Drone fight simmers in Congress

Drone fight simmers in Congress

Congress may finally be on the verge of transferring control of the nation’s drone program from CIA to the Pentagon.
 
The shift in oversight has long been a priority of President Obama, though it has failed to materialize in the years since he unveiled the proposal in 2013.
 
But now, Congress appears to be acting where the White House has not.
 

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“It’s what the president announced. It needs to be done,” Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainFighter pilot vs. astronaut match-up in Arizona could determine control of Senate The Hill's Morning Report — Recession fears climb and markets dive — now what? Trump makes rare trip to Clinton state, hoping to win back New Hampshire MORE (R-Ariz.), the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters this week. “We’ll be looking at some kind of legislation on the defense authorization bill to see that that accelerates.”
 
McCain wants to include a provision forcing a change in command of the program in the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual military budget blueprint.  
 
The move is likely to cause a split between McCain and the powerful Intelligence Committee and rekindle a long-simmering dispute over the government’s covert use of flying war machines.
 
In part, the signs of new urgency are a reflection of increased scrutiny of the drone program, following the disclosure last week that a January drone strike accidentally killed two Western al Qaeda hostages: American aid worker Warren Weinstein and Italian national Giovanni Lo Porto. That strike and another separate incident also killed two other Americans who served in prominent roles within al Qaeda.
 
“What this whole situation has done is raise the question of, what is the process? What are the obstacles?” said Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the top Democrat on McCain’s committee. “Why aren’t we moving more aggressively?”
 
Since Obama took office in 2009, his administration has conducted a total of 474 drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, according to data maintained by the New America Foundation. Most of those have been carried out by the CIA, though some are also conducted by the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
 
The Obama administration has eyed a change of policy for years.
 
In a 2013 speech at National Defense University, Obama told an anti-drone protester that his administration was “addressing” the issue.

“He has explained his belief that we must be more transparent about both the basis of our counterterrorism actions, including lethal operations, and the manner in which they are carried out,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. “Because of this, he has indicated that he will increasingly turn to our military to take the lead and provide information to the public about our efforts.”
 
“We continue to work diligently toward this goal,” Price added.

 So far, it never happened.
 
Part of the holdup was Congress, which last January slipped a classified measure into the $1.1 trillion government spending bill restricting the administration from using money to transfer control of the drone program.
 
“There are a number of my colleagues in both House and Senate who are not as confident of the DOD’s capabilities,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told The Hill this week. “There are also issues regarding some of our partners around the world who are not comfortable with the uniform operations.”
 
Schiff has backed transferring oversight of the program to the Pentagon and has also pushed for rules forcing the government to compile an annual list of the number of combatants and civilians killed by drone strikes.
 
“I’d like to see the intelligence community focus on its core mission of intelligence-gathering and analysis,” he said. “I don’t think that there’s any evidence that the Defense Department lacks the ability to do these counterterrorism operations well.”
 
In supporting the move, Schiff makes himself unique among the so-called “Gang of Eight,” which includes House and Senate leaders from both parties, as well as the heads of their respective Intelligence Committees. The group is routinely briefed on the administration’s classified activities.  
 
Judging from the initial reactions of some of those other lawmakers, backers of McCain’s initiative could have their work cut out for them.
 
“Listen, I’m not sure that DOD can operate a drone program in Pakistan,” Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) bluntly told reporters this week. “That’s up to the United States administration and the Pakistanis.”
 
Burr’s Democratic counterpart, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), reportedly helped kill the administration’s initial plans to transfer oversight of the program.
 
After news of the White House’s plans emerged in 2013, she reportedly said that she had seen the CIA “exercise patience and discretion specifically to prevent collateral damage” and she “would really have to be convinced that the military would carry it out that well.”
 
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) declined to comment to The Hill about the potential change in policy.
 
In addition to concerns about the Defense Department’s ability to conduct the strikes, some opponents also warn that the policy shift could expose secret information to public view because the Pentagon would not be able to deny knowledge of drone operations.

However, supporters say that the ability to talk openly about the program would allow the U.S. to refute the most egregious claims about its operation.
 
Given Congress’s past reluctant to rock the boat, new legislation forcing a change in oversight of the drone would be a change of pace for Capitol Hill. 
 
But that doesn’t mean it’s up against insurmountable odds. In addition to Schiff, some other key lawmakers told The Hill that they were largely in support of an effort to move the drone program into the purview of the CIA.
 
“Let’s say I’m 80 percent of the way,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.
 
“I’m intrigued,” he added. “It’s probably a good idea.”
 
The NDAA — expected out of the Senate Armed Services Committee in about a month — would be a natural place to do it.
 
“If you’re dealing with multiple agencies you could do it in either” the NDAA or a standalone bill, said House Armed Services head Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).

Thornberry, an intelligence wonk, declined to say whether he would support a change in policy.
 
The administration has tried before and failed.
 
But this time around, there’s one big difference, McCain said: “I’m the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.”