An MQ-9 Reaper is prepared for a mission at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Responsibility for drone strikes has been shifted from the CIA to the Defense Department. (Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The top House Armed Services Committee Democrat on Thursday applauded a White House plan to shift America’s armed drone program from the CIA to the Pentagon.
In a landmark speech in late May, President Barack Obama signaled he had quietly shifted lead responsibility for its controversial armed drone program from the CIA to the Defense Department.
HASC Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., on Thursday described the lethal-strike program as something of a mixed bag.
On one hand, it has played a big role in “significantly degrading” al-Qaida’s core leadership in Pakistan and its upstart wing in Yemen. It also allows U.S. officials to target al-Qaida operatives without inserting large numbers of ground troops, he said.
On the other hand, civilian deaths from drone strikes and a shaky legal foundation for them has hindered U.S. efforts to curry favor in the Muslim world.
But the administration’s CIA-to-DoD shift “should bring more transparency” to the highly secretive drone program, Smith said during an event here at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The drone program has undeniably been effective,” Smith said. But “drones are not a perfect instrument, as they are sometimes described.”
For instance, though munitions used in drone strikes are among the most precise in the American arsenal, Smith said, “it’s war, and in war, civilians suffer.” He credited former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, in a Wednesday speech, for making that point.
Still, Smith defended the U.S. program, saying “we try to minimize [civilian deaths] as much as possible.”
The White House’s shift of the program to the military is a landmark change in America’s 12-year fight against al-Qaida and raises new legal and operational questions while solving others.
Obama’s decision appears to have ended months-long debate about whether the CIA should remain the lead organization for planning and conducting aerial strikes from remotely piloted aircraft.
The move hands the military control of most drone strikes while returning the CIA to its core missions of collecting and analyzing intelligence.
Smith called on the administration to better explain why targeted strikes from remotely piloted aircraft are necessary, and why Washington believes they are legal.
“Whenever we do a targeted strike … we need to, at least, explain why. We can reveal what we want to reveal,” Smith said bluntly. “We can reveal enough to say, ‘This is why we hit this person, and it was self-defense’.
“The administration — every administration — seems to think it should share nothing,” Smith said. “I think the administration believes … we gave a speech, we explained it … and now leave us alone, we’re going to go back to work,”
He added the White House should talk more with Congress and the public about its justifications for targeted strikes.
Smith has studied U.S. export control policy reform in-depth, and said Washington should take steps to make it easier to sell items such as unarmed drones that collect images and other intelligence data.
“We need to have a more open way of looking at this,” Smith said. “We certainly should sell it [drone technology] to our allies. … We have an old, paranoid approach to exports that harms us.”
He described the existing export-control regime as “a failure,” saying it harms the US defense industrial base.
“If we hamstring them so they can’t compete, they will cease to be the leaders. To hamstring US companies to get [new] markets, that’s extremely problematic,” he said.
Meantime, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and other national security-minded lawmakers have in recent months suggested that the post-9/11 authorization for the use of military force might need changes.
But Smith poured cold water on the notion of significant changes.
“You change a punctuation mark in that thing, and you’re looking at … lawsuits,” Smith said. “If you change it, you give rise to a number of legal actions.”
Smith said the White House “was nervous as hell” when the House panel “changed it in 2011.”
The HASC ranking Democrat also dipped into the pool of partisan politics, saying House tea party Republicans will do anything they can to “hurt the federal government.”
“I was talking to some people [from DoD] yesterday and I said, ‘How are things going?’ They said, ‘Well, the government is open, so…’” Smith said. “That’s how low of a bar we’ve set — the federal government is open, so things are good.”
Finally, Smith sent a message directly to one of America’s top traditional allies in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia. The nation’s intelligence chief earlier this week said the Saudi regime soon will shift strategically from its relationship with Washington.
Smith was forceful with the Saudis, saying leaders in Riyadh and other nations must shed the mindset that “if there’s a problem, the U.S. should show up and fix it.”
Such a mindset, Smith said, is “a huge problem.
“We need to make it clear that we don’t control everything” around the world.
Smith pushed back against the perceived mindset of leaders around the world that if “something bad is happening” at any place around the globe “that we can decide otherwise — that is not true.
“We have got to set more reasonable expectations,” Smith said. “I think the Obama administration understands this.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill and conservative national security analysts, however, say Obama too often “leads from behind.”