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Exactly What Targeted Killing Duties Are Shifting from CIA to DOD?

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Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 6:31 PM

Lawfarers are by now steeped in this news: the White House apparently intends to diminish the CIA’s responsibility for drone strikes, and to transfer that responsibility, over time, to the Department of Defense.  That’s gist of Dan Klaidman’s recent reporting, which Jack and Matt earlier discussed.  Both explain why the move might not—despite expectations—usher in a bonanza of additional transparency.

But exactly what does the CIA-to-DOD shift encompass?  According to Mark Ambinder’s recent coverage, the Air Force flies the CIA’s drones.  And Air Force personnel, apparently employing CIA-supplied targeting information, also push the buttons that launch the CIA drones’ Hellfire missiles. Thus, as Jack noted, the Department of Defense plays a key role in the program already; in this regard, it’s not obvious what a transfer will accomplish.

To that, we can add this afternoon’s dispatch from the New York Times’ Scott Shane and Mark Mazetti.  According to their piece, the CIA’s duties will be preserved, with respect to drone strikes in Pakistan:

Under the proposal, two American officials said, the Defense Department would gradually assume control over drone operations outside Pakistan. The officials said that Mr. Obama, who has spoken publicly about his desire to make the program more transparent, had not yet made a decision about the proposal. Because it would probably leave drone operations in Pakistan under the C.I.A., the practical impact of such a move in the short term would appear to be limited.

General Cartwright’s comments came amid a debate inside the Obama administration about bringing greater transparency to drone operations. But the impact of shifting drone operations to the Pentagon — a possibility first reported this week by the Web site The Daily Beast — would be blunted because a vast majority of the C.I.A.’s strikes have been carried out in Pakistan. The C.I.A. operates on its own there, having carried out 365 strikes, by the count of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, compared with about 45 in Yemen and a handful in Somalia.

Officials say it is unlikely that the strikes in Pakistan, where the numbers have come down steadily since 2010, will be handed off to the military, a move that might further inflame popular anger at the American intrusion. Rather, the C.I.A. will probably keep control as the number of strikes continues to decline.

So: the executive branch plans to move drone operations from the CIA to DOD—whatever that may mean, given that the DOD already flies the CIA’s drones and controls the drones’ weapons.  And in any event, the handover also won’t touch operations in drone-centric Pakistan, where the CIA’s longstanding role (such as it is) will go unchanged.  I sense an evolving story, one which likely will become clearer over time.  Until that happens, though, it is hard to know what the interagency transition really will look like.

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