Targeted Killing: Drones

Drone Strikes and the CIA vs JSOC Quality-Control Comparison

By Robert Chesney
Monday, May 12, 2014, 10:15 AM

For those who are still wondering why the Obama administration has not followed through on the idea of shifting all responsibility for drone strikes from CIA to JSOC, this story from Ken Dilanian of the L.A. Times provides some useful context. Building on an account about a CIA-JSOC disagreement regarding the sufficiency of the intelligence behind a recent drone strike, Dilanian highlights the salience of quality control for both host countries and congressional overseers:

To some members of Congress, the Yemen strike shows something else: The Joint Special Operations Command is not as careful as the CIA and shouldn't be given responsibility for drone killings.

Yemen's government apparently agrees. It demanded that the command stop drone strikes in the country, but let the CIA continue. The CIA launched three strikes last month that killed as many as 67 people.

"The amount of time that goes into a strike package at CIA is longer and more detailed than a strike package put together" at the Defense Department, said the same congressional aide. "Their standards of who is a combatant are different. Standards for collateral damage are different."

Pentagon officials dispute that, saying that the joint command follows the policy President Obama disclosed in a speech a year ago. It bars drone strikes unless there is a "near certainty" that civilians won't be killed.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, recently inserted language in the classified annex of a spending bill to limit attempts to shift the drone program from the CIA to the military.

Of course this quoted passage also contains the provocative claim that CIA and JSOC may have different definitions for who counts as a targetable combatant.  That claim comes from an unnamed legislative staffer, and may or may not be accurate.  If there is something to it, I suspect it may have more to do with differences between CIA and JSOC with respect to what the relevant indicia of combatant status might be, what the quantum or degree of reliability of the evidence needs to be, or both--as opposed to high-level disagreement about the actual legal definitions themselves.   At any rate, if there is such disagreement, it would certainly be interesting to know the terms of the debate.