Blair: US drone strikes should be sole domain of military

The blurred line between military and civilian control of armed aerial drones has entangled the Obama administration into "all kinds of legal knots" over how and when the United States uses the controversial counterterrorism tactic, Blair told reporters during a conference call on U.S. drone policy sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. 


To clear up that confusion, Blair suggested that "the great majority" of U.S. drone strikes be controlled and carried out by the Pentagon. Currently CIA and special operations forces inside the Department of Defense conduct their own drone campaigns in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere. 

Under Pentagon control, U.S. officials would be able to streamline drone operations "under normal procedures in the law of war" and side step a number of the sticky legal situations stemming from the CIA program. 

Use of drone strikes under Pentagon oversight, according to Blair, would be no different the more traditional weapons and tactics used by American forces in ongoing counterterrorism operations, such as they type of special operations forces raids used to kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last May.

"I don't think it [will be] any different with drones," according to Blair, who served as the White House's top intelligence official from 2009 to 2010. 

Blair refused to comment on how the White House's drone policy could change, should current White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan become the new head of CIA. 

President Obama named Brennan as his pick to succeed former CIA chief Gen. David Petraeus as the nation's top spy earlier this month. Brennan's Senate confirmation hearing has been set for Feb. 7. 

During his time at the White House and at CIA during the George W. Bush administration, Brennan played a key role in facilitating the growth of U.S. drone strikes. His role in that effort prompted Brennan to turn down Obama's offer to become CIA chief back in 2008. 

Administration officials say the strikes, which have escalated in number and lethality under Obama, have been critical in decimating the senior leadership of terror groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban in recent years. 

However, the "non-battlefield targeted killing" of individuals tagged as suspected terrorist leaders under the drone program has riled civil liberties groups, who claim the airstrike campaign has been run outside the legal parameters governing U.S. military action abroad, CFR analyst Micah Zenko said during the same call. 

The Obama administration's drone policy has been "poorly articulated and not very transparent" since the White House began escalating the use of armed drones across the globe. 

That acceleration, combined with the lack of transparency, has resulted in drone strikes becoming "the face of U.S. foreign policy" to detrimental effect, Zenko said. 

U.S. drone policy became even murkier this week, when the administration announced the CIA-led arm of the operation would be exempt from a new, stringent slate of regulations governing U.S. counterterrorism operations being drafted by the White House. 

The exemption will allow CIA-led drone strikes in Pakistan to continue unfettered, while the new White House regulations will guide how the administration proceeds with its armed drone campaign, according to the Washington Post. 

Those regulations include how the administration adds names to its so-called "kill list" for drone attacks, outlines the legal principles that govern when U.S. citizens can be targeted overseas and the sequence of approvals required when the CIA or U.S. military conducts drone strikes outside war zones, the Post reports.