POLITICS

In Classified Corners Of Defense Bill, Lawmakers Back Drone Overhaul

06/10/2015 01:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015
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WASHINGTON -- A classified annex to the National Defense Authorization Act seeks to further enable the White House’s long-promised transition to end its secret CIA drone program and shift control of the targeted killing operation to the Pentagon.

Speaking on background to discuss the classified addition, a U.S. official confirmed to The Huffington Post on Wednesday that the annex was in the works, and was being shepherded through the NDAA process by the Senate Armed Services panel and its chairman, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has long advocated for taking the drone trigger from CIA hands.

The language would not necessarily expedite the transition, but would bolster the administration’s intent to do so.

“The language is not as specific as that,” the official said when asked if the annex would clear the way for a faster transition. “But it’s the intent and that [the transition] should be worked out … it’s not just a simple transfer. There are additional questions. But those can be overcome.”

The classified annex, if successfully added to the act, underscores years of frustration from drone critics over the Obama administration’s slow trudge to shift the program under full control of the Defense Department.

That effort has supposedly been in the works since 2013, but has made little headway, due to both operational and legislative hurdles.

The challenge of integrating the intelligence-gathering capabilities of the CIA with the military elements of the Defense Department, combined with fragile relations with countries overseas where drone strikes are carried out, has made for a bogged down process, hampered by both bureaucratic jostling domestically between spies and soldiers, and blurry international formalities.

The Pentagon declined to address the annex on the record.

"It would not be appropriate to discuss classified information associated with the NDAA," a defense official said.

Questions over the White House’s use of drones has come under fierce scrutiny as of late, reaching a fever pitch after April’s tragic news that an errant CIA drone strike intended for Islamic militant targets had inadvertently killed two Western hostages -- including an American -- in Pakistan this January. The tragedy has amplified long-running questions over whether the spies should be pulling the drone trigger.

Currently, the administration walks a thin line in its controversial use of the targeted killings, using both the CIA and Pentagon to carry out their use overseas. The CIA runs the program’s covert arm, which allows the U.S. government to deny the operations, and the Pentagon runs an overt and marginally more transparent one. Critics and military officials have questioned for years whether the agency, which is not traditionally a paramilitary body, should be running a lethal operation overseas.

A cross-aisle congressional coalition of the agency’s defenders, though, has long backed the spies’ use of the targeted killings, saying the program is thoroughly overseen by the Hill’s Intelligence Committees and uses only the utmost care and precision in carrying out the strikes.

Those defenders have significantly complicated the White House’s promise to take the drone trigger from the CIA’s hands, tacking their own classified annex onto a 2014 federal spending measure that hampered the Obama administration’s ability to make the change.

That 2014 effort to secretly legislate the drone program came under controversy at the time from McCain, who was furious that the upper chamber hadn’t been made fully aware of the classified annex’s specifics.

“How did most of us become aware of this major policy change? By reading this morning’s Washington Post -- that’s how,” McCain fumed on the Senate floor just before the chamber took up the funding bill. “This is outrageous and it should not have happened. While there may be differing opinions on who should control drone counterterrorism operations, we should be able to debate these differences in the committees of jurisdiction and eventually on the Senate floor. The fact that a major national security policy decision is going to be authorized in this bill without debate or authorization is unacceptable and should not be the way we legislate on such important national security issues.”

It was unclear Wednesday whether McCain intends to take his own classified annex to the floor as the NDAA works its way through the Senate process, and he declined to comment.

Lawmakers suggested quietly to HuffPost this week that the Armed Services chair was at least communicating the effort to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Members of both the Intelligence and Armed Services panels were seen leaving a classified briefing Wednesday afternoon. Members confirmed the meeting was regarding the drone program, but citing the meeting's classification, declined to discuss it further.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the annex, or whether the policy change had been discussed with anyone in the Oval Office.

This story has been updated to include the Pentagon's response and a meeting held by congressional members Wednesday.

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