Top Senate Dem backs drone shift to Defense Department

Handing U.S. military leaders sole control over parts of the program is a major step away from the administration's "status quo" in its aggressive use of armed drone strikes, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said Tuesday. 

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On drone operations specifically, the new counter terrorism strategy laid out by Obama in May "sort of shifts things toward DOD, and I think that is a good thing," Rockefeller, the No. 2 Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel, told The Hill. 

"I don't think you can conclude anything at this point, but it doesn't show me status quo" is being repeated in ongoing counter terrorism operations, under the current rules, Rockefeller said.

The status quo for drone strikes and other so-called "kill/capture" missions had the Pentagon and CIA operate their own armed drone programs, geared toward eliminating senior al Qaeda leaders or other high-level terror targets around the world. 

But the White House's plan, announced during Obama's national security speech in May, says the CIA will continue to supply targeting and other intelligence on possible targets, but operational control over the actual drone strikes would fall to the military. 

Specifically, 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. 

Supporters of the plan argue moving 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.

That shift was part of an overall effort by the White House to update U.S. counter terrorism strategy from the days directly after the 9/11 attacks. 

That update, according to Obama, will rein in some of the expansive powers handed to the Pentagon and intelligence community to wage war against al Qaeda and its affiliates. 

“Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states,” Obama said.

“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands,” he added.

When asked if the shift of drone missions to the DOD represented Obama's commitment to ramp down counter terrorism authorities to the Pentagon and CIA, Rockefeller replied: "I did not write the speech, nor did I give the speech, but that is my impression." 

House defense lawmakers are pushing proposals to increase congressional oversight of kill/capture missions, included in the lower chamber's version of the Pentagon's fiscal 2014 Defense Authorization bill.

One of the two proposals in the House bill will require Obama to notify the congressional Defense committees each time a drone strike or night raid, like the Navy SEAL assault that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, is launched against suspected terror targets. 

The other proposal will force the Pentagon and White House to review all groups or individuals now characterized as “associated forces” under current counter terrorism rules.

Both measures are reportedly receiving bipartisan support on the House defense committee and support Obama's efforts to scale back its aggressive counter terrorism strategy.