Report: White House to shift drone program from CIA to Pentagon

The shift is apparently intended to put the drone program under the restrictions of international laws governing the use of military force, and is intended as an answer to critics who have said the use of the unmanned aircraft was too secretive.

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Under a draft memo, details of which were first reported by the Daily Beast, control would gradually shift from Langley to the Pentagon, although no firm timetable has been set. The CIA would continue to provide intelligence about potential targets, but leave operational control under the Defense Department's authority.

According to officials interviewed by the Journal, the phaseout will likely begin with the program in Yemen, where the military already operates a parallel drone program. The CIA will then gradually turn over control on a country-by-country basis.

The drone program has come under renewed scrutiny in recent months, with a bipartisan group of lawmakers demanding additional information on how and where strikes are occurring. Those efforts culminated in a near 13-hour filibuster of CIA Director John Brennan earlier this month by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who sought assurances from the White House that the administration did not have the right to employ drone attacks on American soil.

Last month, NBC News obtained a Department of Justice white paper outlining the specific circumstances under which the United States can conduct a lethal drone strike against an American citizen abroad. In the document, the Justice Department concludes that a lethal strike against a senior operational leader of al Qaeda — or an affiliated terrorist group — can occur if a three-part test is met: that a high-level American intelligence official has determined the individual poses an imminent threat, that capture is infeasible and that the strike is conducted according to the laws of war governing use of force.

The administration has subsequently briefed lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the rules governing the use of drones, and earlier this month Attorney General Eric Holder said Obama would soon speak to the public about the U.S. drone policy.

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The White House has also been working behind the scenes to codify a set of principles to govern the use of drone strikes for future administrations. The effort began before last year's election, born from a desire within the White House to provide Mitt Romney with a clear set of procedures and standards for the use of drone strikes, were he to be elected.

“He thinks these are important issues,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said earlier this month. “He believes very much in the need to be as transparent as possible on these matters with Congress as well as with the public.”

Obama himself pledged greater transparency in this year’s State of the Union address.

“My administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations,” said Obama, who pledged in the “months ahead” to explain policies in an “even more transparent” way.