Obama Administration On Plan To Take Away CIA's Drones: Never Mind, Keep 'Em

06/24/2015 10:00 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015
JEWEL SAMAD via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has abandoned his two-year push to consolidate his controversial targeted killing program under Pentagon control and has spent the past several months finalizing a new plan that would give the Defense Department and the CIA joint control of drone strikes, sources tell The Huffington Post.

Two years ago, Obama promised during a speech at the National Defense University that he would move the CIA's controversial drone program out of the covert shadows and into the relative sunlight of the Defense Department. Drone 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.

The CIA and its allies on the congressional intelligence committees resisted Obama's proposal. But until recently, the Obama administration was still publicly pushing forward, saying as recently as April that it wanted to take the trigger out of the CIA's hands for good.

Behind closed doors, all of that has changed. On June 10, administration officials gave a classified briefing to lawmakers laying out a blueprint for a new transition plan that would involve a dual command structure. That blueprint is all but complete, U.S. officials briefed on it said.

"About 95 percent," one U.S. official who attended the briefing told HuffPost. "The 5 percent is details."

The White House's stark departure from its promises isn't sitting well with everyone. Although the CIA and Pentagon have both backed the new plan, lawmakers aren't convinced that the two bureaucracies -- each of which has long charged that the other isn't qualified to manage the drone program -- can finally cooperate.

"[The White House] was almost laughed out of the room," said another official in the June 10 briefing. "It was just totally unworkable. It was dual command... that's not what the president's direction was."

The officials who agreed to speak with HuffPost requested anonymity to discuss the still-classified plan.

The first source said that although the White House publicly implied it wanted to end the CIA's drone program, that was never a realistic objective.

"It's more centrally operated than they may have originally intended, but the intention was always integration," the source said.

The White House declined to comment, but one administration official suggested the president had never intended to end the CIA program entirely.

"The broader point is we're not going to shut out any part of the United States government," that administration source said. "Especially one that has the expertise and experiences that is useful across a range of means."

That includes analytical and operational capabilities, the official continued.

Control of the drone program has long been a tense issue in Washington. The notoriously independent CIA is infamous for its tendency to not play nice with others, and suspicions abound in the beltway that the agency frequently trash talks the Defense Department, charging that they're not as precise nor careful as the CIA. The Pentagon's backers, meanwhile, have long insisted that soldiers, not spies, should be in charge of paramilitary operations, and CIA critics have argued that the agency's program is unchecked, citing the errant strike that took out two Western hostages, including an American, in Pakistan in January.

The CIA declined to comment for this story. The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment.

On Capitol Hill, the CIA's defenders -- many of them on the Senate Intelligence Committee -- have lauded the agency's precision and care in conducting strikes, and insisted the CIA's oversight is second to none. Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), has consistently pushed to have the program moved fully to Pentagon control -- and under that panel's oversight jurisdiction.

The CIA's boosters succeeded in stymying the White House's plans last year. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who was then serving as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, prevented the White House from using federal dollars to end the CIA drone program by tacking a classified amendment onto a massive 2014 federal spending bill. Her measure passed, and further slowed the already slow trudge toward an overhaul.

This year, McCain has led an effort to insert his own language into the National Defense Authorization Act -- the annual must-pass defense spending bill -- that would bolster the president's plan to overhaul the program.

But a third U.S. official familiar with both McCain's proposal and the June briefing said the language is fairly benign. McCain, who has long championed shifting the program to Pentagon control, was forced to water down his measure to get his colleagues on the Intelligence Committee to support it.

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."

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