Although the U.S. has largely held a monopoly on targeted drone killings and was able to keep those operations out of public view for many years, recent developments are creating a need for more transparency in the U.S. drone program. The targeting of U.S. citizens abroad, which has also sparked fear of targeting U.S. citizens on American soil, has increased pressure from growing public and Congressional scrutiny for legal justification. Pressures are also mounting against the U.S. internationally, due to the friction created between the U.S. and other countries, particularly Pakistan, from the increase in civilian casualties caused by U.S. and NATO drone strikes. The study being conducted by the U.N. surrounding civilian casualties will likely bring further pressure from the international community for greater transparency of the U.S. drone program. Furthermore, as other countries begin to implement their own targeted killing drone programs, such as China and Russia, the U.S. can use this opportunity to set the standard for the international community and influence global guidelines on drone policy. In order for the U.S. to continue the use of drones as a part of its warfare, including the war on terrorism, the administration must take steps to institutionalize the program, by refining its standards and creating more transparency.
Both the CIA and the U.S. military currently manage their own separate drone programs with the purpose of carrying out targeted drone strikes. However, only the CIA program is officially considered to be a “covert” mission, meaning that it is deniable under the law. The military’s program is clandestine, but not covert, and therefore not deniable under the law. While the Obama administration maintains that the CIA drone targeting is legally justified under the U.S. Constitution, the covert status of the operations under the CIA have shielded them from information requests made through the Freedom of Information Act.
Drone strikes conducted by the CIA have the advantage of targeting decisions being made within the CIA, with little or no input from other agencies. While President Obama is involved in some decisions, he does not sign off on all of them. This allows the CIA significant autonomy and flexibility on deciding when, where, and how to conduct the strikes. Intelligence on targets can be acted upon quickly without interference from outside the CIA, which could otherwise be affected or stopped by regulatory oversight. Additionally, since intelligence is the main focus of the CIA, the quality of intelligence on targets is considered to be much higher than is likely compared with the military’s capabilities.
Another advantage of keeping drone strikes as a covert operation is that they are not being conducted by the U.S. military, and therefore can be denied as a type of military combat or infringement on sovereignty. This is particularly important in countries where the U.S. does not have forces on the ground, such as Pakistan, and soon Afghanistan. Once U.S. forces have pulled out of Afghanistan, the use of CIA drones would still allow the U.S. to keep a light footprint there in order to target Al Qaeda operatives (and possibly other threats to the Afghan government). While the CIA is compelled to notify Congress of its intelligence activities, it is not required to seek input on targeted drone strikes. Therefore, while the covert nature of the CIA’s drone strikes has significant advantages for U.S. national security and fighting the war on terror, it does not lend to the oversight and transparency which are being sought by the American public, Congress, and the international community.
Shifting the targeted drone program entirely to the military has the potential to toughen the standards for drone strikes, strengthen the accountability of the program, and increase transparency. Transferring the program to the Pentagon would bring it under the oversight of the House and Senate Armed Services committees. With this oversight, the vetting of targeted strikes will be subjected to interagency input, adding an extra layer of accountability. Furthermore, the Pentagon may be subject to budget threats from Congress if the military withholds information or acts contrary to oversight committee authority. From the international community’s standpoint, drone strike operations under the military are likely to be considered more acceptable because the military considers itself to be bound by international law and the laws of war. Finally, transferring the program to the military may potentially increase transparency to the public by the fact that the Pentagon is subject to requests by the citizen Freedom of Information Act.
Ensuring oversight is dependent on the program within the Defense Department to which the drone program is transferred. If the program is transferred to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), less oversight and transparency can be expected, as the JSOC operates under different rules than the rest of the military. The JSOC is equally as secretive as, if not more so, the CIA, and is therefore less likely to share information about its drone strikes. Furthermore, the JSOC is not required to report targeted attacks to Congress, which could result in less oversight than provided under the CIA program. While the administration should aim to strengthen its imagine at home and abroad by improving the standards and transparency of the drone strike program, the best option is to incorporate the CIA’s program into current the current military drone program.