Brennan is leading efforts to curtail the CIA’s primary responsibility for targeted killings. Over opposition from the agency, he has argued that it should focus on intelligence activities and leave lethal action to its more traditional home in the military, where the law requires greater transparency.And who would have thought that less that two weeks into his new job, Brennan is delivering.
At a time when controversy over the Obama administration’s drone program seems to be cresting, the CIA is close to taking a major step toward getting out of the targeted killing business. Three senior U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast that the White House is poised to sign off on a plan to shift the CIA’s lethal targeting program to the Defense Department.To understand this move, its important to know that the U.S. actually has 2 drone programs.
The move could potentially toughen the criteria for drone strikes, strengthen the program’s accountability, and increase transparency.
The truth is that the U.S. drone war is actually two different, but related programs — the military's and the CIA's — each with conflicting jurisdictions, rules, and procedures. Because Afghanistan is an active war zone, the Pentagon is free to conduct drone operations in that country as it sees fit, striking whenever it deems necessary. In places like Yemen or Somalia, the Navy or Air Force may take part on a case-by-case basis, but all military (or CIA) operations must be directly approved by the President. Pakistan, however, is a different story. The Pakistani government refuses to allow the U.S. military to operate within its borders, yet the Taliban and other terrorists run rampant in the more lawless parts of the country. That's where the CIA comes in.It is also the CIA's drone program that engages in what are called signature strikes.
According to reporting from The Washington Post, in any other country, the CIA needs explicit White House permission to carry out a drone strike, but in Pakistan they were given free reign to target anyone on a pre-approved "kill list," without checking with Brennan or the President first.
Signature strikes are drone bombings that target individuals that the administration cannot identify. Decisions to kill a person or group of people in these countries can be based on “suspicious behavior,” a loosely-defined judgement that would give the administration carte blanche to kill whoever it pleases.As the Washington Post reported last fall:
Eventually, Obama and Brennan decided the [CIA] program was getting out of hand. High-value targets were becoming elusive, accusations of civilian deaths were rising, and strikes were increasingly directed toward what the angry Pakistanis called mere "foot soldiers." But with Pakistan's adamant refusal to allow U.S. military operations on its soil, taking what was considered a highly successful program out of CIA hands was viewed as counterproductive and too complicated.As Daniel Klaidman (who broke this story) points out, those complications mean that this transition could take a year or more. But in the end it sets up the DOD drone program to come under potential congressional or judicial oversight - something that would have been unlikely with the CIA program due to their ability to carry out covert operations.
Overall I see two HUGE takeaways from this story. First is the fact that John Brennan would take the job at CIA only to turn around and give up the agency's authority to operate a program like this. Many have noted that once President's are given executive power, they are loath to give it up. I would suggest that the same thing goes for the people who are in charge of federal agencies. This is a big move on both President Obama and Brennan's part. And I'm sure the backlash in the agency is going to be brutal.
The second is that it is clear to me that this is the first step in a bigger plan to acknowledge what Jeh Johnson said back in November...we're reaching the tipping point where the war on al Qaeda can end as an "armed conflict" and be institutionalized as a counter-terrorism strategy with transparency and oversight.
In other words, by the end of President Obama's second term, he will have ended THREE wars...the 3rd being the one everyone assumed would be indefinite.