Security Policy: The State of the CIA Drone Program

Control of CIA Drone Program to Likely Shift to Pentagon

President Barack Obama is reportedly set to shift control of the CIA’s drone program to the Department of Defense (DOD) in a move designed to bring more transparency to the beleaguered program initiated in 2002 in response to the nation’s War on Terror. Drone strikes have since killed innumerable targets in countries such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia and continue to serve as a high-level security measure against terrorists.

While the debate rages on in Congress over the merits of the program and its fate, here are the things you need to know about the drone program and the prospective shift that could shake up the CIA’s targeted killing program.

Security Policy DroneWhat is a drone?

Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, are aircrafts without a human pilot. While they are used for a variety of purposes, they are most well-known for their military applications. The CIA first began using armed drones in reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks. As part of the United States’ War on Terror, drones have been used to take out high-profile terrorist leaders, associates and other targets deemed a threat to national security.

Why does the CIA control these drones?

Missions under the CIA are deemed covert and are not constrained by the same international laws of war that would limit the flexibility and secrecy of such military action. In fact, the CIA can legally deny the existence of these operations to Congress. Conversely, military operations under the DOD are subject to a variety of military restrictions, including formal agreements with other countries.

Why does the move of the drone program make sense?

According to the NPR’s Tom Gjelten, the CIA’s drone program has been effective at killing many top-tiered al-Qaida operatives and other terrorist targets, leaving a depleted mission for today’s drones. These lower-level operatives aren’t necessarily worth the CIA’s resources and investment. Additionally, newly confirmed CIA director John Brennan reportedly wants to realign the CIA’s focus on the intelligence business, effectively moving away from military-type operations, including drones.

“The Obama Administration is trying to set clear rules for lethal operations in an era of asymmetric warfare,” said Dr. John Hatzadony, director of Notre Dame College’s graduate program in Security Policy Studies and Assistant Professor of Intelligence Studies. “Under the CIA, the rules have been a bit loose and ad-hoc. Brennan and the Obama administration want the CIA to return to its more traditional covert intelligence gathering and analysis role.”

Drones are also not the clandestine weapons they once were when the CIA first began its armed drone program. They are now considered a part of conventional warfare, and shifting the program under control of the Pentagon would legitimize this new type of warfare.

When will this shift happen?

The shift in control of the drone program has not been confirmed by the Obama administration; however, it seems very likely with several senior U.S. officials having commented to Daily Beast reporter, Daniel Klaidman, that the President is ready to sign off on the plan in the imminent future. If the shift does occur, it would do so gradually and would most likely occur in a phased approach on a country-by-country basis.

What would come of the DOD’s current drone program?

The DOD has its own drone program through the joint special operations command. If the shift happens, the two programs would be merged.

How would this shift affect the drone program?

Since the shift is still unconfirmed, it is difficult to speculate on the fate of the drone program post-move; however, it would likely take away the CIA’s control of choosing drone targets and the agency would have to surrender its 40 drones. The CIA would likely still assist the DOD with intelligence efforts to effectively select drone targets.

Dr. Hatzadony believes the move could tighten targeting criteria and increase accountability as it becomes more transparent. “The CIA is a covert program that can remain classified,” said Dr. Hatzadony. “By moving the drone program to the DOD, it becomes a military operation with more overt civilian controls. It would also force the program into one set of rules and a single command and control structure as opposed to the two concurrent programs that exists right now.”

Notre Dame College (NDC) provides an accessible and affordable college degree. NDC offers a broad range of career-focused, accredited degree options, like the Certificate in Intelligence Analysis to help you achieve your goals through education. Adult students benefit from our online degrees, which merge convenience and flexibility with NDC’s academic tradition of excellence. Make an investment in your future with a degree from NDC.