President Barack Obama’s reported plan to shift control of armed drone operations from the CIA to the Pentagon has apparently been disrupted by lawmakers who have stepped in to help the CIA stay in the killing business, according to a report from The Washington Post.
The Post’s Greg Miller reported that unnamed US officials told him a “secret provision” was inserted into the “classified annex” of the $1.1 trillion federal budget plan to “restrict the use of any funding to transfer unmanned aircraft or the authority to carry out drone strikes from the CIA to the Pentagon.”
“The provision,” according to Miller, “represents an unusually direct intervention by lawmakers into the way covert operations are run, impeding an administration plan aimed at returning the CIA’s focus to traditional intelligence gathering and possibly bringing more transparency to drone strikes.” He also suggested this reflects “lingering doubts” of some lawmakers that Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) can launch strikes “without hitting the wrong targets and killing civilians.”
On January 15, it was reported that a farmer in Yemen had been killed by a US drone. At least a dozen civilians were killed in Yemen when a US drone attacked a wedding convoy in December. It was the worst drone attack in Yemen’s history and allegedly killed only shepherds and farmers, not “militants.”
But civilian casualties are probably not why the public is getting a glimpse at CIA efforts to maintain the authority to carry out drone strikes. Most likely, this is the result of a turf war between military clandestine services and the CIA.
As Oscar nominee and journalist Jeremy Scahill detailed in his book, Dirty Wars, the CIA has been wary of encroachments by the Pentagon on what it has seen as its mandate post-9/11 to be the “lead agency tracking al Qaeda.” The Obama administration has attempted to end the “CIA-JSOC divide,” but, as JSOC has gained increased support in the “US counterterrorism community,” the conflict has persisted.
Scahill wrote, “As the JSOC-ization of counterterrorism policy spread [under Obama], the CIA was steadily increasing its paramilitary capabilities and expanding its drone strikes and target lists. In a way, it resembled a mini turf war between JSOC and CIA over who would mow through the kill lists faster.”
Colonel Lang, who has spent his career working with both Special Operations Forces and CIA, including operations in Yemen, told Jeremy, “The Agency has taken advantage of every criticism of the performance of JSOC as an argument to regain control over covert operations. And added, “The competition between the military clandestine services and the CIA is greater than ever before.”
In August 2010, the CIA was seeking to maintain advantage by maintaining control over JSOC forces. Not only would this help the CIA continue its dominance but it would allow “elite US hunter-killer teams” to operate “far more freely in Yemen without consent of Yemen’s government.”
Miller reported in November of last year that officials, including CIA director John Brennan, were meeting to discuss how to “merge key aspects of the CIA’s drone operations with those of JSOC.” That makes it clear that the CIA does not want to give up involvement.
There have been “technical snags,” excuses for not relinquishing control:
…Despite their overlapping “orbits” in Yemen, the CIA and JSOC employ different surveillance equipment on their drone fleets. They also rely on separate and sometimes incompatible communications networks to transmit video feeds and assemble intelligence from multiple streams in the moments before a strike.
Brennan met twice with senior officials at the Pentagon this month “to better integrate CIA and DOD counterterrorism efforts”…
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, seems to have given this “unusual direct intervention” full support. She has previously said:
We watch the intelligence aspect of the drone program…literally dozens of inspections. Following the intelligence, watching the Agency exercise patience and discretion, specifically to prevent collateral damage. The military program has not done that nearly as well. I think that’s fact. I think we even hit our own base once. So, I would have to really be convinced that the military would carry it out that way.
This incident cited is probably pure fabrication. Micah Zenko of Foreign Policy wrote that it was unclear what she could be referencing when alleging there had been an incident involving JSOC.
So, let’s consider this in a much larger context. Let’s understand this as a power struggle amongst players in the US deep state.
Kade Crockford wrote an excellent post at her blog describing the “deep state,” which is essentially secret military and police powers that have overcome public democratic institutions in a country. It is a shadow network of military and intelligence agencies, along with state bureaucracy, that happen to function as the “ultimate arbiter of power.”
The CIA has historically been the most dominant force within the deep state, capable of operating autonomously without control and public scrutiny.
It has thrived on secrecy, which lawmakers are reinforcing by including this provision in the classified annex. And, as Crockford summarized:
For readers interested to learn in detail about how the secrecy governing CIA operations has enabled the agency to waste taxpayer dollars in fruitless, dangerous, and murderous missions, read Tim Weiner’s book “A Legacy of Ashes”. It dispels the myth that the agency is a James Bond-style, suave and effective spook organization. Instead, the CIA record is revealed as a series of embarrassments, disappointments, and shameful crimes that came back to bite the people of the United States and the world. Like the CIA’s more recent work, including the horrors of the rendition program, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, and its monstrous ‘signature strike’ drone “crowd killings,” none of those operations would have been possible had it not been for the shroud of secrecy covering all things CIA.
When evidence of its operations cannot be hidden — for example with the CIA’s drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere — the deep state ensures that evidence of its involvement remains secret, if only technically. While we may know because of outside evidence that the CIA engages in crowd killings and the bombings of funerals and rescue workers, we cannot take meaningful legal action in the United States against these crimes if we cannot see the legal memos that authorize these kinds of strikes, or the records describing their execution. Secrecy protects illegality.
Historically, JSOC does not have the kind of power in the deep state that the CIA does. It was started in 1980 whereas was started in 1947, sixty-six years ago.
At the core of this power struggle are CIA officials who do not want to give up their role in the global assassination policy Obama has embraced and robustly expanded. There may be “mistakes” or “errors” cited to show JSOC is dysfunctional and cannot handle sole power over drone operations, but that is not the issue.
JSOC is just as capable of killing as the CIA. Both will continue to fight each other for the glory of being able to be the lead agency in charge of going after targets on kill lists. And we’ll hear about it when tensions are especially hot and anonymous officials leak details to journalists like Greg Miller at The Washington Post.
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