By Carlo Muñoz - 05/21/13 03:23 PM EDT
President Obama has decided to split armed drone operations between the CIA and Pentagon in a major policy shift that paves the way for complete Defense Department control of those counterterrorism missions.
Under the White House plan, U.S. military commanders will take over armed drone missions against terror targets in Yemen, while the CIA will retain command of drone strikes in Pakistan, according to reports.
Administration officials opted to hand over Yemen operations to the Pentagon since American troops are already working with Sana'a on joint training and counterterrorism missions there, sources tell Reuters.
The CIA will continue to run drone strikes in Pakistan and be able to maintain deniability of those operations. That will help the U.S. maintain relations with Islamabad, which has been adamantly against American intervention in the country.
But the handover of the Yemen mission to the Department of Defense (DOD) is part of the White House's overall plan to transfer complete control of armed drones to the Pentagon.
Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb declined to comment on the plan, noting the White House has yet to make any official announcement on the drone program.
A CIA spokesperson had yet to reply to queries from The Hill regarding the proposed handover of authority over the drone program.
That said, Obama has expressed "a preference" for DOD to handle unmanned airstrikes as officials continue to plan for the eventual handover of all drone operations to the department, a top Pentagon official told Congress last week.
"The president has indicated that he has a preference for those activities to be conducted under [DOD]," Michael Sheehan, head of special operations and low-intensity conflict, told Senate Armed Services Committee memebers last Thursday.
"We're reviewing that right now, but I think we also recognize that that type of transition might take quite awhile depending on the theater of operations where the airstrikes are carried out," Sheehan added at the time.
Shifting control of the drone program to the Pentagon would allow U.S. officials to streamline drone operations "under normal procedures in the law of war" and sidestep a number of sticky legal situations stemming from the CIA portion of the program, former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair said in January.
But a number of lawmakers, including Senate Intelligence panel chief Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) remain concerned that granting Pentagon control could distance the decision to authorize drone strikes from CIA intelligence and decision-making procedures.