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Paul Albaugh / April 28, 2015

Who Is Watching Obama’s Game of Drones?

Obamas drone program lacks transparency and oversight

Last week, Barack Obama admitted that a “signature strike” by a drone in Pakistan killed two hostages held by al-Qaida, American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto. “I profoundly regret what happened,” Obama said. Had the same rules applied to the CIA’s Pakistan drone program as elsewhere in the world, it is probable that the two civilian hostages would still be alive.

The use of drones to carry out precision strikes against terrorists is an incredible asset that has proven to be an effective weapon in modern warfare. But the death of Weinstein and Lo Porto raises the question: How should the United States run its drone program to best ensure our national security objectives are met? Should the Central Intelligence Agency continue to wage war with drone strikes, or should the responsibility be on the U.S. military?

The Wall Street Journal reports that in 2013, President Obama tightened the rules for the U.S. drone program to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. In addition, the rule change proposed that the intended target must pose an imminent threat to the United States.

However, Obama secretly granted a waiver that allowed the CIA to have more flexibility to use drones to strike suspected militants in Pakistan than anywhere else in the world. Simply put, the CIA was given permission to conduct “signature strikes” against suspected militants even if they did not pose an imminent threat to the U.S. The intent for the waiver in Pakistan was to keep the “near certainty” requirement against core members of al-Qaida while reducing civilian casualties. It turns out that the good intentions behind the drone usage in Pakistan have resulted in unintended consequences, such as the death of the two hostages.

The New York Times notes that two years ago, Obama pledged to “pull the targeted killing from the shadows, and White House officials said they wanted to shift the bulk of drone operations from the CIA to the Pentagon, with the stated intent of making the program somewhat more transparent.” That didn’t happen, as “the most transparent administration in history” strikes again.

The blame for the CIA’s use of drones can’t solely rest with Obama, though. The Times further notes that Congress, specifically the House and Senate Intelligence committees, have demonstrated undaunted support for the CIA’s drone program and have expressed confidence that the program is necessary to target specific individuals who otherwise may not be removed from the battlefield.

Recall that several months ago Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) blasted the CIA for breaching its constitutional boundaries by spying on the Senate. She sought revenge by publicly disclosing torture techniques and other classified details that were used to gather information from suspected terrorists. Despite the CIA’s actions then, there is a certain level of trust between Congress and the CIA’s drone program that is puzzling at best.

In fact, during a meeting with reporters, she was asked why she was “so sure that she was getting the truth about the drone program while she accused the CIA of lying about torture?” Her response: “That’s a good question, actually.” Indeed it is. Why isn’t there the same oversight and concern for the CIA’s drone use as other CIA programs?

One reason is that members of the Intelligence Committees are regularly briefed about the drone strikes and therefore feel that they are in the know of what exactly is going on with the drone program. In addition, they are often invited to view footage of the successful drone strikes which gives them the perception that everything is working just fine.

Second, by allowing the CIA to carry out “signature” strikes, Congress has shirked its responsibility of having to declare war. Further, Obama has used it as reason to keep his no-boots-on-the-ground strategy to fight terrorists around the world, including the Islamic State.

Let’s be clear, the drone program has worked. Core members of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups have been taken off the battlefield, and in most cases collateral damage and the loss of civilian lives are smaller in scale than a full-fledged bombing campaign would yield.

But the U.S. military is more than capable of operating drones and has the same capability of conducting precision strikes against specific targets. What is holding Obama and Congress back from shifting the drone program to the U.S. military instead of continuing to use the CIA? Obama pledged to do it, so why won’t he?

Look no further than the Director of the CIA, John Brennan, who is Obama’s man for the job. Brennan, who is enjoying the power status he is in, is essentially able to wage war through the CIA at will, with the full trust of Congress and Obama.

The CIA should not be a paramilitary organization. It should do what it does best, that is, collect and analyze intelligence. And it can use drones to do that, but it should be left to the military to carry out the strikes. That’s what’s in the best interest of our national security and it is how our government should function.

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