Is the CIA Getting Out of the Drone Business? There’s Less Than Meets the Eye

Five reasons why the transfer of control from the CIA to the Pentagon won't diminish the use of drones.

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U.S. Air Force / Reuters

U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator.

I have a feature in this week’s issue of TIME on the way Barack Obama‘s drone war has rapidly shifted from a campaign bragging point to a political headache–not to mention a potential strategic national security problem–and what Congress and the White House might do about it. Now comes one answer: the White House is planning to transfer the CIA‘s drone operations to Pentagon control.

It’s an interesting development, one that suggests a desire on Obama’s part to at least partly move the drone campaign from what is widely perceived as a shadowy, extra-legal status. But there’s probably less here than meets the eye, for a few reasons.

One, there’s little sign that this plan–which the new CIA director, John Brennan, hinted at during his confirmation hearing–means fewer drone strikes in total. This seems to be about who chooses the targets, flies the missions and pulls the trigger. There have been some recent indications that the pace of drone strikes is slowing. But this isn’t a plan to scale back the volume of drone attacks. It’s about distribution of duties. Bear in mind that the military already runs its own drone operations; this change would simply enlarge them. It would also free up the CIA to refocus on its traditional intelligence-gathering role. To understand why that’s a priority for Obama and his new CIA director, John Brennan, check out today’s Washington Post story on concerns that the agency’s fixation on al Qaeda has left it with dangerous blind spots around the world.

Two, although it may sound like moving the drone program out of a convert agency (which will not even acknowledge its drones in Pakistan and Yemen) is a step towards transparency, that’s not clear. As former Bush administration national security official Matthew Waxman puts it, “critics often underestimate oversight of CIA activities and overestimate the openness of military operations.” There is a compelling case that drone operations run by the Pentagon face a higher burden to comply with international and domestic law, whereas the CIA has broader freedom to act under murky national security grounds.

Three, the speed and scope of this shift isn’t entirely clear. The Washington Post reports today that “the change could take years and probably would not involve CIA drone operations in Pakistan,” which is no small caveat.

Four, shifting around control of drones doesn’t address some of the most important questions governing their use, many of which I discuss in my story. Are we acting in accordance with domestic and international law, and does Congress need to clarify that law? Does it make sense to create a drone court, in which federal judges could create a check against executive branch decisions to target people for killing? “It’s welcome news that the CIA is getting out of the drone business,” says Dixon Osburn, director of the law and security program at Human Rights First, in a statement.  “But while the decision about which agency has the authority to use lethal force in drones strikes is important, it is equally important that the administration get the law and policy right, and be transparent about governing rules. If we get the rules wrong, any oversight is flawed.”

Finally, while current and former administration officials say Obama and his key advisors have qualms about the drone war and would like to rein it in, this move could have an opposite effect. As Waxman puts it: “[M]oving operations to the Pentagon may modestly improve transparency and compliance with the law but–ironically for drone critics–it may also entrench targeted-killing policy for the long term.” Their masters may be shifting. But our killer drones are here to stay.