Drone Strikes Remain in CIA Territory

Six months after the White House announced that drone strikes would move from the CIA’s authority to the DoD, new reports state that the transfer will not be happening any time in the near future.  President Obama originally claimed that the transfer was meant to increase transparency and open up debate in regard to the controversial drone strikes across the Middle East.  While many will undoubtedly criticize the delay, the situation may not be as bad as it appears on its face.  In fact, it may be that keeping drone strike capabilities in the hands of the CIA will actually be a positive in the long run.

Government officials cite operational and cultural differences as the primary reasons for the delay.  One official told ForeignPolicy.com that, “The physics of making this happen quickly are remarkably difficult.”

At first glance, it would seem that a transition of this nature would be seamless given that the DoD and CIA already work closely in the War on Terror.  However, that is not necessarily the case. While it is true that the platform and some procedures are common to both the CIA and the DoD in regard to drone strikes, but each takes distinct approach in locating and eliminating Al-Qaeda personnel.  Both agencies also rely on different intelligence feeds to accomplish their objectives.  A sudden change in agencies could easily cause the drone war to come to a screeching halt until the DoD could fully integrate its own procedures.

The main concern for officials in both departments is maintaining the effectiveness of the drone strikes during the transfer.  Aside from the logistical issues, the CIA and DoD generally operate under different restrictions.  This means that the CIA has the ability to order drone strikes in areas that the DoD would not necessarily be allowed to attack, such as Pakistan.  The concern is that targets currently being tracked by the CIA will be unreachable once the DoD takes over.  It would also give Al-Qaeda operatives a safe haven to escape drone strikes.

It is true that the delay will keep the drone war shrouded in secrecy for the foreseeable future.  There are still legitimate concerns about the transparency of drone strikes across the Middle East and the human rights issues that come with them.  However, as our own Paul Taylor has pointed out, some of those concerns may be unwarranted.  All things considered, the drone war has been largely effective and has eliminated a high number of top-ranking Al-Qaeda operatives.  This would undermine much of the work done by the CIA up to this point.  Despite legitimate concerns about drone strikes, they undoubtedly put pressure on Al-Qaeda and removing that pressure could prove to be detrimental to the government’s goals of eliminating terrorist threats in the Middle East.

There are clearly questions that still need to be answered about civilian deaths linked to the drone war, but they will likely not be immediately answered once the transfer is complete, much to the chagrin of the drone war’s critics.  Additionally, various reports have shown that civilian death rates in relation to drone strikes are not as high as originally thought.  The bottom line is that handing over full drone strike capabilities to the DoD may not be the solution given that the CIA appears to be running a relatively effective campaign at the moment.

Still, the delay is certainly a setback for an administration that has been under fire for quite some time regarding drone strikes.  Critics will surely see this as a stall tactic used to maintain secrecy.  However, there are also positives to come out of the situation.  It is obvious that a sudden change in policy could prove to be detrimental to the drone campaign.  The CIA, while controversial, has proven to be effective against Al-Qaeda and not nearly as big a threat to civilian populations as originally thought.  In the end, it seems clear that an abrupt change in policy would fail and any anti-terrorism efforts in the Middle East would be undermined.  There will be a “right time” to transfer drone strike capabilities to the DoD, but it may not be right now.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

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