CIA needs policy review on drones

Before the resignation of Gen. David Petraeus as the director of the CIA, Petraeus was doing all he could to reshape and reform the agency the same way he commanded units in the military — by challenging the status quo and implementing everything from process and efficiency to decision-making. 

Nonetheless, with Petraeus’s departure, perhaps the major focus of the agency will switch from a concentration on counterterrorism to collecting and processing intelligence on potential hot spots around the globe. The president should use this opportunity to appoint a new director who will allocate resources to better collect intelligence. 

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One area in need of review is how we are using drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), to gather information, as well as attack targets from over the horizon. The UAV is the perfect American weapon for today — it can fly undetected into friendly or enemy air space, collect information and launch an attack at great distance and with no chance of losing American lives. 

In the wake of the Cold War, the CIA has become a drone-driven organization. The director of the CIA runs an Air Force and an Army, which is why a former military officer is often a natural fit for the job. With his combat command experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Petraeus brought a strong operational familiarity to the counterterrorism focus in killing al Qaeda operatives hiding in countries, friendly and unfriendly.

Given where we are in the counterterrorism fight, we at least need to revisit our policies and have the conversation about our use of drones as a country. The president himself already has said he makes the final decision on the biggest killings and drone strikes. This is an incredible amount of power for one individual, given the lethality of the weapons system. 

Whoever is appointed as the new CIA director should be charged with establishing the legal framework on drone warfare. The government, given its reliance on drones, must craft more fleshed-out policies on how — and where — we are operating them, especially if the U.S. is striking targets in the countries of our allies. 

Until the new director is appointed, crucial questions on drones will remain unanswered. How are decisions made when using drones versus other weapons systems? Do the American people have the right to know the results of drone strikes? 

The U.S. took great pains in Iraq not to damage infrastructure and cause collateral damage when the military was conducting Operation Iraqi Freedom. How do Americans know that we are not killing civilians when we attack targets at such great distance? As of now, our drone focus has been the large-scale, Predator-type drone. But what happens when we start deploying nano-type drones, the size of insects? And what will our appropriate response be as our adversaries deploy them on us?

The CIA will survive this leadership change, as it always has. It will continue its active campaign of conducting espionage and sabotage on our enemies’ potential capabilities, such as slowing Iran’s nuclear program and keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of despots. The U.S. has been using drones as a critical part of our intelligence collection and military power without a set of rules regarding when, and how, we will use them. As a country, we need a comprehensive framework regarding how we will use and deploy drones. In doing so, the next director of the CIA must be committed to not relying on drones as the basis and starting point for all covert operations. 

The stakes — and the challenges — are clear and present for the next CIA director. The right leader will understand the serious work ahead and won’t waste any time pursuing it — despite the current distraction. 


Lyons served as an active duty and reserve officer in the U.S. Army and finished his service as the executive officer to the deputy chief of staff for operations, Allied Forces Central Europe in Brunssum, the Netherlands. He is currently a fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a military and national security analyst for the CBS Radio News Network.