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Pentagon May Take Over CIA's Drone Program


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We're learning this morning of a possible change in the American use of unmanned drones. The change, if it happens, would affect who gives the orders and possibly how much the public learns.

MONTAGNE: A senior U.S. official tells NPR the administration may now move the drone program away from control of the Central International Agency. It would be under the control of the Pentagon, which alters the rules under which drones would be used.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Gjelten is reporting this story, and he's in our studios. Tom, good morning.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, let's remember, we're talking about strikes in places like Pakistan, Yemen, some other places. They've hit people of many nationalities, including American citizens. Why did the CIA control these drone strikes in the first place?

GJELTEN: Well, Steve, it's all about secrecy and flexibility. Because an operation carried out by the CIA, under U.S. law, is not subject to the same restrictions as a traditional military operation carried out by the Pentagon. They're actually under two different titles of the U.S. code. A military operation is subject to all the international laws of war. It's subject to formal agreements with other countries.

A CIA operation, on the other hand - an intelligence operation, technically - can be covert. It can be denied. The president can authorize the CIA to carry out the operation outside the normal...

INSKEEP: Meaning you can fire in Yemen or Pakistan whether the government says you can do it or not, if you're the CIA, basically.

GJELTEN: If you're the CIA, it's covert. You can basically go where you want. The president can authorize the CIA to do it. It doesn't have to go through the military chain of command.

MONTAGNE: Why move command of drone strikes at this moment in time to the Pentagon?

GJELTEN: Well, Renee, remember that basically Congress has gotten fed up with the way this program is operating. Remember, when John Brennan was up to be confirmed as the next CIA director, he faced a lot of criticism from Republicans, as well as Democrats, over the secrecy of the drone program. Members demanded it be carried out a lot more transparently. And, of course, Senator Rand Paul waged a 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor protesting the drone program, as it's currently run. So there were a lot of political reasons for this.

But there are other factors as well, Renee. Just quickly. To be brutal, they've actually killed most of the really bad guys they were after. Lately, these drone strikes have been hitting second or third-tier al-Qaida operatives. So, in a sense, there's been diminishing returns. Second, John Brennan, at the CIA, wants the get the CIA out of the military business. And finally, I think what we're seeing here is that drones are not the esoteric weapon that they used to be. This is now conventional warfare. Shifting it to the Pentagon demonstrates that this is the way wars are going to be fought.

INSKEEP: OK. Now, let's remember, the official is telling you this may happen. And it is not something that is definitely going to happen. If it were to happen, that control of drones would go from the CIA to the Pentagon. How soon would that happen, Tom?

GJELTEN: Well, he would happen gradually, Steve. A senior U.S. official tells us this would be a phased approach with the control shifting step-by-step, from the CIA to the Pentagon. It's important to emphasize, as you say, this hasn't happened yet. It's only, in the official's word, a distinct possibility. The plan would be to do it on a country-by-country basis.

It would probably be easiest to do it first in Yemen, because the drone strikes there are already being carried out jointly by the CIA and the Pentagon.

MONTAGNE: Well, we hear so much about Pakistan. Just quickly, what difference might it make in that country?

GJELTEN: Well, that would be more of a significant change there, Renee, because that's been a CIA program all along.

INSKEEP: Is it possible, Tom Gjelten, that there could be pushback to this possible change from the people who were responsible for counterterrorism operations, and who may have well-liked the secrecy and the flexibility they've had for the last decade or so?

GJELTEN: Sure. When you get used to that kind of operation, you don't want to give it up. But I think it's important to remember that there is now a lot of experience in the U.S. government running a drone program. And I think there's a sense that the operators can now make drone warfare work under most any legal or organizational construct.

INSKEEP: Bottom-line, Tom Gjelten, for citizens in general, does this change - if it happens - mean that the public will learn more about the drone strikes when they happen and why they happen?

GJELTEN: It certainly should, because CIA operations, as they say, are, by their nature, highly secret. This would bring it out of the closet.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: You bet.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten, reporting this morning - according to a senior U.S. official - that the U.S. may move its drone program away from control of the CIA and under control of the Pentagon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.