Turf battle builds quietly in Congress over control of armed drone program

A turf war is quietly building between congressional defense and intelligence committees over who will oversee the Obama administration’s controversial armed drone program. 

Lawmakers are scrambling to make their case for or against a White House proposal that would hand control of the drones to the Pentagon. 

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Gordon Adams, a senior defense analyst at the Stimson Center, called the looming battle a “turf fight in the [disguise] of a policy debate.”

The Pentagon and CIA operate their own armed drone programs, which are both geared toward eliminating senior al Qaeda leaders and other high-level terror targets around the world. Under the Obama administration’s proposal, the CIA would continue to supply intelligence on possible targets, but actual control over the drone strikes would fall to the Pentagon. 

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) publicly questioned whether the Defense Department (DOD) would be able to shoulder the program alone. 

“We’ve watched the intelligence aspect of the drone program, how they function, the quality of the intelligence, watching the agency exercise patience and discretion,” Feinstein told reporters in March. “The military [armed drone] program has not done that nearly as well.” 

Sen. John McCain and other defense lawmakers say the drone program would be better off being run by the Pentagon. 

“It’s not the job of the Central Intelligence Agency. ... It’s the military’s job,” the Arizona Republican said in March. 

The fight is a typical battle over who on Capitol Hill will retain power over the program, according to several analysts, who described it as predictable. 

“There is always going to be a turf battle” when dealing with congressional oversight, said Lawrence Korb, a former DOD official and defense analyst at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. 

But that battle could become particularly heated, given the high-profile nature of the drone program, which since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has become a huge factor in shaping counterterrorism policy, given its success, Korb said. 

For congressional panels, the fight over who will control the drone program will have a say in the relevancy of the two committees. 

Korb, for example, noted that national security spending on unmanned aircraft and special operations forces will likely increase, even as the budget for defense spending overall is expected to trend downward. 

Ironically, Pentagon officials pushed back against using armed drones in the late 1990s, fearing they would replace fighter jets as the weapon of choice in future wars, Korb said. 

That decision essentially handed control of the armed drone program to the CIA, he said. Early versions of the unmanned aircraft flown during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan belonged to the agency, not the Defense Department, according to Korb. 

Taking that influence away from Langley and intelligence lawmakers was bound to spark a fight, he said. 

That said, the Obama administration has taken steps to limit that risk, including by nominating John Brennan to lead the CIA. 

Brennan has always been in favor of moving the drone program from joint CIA-Pentagon control to the Defense Department exclusively, according to Korb. 

That support, along with a desire to move the agency back to its traditional roots in foreign espionage and intelligence collection, is probably why he was appointed. 

Adams said the dominance of the drone program has caused traditional intelligence programs to fall by the wayside, creating a possible blind spot in American intelligence operations. 

CIA investment in drone operations was so deep that the agency “became part of the [drone] policy” rather than just overseeing the program, he added. 

A secret report from the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board in March said that the nation’s intelligence agencies were prioritizing support for military operations over traditional intelligence-gathering. The report cautioned that the post-9/11 focus could leave the country vulnerable to new threats.