The CIA’s secret drone program has been unmasked, leaving the Obama administration in the impossible position of having to justify its use of targeted killings while at the same time refusing to confirm that it engages in targeted killings. That’s why it’s good news that US officials are considering moving the bulk of the CIA’s drone program to the Pentagon. The CIA only has the legal authority to operate secret programs. The drone program is such an open secret that administration officials give speeches about it. For that reason alone, it is time for the program to leave the CIA.
There are other reasons as well. In terms of efficiency of operations, it doesn’t make sense for the CIA to operate its own fleet of drones, separately from the Defense Department. Twelve years ago, the Pentagon didn’t have its own drones. The military had been reluctant to purchase unmanned aerial vehicles in the 1990s. But today the military has more than 7,000 drones. It makes sense to merge the programs. The CIA should continue to play a role, but should not be the sole decision-maker.
Weaponized drones are tools of war, not espionage. Drones have taken up so much of CIA’s time and energy over the past decade that some analysts believe the agency’s traditional intelligence-gathering functions have been shortchanged.
A final reason to move the program is to provide greater transparency, something President Obama has long promised. If the bulk of the drone program moved to the Pentagon, then the US government would presumably be forced to acknowledge its participation in specific drone strikes. That would allow the public to better understand how drones are being used — and against whom.
“It makes me personally uncomfortable that, in four years, drone strikes have killed 4,000 people, and the US government has not publicly acknowledged a single one of them,” said John Bellinger III, who served as the State Department’s senior lawyer under President George W. Bush.
Congress would potentially have more oversight over drones housed under the Defense Department. That would help soothe concerns about the president’s assertion of the power to kill anyone — even an American citizen — who is deemed to be a member of Al Qaeda. But more transparency and oversight won’t completely solve the problem. Americans who have grappled with the implications of locking up suspected terrorists for more than a decade without trial must similarly grapple with the implications of killing them without due process.
Few people dispute the need for this sweeping power during a war. Indeed, in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, Congress gave the president broad authority “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against the perpetrators of the attacks. But a dozen years later, that authority is being used to target people who have, at best, a tenuous connection to 9/11. Congress needs to update that law and spell out the rules for using drones. The sheer number of drone strikes during the Obama administration has created a sense of urgency around this issue. If Obama wants to retain the right to kill people with drones, he would be wise to utilize this power sparingly.