Hostage Deaths Renew Debate on Role of CIA in Drone Operations

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

The news that a CIA-led drone strike killed two hostages in Pakistan in January may serve as a catalyst to shift some operations of the controversial program from the CIA to the Defense Department, a panel of experts said April 24.

Stephen Vladeck, a professor at American University Washington College of Law, said the reason the CIA conducted this strike in the first place was because of an agreement between the United States and Pakistan, which stipulates that all attacks in Pakistan be kept secret.

“So long as that agreement remains in place, there are both legal, practical and bureaucratic reasons why it’s going to be a heck of a lot of easier for CIA to carry out strikes in Pakistan than DoD. Not because DoD can’t conduct covert action, but because they’re not set up for that quite as well,” he said during a panel discussion on drone warfare at the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C. based think tank.

However, because of the strike, in which two hostages — American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto — were killed, drone missions in other countries will likely be carried out by the Defense Department from now on, he said.

“It’s going to be DoD now increasingly everywhere else, Somalia, Yemen … and North Africa,” he said. “But Pakistan is still going to be CIA for the time being.”

In the past, there has been pushback against the CIA coordinating drone strikes because of its convert nature, resulting in a lack of oversight. CIA Director John Brennan and President Obama have both said they intend to move operations to the Defense Department, but whether that has happened is unclear because of a lack of transparency, said Rachel Stohl, a senior associate at the Stimson Center.

“Because of the lack of the information, we don’t know if any of that shift has happened. What we know is that in this particular case, all evidence points to this being a CIA operation,” she said.

During an April 23 speech, Obama said the United States was unaware that the two hostages were present at the targeted al-Qaida compound. “It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur,” he said.

However, the lack of clear intelligence suggests that the attack may have been a “signature strike,” Vladeck said. Such strikes go after targets who are unidentified, but are exhibiting suspicious behavior. He noted that Obama has previously said that strikes are only executed if there is “near certainty” that there will be no civilian casualties.

“What we learned about yesterday seems inconsistent with what we’ve been told,” Vladeck said. “I don’t know how you could be nearly certain there would be no civilian causalities if you don’t know who you’re striking.”

In aStimson Center reportreleased last summer, the organization’s task force on U.S. drone policy urged the government to move drone operations from the CIA to the Defense Department. Currently, the two organizations conduct their own drone operations, which can result in a lack of oversight, it said.

“Parallel CIA and military UAV programs are, at best, duplicative and inefficient. At worst, the existence of parallel programs makes oversight more difficult and increases the risk of error and arbitrariness, since the CIA and military may have different standards for evaluating intelligence and identifying appropriate targets,” it said.
Stohl said that the CIA has a vital role in helping with drone strikes, but they should not be the ones executing them.

“I would hope that the CIA should not be in the business of conducting these kinds of wars. They have an intelligence purpose to serve, a very important one, that would allow DoD to perhaps have the information that it requires to conduct its strikes more successfully,” she said.

Vladeck noted that the Defense Department is perceived to be more even tempered than the CIA, particularly with signature strikes. It has been suggested in some circles that there is an institutional reluctance by the Defense Department to carry them out, whether that be a legal, moral or historical opposition, he said.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Policy, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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