The Obama administration is considering whether to transfer more overseas counterterrorism operations to the Defense Department, including a secretive drone program run by the Central Intelligence Agency, according to three officials familiar with the deliberations.
The discussions, two of the officials said, are part of a larger review of U.S. counterterrorism initiatives that includes questions about whether such efforts have relied too heavily on drone attacks, night raids on suspected terrorists and other military actions. All of the officials asked not to be identified in discussing intelligence matters.
The move would potentially bring more transparency to the secretive drone program, which uses unmanned aircraft to kill alleged enemy combatants in countries from Pakistan to Yemen. The drone strikes have come under increased scrutiny from diplomats, human rights groups and U.S. lawmakers from both parties concerned about the legality of targeted killings.
President Barack Obama pledged in last month’s State of the Union address to engage with Congress and the public about how his administration was targeting, detaining and prosecuting terrorists. “I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way,” he said.
Shifting control over some -- but not all -- strikes by remotely piloted vehicles from the CIA to the military would impose tighter and more transparent controls on such attacks and make it easier to coordinate them with the governments in target countries, one of the officials said.
Some military, intelligence and State Department officials have argued that the emphasis on so-called kinetic actions has come at the expense of strengthening local governments, improving economic conditions, reducing official corruption and taking other steps to undermine support for extremist groups, the officials said.
The debate has been fueled in part by what a fourth official described as a critical report on counterterrorism policies by the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. The official asked to not be identified because the report, completed last year, remains classified.
The panel, whose co-chairmen at the time were former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel -- now Obama’s defense secretary -- and former Oklahoma Democratic Senator David Boren, found that the U.S. has focused too narrowly on military action at the expense of broader intelligence activities and responding to other threats to U.S. interests.
The U.S. drone program emerged as an obstacle during Senate consideration of John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director. While serving as Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, Brennan was the drone policy’s architect and principal overseer.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, staged a 13-hour filibuster delaying Brennan’s confirmation vote and seeking a pledge from the Obama administration that it wouldn’t use drones to target Americans on U.S. soil without an imminent threat.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sent Paul a letter the next day, March 7. “It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: ‘Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?’” Holder wrote. “The answer to that question is no.”
Brennan, 57, was confirmed in a 63-34 vote later that day.
Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, had also demanded more information from the Obama administration about the program’s legal rationale during hearings on Brennan’s nomination. Wyden has pledged to pursue the issue.
Lawmakers’ and human-rights groups’ questions about the use of drones surged in the aftermath of the 2011 killing in Yemen of the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, and an alleged al-Qaeda propagandist Samir Khan, 25, a Saudi-born American of Pakistani heritage. Two weeks later, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old, Denver-born son, Abdulrahman, was killed in a suspected drone strike in Yemen.
During his confirmation hearing last month before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Brennan said al-Awlaki was involved in numerous plots to kill Americans, including a 2010 attempt to blow up two U.S.-bound cargo planes with bombs hidden inside laser-printer cartridges.
Brennan also said the White House has an “approval process before any action is contemplated, including those actions that might involve the use of lethal force.”
The use of drones to combat militants in Pakistan has provoked complaints from that country’s government. Last month, the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., Sherry Rehman, called such targeted killings a “direct violation of our sovereignty” and said they produce more militants than they eliminate.