Is the CIA Better Than the Military at Drone Killings?

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

An MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, flies a combat mission over southern Afghanistan.  The MQ-1 is deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom providing interdiction and armed reconnaissance against critical, perishable targets. 
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Michael Hirsh
Feb. 25, 2014, midnight

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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