Is the CIA Better Than the Military at Drone Killings?

U.S. Air Force photo by 432nd Wing by Senior Master Sgt. Paul Holcomb

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The White House is supposed to be handing the program over to the Pentagon. Here's why they're dragging their feet. By Michael Hirsh

It’s been more than a year since incoming CIA Director John Brennan signaled his intention to shift drone warfare to the Pentagon as soon as possible. Brennan, a career spook, was said to be determined to restore the agency to its roots as an espionage factory, not a paramilitary organization. And President Obama endorsed his plan to hand drone warfare over to the military, according to administration officials.

But a funny thing happened on the way back to cloak-and-dagger. According to intelligence experts and some powerful friends of the CIA on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the agency may simply be much better than the military at killing people in a targeted, precise way—and, above all, at ensuring that the bad guys they’re getting are really bad guys. And that distinction has become more important than ever at a time when Obama is intent on moving away from a “permanent war footing” and on restricting targeted killings exclusively to a handful of Qaida-linked senior terrorists.

No public data exist on the accuracy and reliability of the strikes launched by the CIA versus those by the Pentagon, says Bill Roggio of The Long War Journal, who has tracked drone attacks. And the administration has insisted that all targeted killings must meet the same threshold. Obama said in a landmark speech at the National Defense University last year, “Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.” Nonetheless, the Pentagon’s most recent botched hit in Yemen, a territory shared by the CIA and the Defense Department, pointed up problems with the military-run program that have long worried detractors. The strike in December killed a dozen people in an 11-vehicle convoy that tribal leaders later said was part of a wedding procession.

In extraordinarily blunt but little-noted remarks last year about the covert programs, Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, worried that the Pentagon simply incurs too much “collateral damage” and too often acts on bad intelligence. While the CIA exercises “patience and discretion,” she said, “the military program has not done that nearly as well.… That causes me concern.”

Some intelligence experts insist the key difference is tradecraft, especially the “long intelligence tail”—an extensive dossier justifying action—the agency insists on compiling on potential targets before they are hit. “Because of the blowback that’s occurring, the agency is extremely cautious in terms of its intelligence justification,” says Philip Giraldi, a former CIA counterterrorism official. “They’re being very, very careful.” CIA officials tend to collect human and electronic intelligence for longer periods on the ground, and they use on-the-ground assets to help identify and mark targets.

The military, by contrast, is focused more broadly on its traditional mission of force protection, with looser rules of engagement and fewer worries about justifying its actions to Congress, which the CIA is required to do under Title 50 of the National Security Act. “The military is always driven by protection of forces,” says Giraldi, as opposed to the usually small-scale tracking of senior terrorists that the CIA specializes in. “They are seeing a different kind of target, and they are tending for that reason to be more proactive than the agency would be. They see a threat over the horizon, and they’re going to whack it.”

Yet the president has increasingly expressed a preference for less whacking—lethal force—and more nuanced ways of dealing with potential enemies. Administration officials have grown much more mindful of warnings that the anger and potential radicalization of local populations arising from collateral damage could outweigh any success coming out of the drone programs. This is especially true as new jihadist splinter groups emerge in Syria and other chaotic parts of the Middle East that may not now have designs on U.S. targets but could, with sufficient motivation, buy into a new anti-American narrative.

Perhaps that is why there has apparently been little pushback in the administration on the halting moves to check the CIA out of the killing business. Still, the administration says Obama is determined to continue the transition, and is putting in place new policy standards and procedures for targeted killing. “The plan is to transition to these standards and procedures over time, in a careful, coordinated, and deliberate manner,” says National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. “I’m not going to speculate on how long the transition will take, but we’re going to ensure that it’s done right and not rushed.” 

On Capitol Hill, some legislators are pushing the Pentagon to certify that U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which conducts the military strikes, can match the CIA’s capabilities and targeting methodology before the shift to the Defense Department goes forward.

Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported that Congress is using a secret provision in a spending bill to block Obama’s plan to shift control of the U.S. drone campaign to the military.

Part of the dispute may be about turf, because neither the CIA nor the Pentagon wants to lose funding. In his written answers to the Senate Intelligence Committee before his confirmation, Brennan said targets are picked “on a case-by-case basis through a coordinated interagency process” involving the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department, and other agencies. But, in fact, behind the scenes the CIA has not always cooperated in sharing the vetting process, especially in Pakistan, intelligence experts say.

In addition, the CIA operates only outside declared war zones, such as in Pakistan or Yemen. But some experts remain puzzled about why the CIA and the Pentagon maintain different thresholds for action. “Why can’t the CIA do what it’s designed to do, which is to gather intelligence and then hand it over to the military, which is supposed to kill the bad guys?” Roggio asks.

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