US Drone Program to Remain in Shadows as Obama Abandons Key Reform Promise

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US Drone Program to Remain in Shadows as Obama Abandons Key Reform Promise

Blueprint for a new transition plan involves a dual command structure—giving the Defense Department and the CIA joint control of drone strikes

Gregory Feitshans, chief engineer at the Air Force Research Laboratory, demonstrates a system being developed that would allow a single person to control multiple remote piloted aircraft at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. May 13, 2015. (Photo: DoD News Features/flickr/cc)

U.S. President Barack Obama has made a sharp U-turn on his two-year-old promise to move the CIA's controversial drone program out of the "legal shadows," according to new reporting by the Huffington Post

In a May 2013 speech at the National Defense University, Obama vowed to move the "out of the covert shadows and into the relative sunlight of the Defense Department," writes HuffPo reporter Ali Watkins, who notes that "[d]rone critics greeted the announcement with cautious optimism, hoping that a Pentagon-run drone program would be more transparent and allow more oversight of targeted killings."

But sources tell Watkins that "[b]ehind closed doors, all of that has changed."

On June 10, the HuffPo reports, administration officials gave a classified briefing to lawmakers laying out a blueprint for a new transition plan that would involve a dual command structure—giving the Defense Department and the CIA joint control of drone strikes. That blueprint, unnamed officials told Watkins, is close to complete. 

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The story continues:

The same factor that caused Obama to want to take the drone program away from the CIA may be part of the reason the agency is holding onto it: As covert operations, the agency's drone strikes aren't subject to the same international laws and domestic oversight as the Pentagon's. The CIA can more easily operate in countries such as Pakistan, where local governments may not necessarily sign off on U.S. strikes.

But the demise of the president's plan may have less to do with geopolitics and more to do with the government's internal power struggles.

"This is the classic example of the bureaucracies resisting even the president of the United States," the first official said. "They've reached some unholy Faustian bargain... it's unworkable."

This isn't the only aspect of drone policy reform that appears to have been abandoned or ignored.

Earlier this month, it was revealed that the CIA did not know in advance that al-Qaeda’s leader in Yemen was among the suspected militants targeted in a lethal drone strike at the beginning of June.

As the Washington Post pointed out, "The disclosure indicates that the CIA continues to employ a controversial targeting method that the administration had signaled in 2013 that it intended to phase out, particularly in Yemen, which U.S. officials have said is subject to more stringent rules on the use of lethal force than in Pakistan."

Responding to the announcement in April that a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan had killed two al Qaeda hostages, an American and an Italian, the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer underscored why efforts to increase transparency and reform the targeted killing program are critical:

These and other recent strikes in which civilians were killed make clear that there is a significant gap between the relatively stringent standards the government says it’s using and the standards that are actually being used. It would of course be easier to assess this gap if the government routinely released information about individual drone strikes. Unfortunately, the president’s stated commitment to transparency can’t be squared with the secrecy that still shrouds virtually every aspect of the government’s drone program.

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