White House move to let Pentagon take over CIA armed drones sparks concern

A White House plan to make the administration's armed drone program the sole domain of the Pentagon is creating concern among congressional lawmakers.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinOvernight Energy & Environment — Starting from 'scratch' on climate, spending bill Senate panel advances bill blocking tech giants from favoring own products Eight senators ask Biden to reverse course on Trump-era solar tariffs MORE (D-Calif.) last week said lawmakers have closely monitored the intelligence community’s management of the drone program. She expressed confidence with the CIA’s handling of drone attacks, and questioned if the Defense Department (DOD) would exercise the same restraint with the controversial program.


"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 on Capitol Hill this week. 

"The military [armed drone] program has not done that nearly as well," she said Tuesday, according to Defense News.

Feinstein’s comments come amid reports the administration is weighing handing control of the armed drone program over to military leaders.

Currently, 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. 

Under the Obama administration's proposal, the CIA would continue to supply targeting and other intelligence on possible targets, but operational control over the actual drone strikes would fall to the Pentagon, according to reports

Work is ongoing at the White House, Pentagon and CIA to shift the drone program to the military, but "it’s on a reasonably fast track,” one U.S. official told The Daily Beast. 

Current and former administration officials, though, are defending the proposed move amid lawmaker questions.

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. 

Use of drone strikes under Pentagon oversight, according to Blair, would be no different than more traditional weapons and tactics used by American forces in ongoing counterterrorism operations. 

"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. 

But Feinstein and some lawmakers are concerned that removing Pentagon control could distance the decision to authorize drone strikes from CIA intelligence and decision-making procedures.

Moving the drone program to the Defense Department, though, could put some political distance between the CIA and the controversial counterterrorism tactic. 

The administration's legal justifications for the drone program, particularly the argument that U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism overseas could be targets, was a major roadblock in the eventually successful Senate confirmation of CIA Director John Brennan. 

If the Pentagon assumes control of the program, it could remove Langley from the political crosshairs of lawmakers such as Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 I'm furious about Democrats taking the blame — it's time to fight back Rand Paul cancels DirecTV subscription after it drops OAN MORE (R-Ky.) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Democrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Schumer opted for modest rules reform after pushback from moderates MORE (D-Ore.), among others, who have argued against the agency's expanding role in such operations. 

Paul famously filibustered Brennan's nomination for nearly 13 hours on the Senate floor, over concerns armed drones could be used against American citizens on U.S. soil. 

Wyden pressed Brennan, along with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, on whether CIA drones could be used for surveillance stateside on U.S citizens, during a Senate Intelligence committee hearing in March. 

A transition to DOD could also help Brennan transition the agency back to its "traditional mission" of intelligence collection and analysis overseas, a direction CIA needed to move in to cope with a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan world, according to former CIA Director Michael Hayden.

The agency, under Brennan's leadership, has "got to get back to the traditional missions" of foreign espionage, surveillance and counterintelligence, Hayden told The Hill in January.

Those types of missions have fallen by the wayside in the years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in favor of counterterrorism efforts — such as the armed drone program — aimed at hunting down top al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, as well as and other Islamic militant networks.

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

On Thursday, an American drone strike killed four individuals in western Pakistan's restive tribal regions, an area known as a safe haven for a number of Pakistani-based terror groups.

More than 80 percent of all U.S. armed drone strikes are targeted in Pakistan and Yemen. It remains unclear whether Thursday's strike was a DOD- or CIA-led operation.