While U.S. officials debate who should control armed drone attacks against ISIS, the CIA or the military, the recent terrorist bombings in Brussels shines a spotlight on Washington.
Currently, the CIA flies their unarmed drones only to gather intelligence. That wasn’t always the case. In fact, The Agency targeted terrorists with lethal strikes for years. But President Obama shifted the responsibility for drone attacks against ISIS to the military. They would use their drones to track and kill while the CIA gathered intelligence.
But two high-ranking U.S. officials believe this is a mistake, according to an article by Ken Dilanian of NBC News. Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), are chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. They believe several high-profile terrorists slipped away needlessly because of the policy. The agency drones that found the targets could do nothing more than report their whereabouts. The military, which was tasked with sending strike aircraft, couldn’t get the planes there in time.
Before the Brussels bombing, Burr and Feinstein sent a letter to Obama after getting reports on the squandered opportunities. The details on the number of missed chances were not made specific because the operations are classified. The Senators asked the president to allow the CIA to use their armed drones again to attack future targets.
Burr and Feinstein aren’t the only ones questioning the drone attack policy. Two government officials spoke anonymously due to the classified subject. “The feeling is, why aren’t we using every means at our disposal?” said one. The other official was blunter in his or her appraisal of the situation, saying, “I don’t see why the agency is being hamstrung the way they are in Syria.”
Feinstein also believes the CIA is better than the military at targeted killing. Every CIA drone action is analyzed by her committee staffers. Congressional officials say the military can’t do that with all their drone attacks. As civilian casualties mount, accuracy – or the lack of it – becomes a huge issue.
Obama, however, insists the CIA and the military continue in their specific roles. CIA Director John Brennan agrees. Brennan worked with the president to create the policy.
National Security Council spokesman Ned Price touched on a murky legal issue regarding the policy. “The President has been clear that we must be more transparent about both the basis of our counter-terrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out,” he said. Covert action, like counter-terrorism, would be performed by the CIA. The fight against ISIS is considered a war, however, not a covert action. The two may be similar, but they are governed by different U.S. and international laws.
Some officials suggest a compromise of the sort which would put armed CIA attack drones under temporary military authority. The order to fire would then be given by a military commander, not a civilian.
Other problems besides legal confusion and chain of command issues are surfacing, however.
In a March 17 report by UPI reporter Andrew V. Pestano, the U.S. Air Force needs many more drone operators and fighter pilots.
Gen. Herbert Carlisle told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the USAF needs another 200 drone operators and over 500 pilots. Combat commanders claim they are needed just to complete missions already underway. Carlisle stressed the importance of drones. He said drones “are arming decision makers with intelligence, our warfighters with targets, and our enemies with fear, anxiety, and ultimately their timely end.”
Ideally, the Air Force would like 300 more drone operators. The operators now on duty work long, tiring hours. It stands to reason that accuracy must suffer. Fatigue in both drone operators and fighter pilots drives up the likelihood of tragedy on the ground.
Despite the lack of pilots and drone operators and the squabbling in Washington, drone attacks continue to take out ISIS leaders. Those leaders are quickly replaced. Drone attacks on ISIS are followed by terror attacks on civilians, like those in Paris and Brussels. As long as the terror threat remains and officials believe civilian and U.S. military deaths can be minimized, the drone attacks will likely continue.
[Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images]