CIA Control of Drone Program Undermines Accountability

Military control of the program would improve transparency and legislative oversight.

President Barack Obama speaks with his counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, at the White House in Washington DC, February 18, 2010
President Barack Obama speaks with his counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, at the White House in Washington DC, February 18, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

President Obama nominated John Brennan, his chief counterterrorism advisor and head of the drone campaign, to lead the CIA last week. His nomination raises serious questions both on how the drone campaign has affected the structure of the intelligence service and what future the program has within it.

While only obliquely acknowledged by the administration, the drone program is a major component of President Obama’s national-security strategy. Over the last four years, the administration has grown increasingly reliant on unmanned aerial vehicles when ground troops are not a viable option. So reliant, indeed, that the CIA is rapidly transitioning from its primary role as an intelligence agency and quickly becoming a paramilitary force. Presently, there are more drone pilots in training than Air Force pilots training to fly fighters and bombers.

This is not without good reason. Drones are a bargain compared with available alternatives and many officials argue that their effectiveness and accuracy is unmatched.

As American forces in Afghanistan draw down, drone technology could become the staple of security in the region. As Seth Jones, a counterterrorism expert and former advisor to Special Forces Command, said in an interview with The Washington Post last week, “With the drawdown in American forces, the drone may be, over time, the most important weapon against militant groups.”

The CIA’s leadership in a primarily paramilitary operation raises serious questions regarding the future role of American intelligence services.

If the CIA is increasingly focused on operating a military style drone campaign, the agency will be further diverted from its traditional mandate of infiltrating networks and gathering information. The 9/11 Commission argued against this convergence, in which the branches of the national-security establishment increasingly overlap in operations, as it can greatly limit the dynamism of American forces, curbing their effectiveness.

For instance, a 2008 Rand Corporation study that examined 268 terrorist groups that terminated operations between 1968 and 2006 found that the vast majority of terrorist groups were eliminated through traditional means — either human intelligence or reconciliation. Tellingly, only 7 percent ended due to military force. 40 percent ceased because they were disrupted by police and intelligence agencies and 43 percent joined the political process after a peaceful agreement with the government. A handful of CIA drones should serve only to augment traditional intelligence efforts.

Aside from issues of intraagency convergence, moving the drone program from the CIA, where it is almost completely opaque, to the military, will provide for greater openness, where by law there would be greater transparency. If the program was put into the hands of the military it would be subject to greater congressional oversight, and the criteria for when strikes are ordered and against whom could be published, along with information about who makes these decisions.

The legally required secrecy of the CIA drone program prevents the administration from explaining the strikes, who was targeted, what threat they posed, and whether there was collateral damage. Diplomats complain that this refusal to bring the program into the open makes it impossible for them to counter those who allege, sometimes inaccurately, that a drone strike has killed children or other civilians. A military program would enable them to answer challenges that are false, undermining propaganda attacks from the Taliban and other insurgent groups that have handcuffed American efforts.

Continued secrecy of the drone program also encourages its tactical advantages to begin dictating strategy in the field of operations. The relative ease of relying on drones elevates the risk that the administration will become prone to using them more and more. A more open program, in the hands of the military, would establish that drones are used when they are the best option, not simply when they are the easiest or most politically safe tools.

All of this would increase transparency, institutionalizing a process of legitimate target selection.

The current drone strategy also enhances the risk associated with the inevitable proliferation of drone technology: The United States is setting a precedent for other nations to follow.

“Other nations also possess this technology,” Brennan said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in May 2012.

Many more nations are seeking it and more will succeed in acquiring it. President Obama and those of us on his national-security team are very mindful that as our nation uses this technology, we are establishing precedents that other nations may follow and not all of them will be nations that share our interests or the premium we put on protecting human life, including innocent civilians.

According to a recent story in The Guardian, competition for drone technology has already begun between China and Japan as each looks to shore up its claim over the disputed islands in the region.

If the CIA’s role becomes permanent, the United States will have little room for protest when other countries follow its example, executing drone campaigns without official acknowledgement, transparent procedures,or public legal justification. As Georgetown Law Professor Rosa Brooks argued in Foreign Policy last September, the administration should use this time to “advance a robust legal and normative framework that will help protect against abuses by those states whose leaders can rarely be trusted.”
Drones have the potential to change the way the wars of the future are fought. The legal and moral questions raised by these weapons merit a public conversation.

Increased transparency would ensure that the administration is held accountable if it makes mistakes. No American president can maintain the power to kill without a greater level of transparency that constrains his command. As the drone program comes under increased domestic and international pressure, if it is going to be remain major weapon in American defense strategy, it will have to be used judiciously, and a case will have to be made for why strikes were approved.

Soon after Obama entered office, Brennan said, “We will harness perhaps our greatest asset of all — the power of America’s moral example. We will uphold the values of justice, liberty, dignity and rule of law.” The administration has taken many steps in that effort but a continued CIA drone program will keep the administration from realizing this promise.