Moving the Drone Program from the CIA to the Pentagon Won’t Improve Transparency

Generals aren’t better than spooks when it comes to reporting civilian casualties.


For the first eight years of the CIA’s secret drone wars in Yemen and Pakistan, “oversight” by elected officials amounted to little more than an occasional phone chat with select politicians. Every now and then, the agency’s director would pick up the phone, call the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and describe a high-profile drone mission that had just taken place.

“We were not hiding the football on this from anybody, certainly not while I was there,” one former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official told me.

Yet it still took until 2010 before formal oversight was introduced. By then, more than 850 people — perhaps one in three of them civilians — had already died in 100 CIA drone strikes. Since then, intelligence officials met once a month with security-cleared members of the House and Senate to talk through the drone killing program — and to show them selected videos of strikes.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), at the time chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, boasted in 2012 that this congressional oversight would tackle the secret drone war’s “legality, effectiveness, precision, foreign-policy implications, and the care taken to minimize noncombatant casualties.”

Except it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, of acting like overseers, members of Congress often resemble cheerleaders. In 2013, for example, members of both the House and the Senate intelligence committees raised concerns about CIA plans to kill terror suspect and U.S. citizen Mohanad Mahmoud al-Farek. Their complaint? The CIA hadn’t killed him fast enough. (Farek was instead captured by Pakistan in late 2014 and is currently awaiting trial in New York.)

Now there are hopes this ineffective oversight might come to an end. Following the news that a CIA drone strike in January accidentally killed an American held hostage by al Qaeda, calls for changes to the program have been growing. And increasingly, policymakers are signing up to an idea that the White House and its allies have been pushing for years: transferring the entire targeted killing program away from the CIA to the Pentagon. Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), rarely a White House ally on foreign-policy issues, has been talking up the idea recently.

It’s easy to see why some transparency and oversight advocates might be tempted to support such a change. Some believe that a Pentagon-run killing program could allow for more openness than the current ban on any public disclosure of CIA drone operations allows.

There might be some technical advantages to placing the entire targeted killing mission under Pentagon control — after all, even the CIA’s missions are already flown by the Air Force. But the case for more transparency isn’t a convincing one. And neither is the suggestion that the Pentagon might run the killing program any more effectively.

According to some former high-ranking intelligence officials, the Senate Armed Services Committee might be even less equipped to oversee targeted killings away from the battlefield than the Senate Intelligence Committee. That’s because most drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, or Somalia would be carried out on behalf of the super-secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

“Don’t think that JSOC doing it is going to be more transparent than the current situation. Because JSOC doesn’t talk much to the Armed Services guys, compared to what some other committees get,” one former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official told me.

Senator Feinstein appears to agree, recently insisting that “we have much more oversight over the intelligence program than we have over the military program, and that’s just a fact.”

In my book Sudden Justice, I describe how U.S. Special Forces secretly flew hundreds of drone surveillance missions inside Pakistan on behalf of the CIA. According to a number of Special Forces personnel taking part in these missions, none ever went “kinetic.” But they did provide crucial “pattern of life” analysis for the CIA, the modeling of suspect behavior that is used in the agency’s targeted killings.

Was McCain’s Senate committee ever told about those super-secret JSOC operations? It seems unlikely. Sources were more nervous speaking about these operations than they were about the CIA’s secret drone squadrons. As one former military operator told me, they had “no intention of wearing an orange jumpsuit for the next 20 years by talking about this.”

The CIA, by contrast, is at least under an obligation to discuss its actions with Congressional oversight committees, thanks to transparency legislation that was introduced in the late 1970s.

“The CIA supposedly has to tell each of the Select Committees in its testimony, or at least in its testimony in closed session to the few who are able to get it, what it’s doing. It never does, of course, and it lies consistently,” Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, told me. “But it at least it has to say something to somebody, and if they ask the right questions — which sometimes they do — it has to say even more.”

So are there any circumstances in which transferring secret drone strikes to the military might actually improve accountability? Probably not.

Both JSOC and the Pentagon have routinely glossed over or flatly denied well-documented screw-ups in their own drone strikes in recent years. Take the example of Abdullah Mabkhut al-Amri and Warda al-Sorimi. In December 2013, these widowed Yemenis remarried in rural Yemen. It should have been one of the happiest days of their lives. Instead, a JSOC-controlled drone bombed their wedding convoy as it made its way toward the couple’s new home. Among the dozen or more dead were the groom’s 25-year-old son, by his first marriage. “We were in a wedding, but all of a sudden it became a funeral,” Abdullah later told Human Rights Watch. “Why did the United States do this to us?”

The Pentagon held two inquiries into the strike. Both claimed no civilians died. But Yemeni officials apologized for civilian casualties and even paid out $150,000 in compensation to the families of those killed. JSOC’s errors had major strategic consequences — with Yemen’s parliament eventually voting to ban all U.S. drone strikes as a result. Yet no one from the U.S. military was ever reprimanded for civilian deaths that day, as far as we know.

The case isn’t unique. In every drone screw-up by JSOC over the years — and there have been quite a few, according to monitoring groups — there’s been no credible transparency after the act, nor any apparent eagerness by congressional armed services committees to take the elite unit to task.

The idea of transferring the drone program from the CIA to the military is not a new one. Agency Director John Brennan said in his confirmation hearing in 2013 that he believed “the CIA should not be doing traditional military activities and operations.” Yet until McCain’s recent comments, the idea appeared to have gone cold.

Perhaps Brennan was digesting the uncomfortable truth that the CIA might simply be better at the job of drone killing than JSOC. Until Obama ordered Special Forces drones into Yemen and Somalia in 2011, it turns out JSOC wasn’t even particularly interested in killing with its Predators. Former pilots, operators, and analysts all told me JSOC’s emphasis was almost always on intelligence gathering rather than targeted assassination.

“We did not want to have to shoot the Hellfire [missile]. That meant something went wrong,” Pete Forrest, a former special forces drone commander said.

In contrast, after 14 years the CIA has become very good at targeted assassinations with unmanned aerial vehicles. After all, that had always been the mission. And since Obama clashed with the CIA over civilian deaths in 2010, apparently the agency became a lot better at not killing civilians, too. That may be a skill set the White House remains loath to throw away.


Chris Woods is a London-based investigative reporter who covered the Iraq conflict from the 2003 U.S. invasion onwards. His book Sudden Justice, on the role of armed drones in modern warfare, will be published by Oxford University Press in Spring 2015.