

    When all those news articles were coming out prior to Brennan’s confirmation about how he wanted the Agency to go back to focusing on HUMINT and not paramilitary, I never believed it for a minute. But I do wonder why they go to such lengths to make everyone think that. Brennan is not going to give up those drones. Please! You just know that someone like him would never give up that power. I better stop there…

  3. P J Evans says:

    If the Saudis want Brennan running the drone program for them, I say give them Brennan, and make him go there to run it.

  4. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    I wonder if there is a bit of an issue finding someone to take the drone program. With Pakistan’s statement that drone strikes are absolutely illegal and are war crimes, perhaps no one wants to take them off the hands of the war criminal whose been responsible to date.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/12/pakistan-us-drone-strikes

    In addition, it’s interesting that Guatemala and Uruguay have very recently convicted war driminals that also tie back to US activities.

    Perhaps this immunity thing is nearing its end and war criminals and war-criminal-in-chief’s are getting a bit nervous and happy to see the fall-guy in plain site and still in control. It removes any confusion about who did what when and for how long.

  5. beowulf says:

    “People familiar with the UAV program say that when it comes time to pull the trigger on a weapon aimed at a suspected terrorist, no matter whether the mission is run by the CIA or the Air Force, the action is always conducted by military officers. It is U.S. government policy that only uniformed personnel can be the “trigger pullers,” the sources said.”

    “is always conducted” is present tense… Let’s go all the way back in time to June 9, 2012, to this Business Insider piece:

    In preparation for a speech, Koh spent hours in CIA headquarters at Langley interrogating drone pilots. Koh wanted to find out everything he could about their job, their lives, and the mentality behind all the ‘unmanned’ airstrikes and peppered the pilots with statements like: “I hear you guys have a PlayStation mentality.”
    The drone pilots are now civilians, but most were former Air Force pilots who took offense at the notion they were armchair warriors so far removed from their mission that they felt nothing at all about the death and destruction they caused.

    http://www.businessinsider.com/a-drone-bomber-pilot-speaks-out-for-the-first-time-on-what-his-job-is-really-like-2012-6

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