President Barack Obama is putting the finishing touches on a deal to strip the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of its control over the nation’s drone aircraft, putting that offensive military capability in the hands of the Department of Defense, The Daily Beast reported Wednesday.
Citing three unnamed senior officials as his source, reporter Daniel Klaidman explained that the transition would take place over the course of a year, during which time the CIA would still be involved in marking targets for drone strikes and working alongside their Department of Defense counterparts.
The move has long been supported by Obama’s new CIA chief, John Brennan, one of the drone program’s architects. Klaidman noted that the move is a part of Brennan’s plans to establish a more rigid legal framework for carrying out targeted killings overseas and shrink the CIA’s purview to gathering and analyzing intelligence, leaving the military work to the actual military.
It’s not clear whether this move will endow the drone program with greater transparency, which Obama promised in his 2012 State of the Union address. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates once proposed the establishment of secret courts to oversee requests to authorize targeted killing operations, but that has yet to materialize.
What will change, however, is the legal basis for the program, shifting authorization from laws pertaining to intelligence onto laws governing use of military force. For years the CIA has refused to even acknowledge that it has anything to do with the drone program, even though Obama, Brennan and former CIA director Leon Panetta have made statements about it in public.
The Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that, because of those public statements, the CIA must disclose at least some basic information about the program, like whether the agency is even “interested” in it or not. The Department of Defense, on the other hand, would likely be subject to greater transparency when it comes to information requests on how it uses drones and to what effect.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that more than 4,600 people, 216 of them children, have been killed by drone strikes in three countries the U.S. is not actually occupying: Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. A United Nations committee also said in February that “hundreds” of children have been killed by U.S. drone strikes since 2008. Furthermore, a report published last September (PDF) by researchers at New York University and Stanford found that for every one known terrorist killed in a drone strike, 50 civilians also perished.
Despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) insisted at a recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that the number of annual civilian casualties from drone strikes is “in the single digits.”