WASHINGTON – Sen. John McCain renewed efforts to end the CIA’s control over U.S. drone strikes after an attack on an al-Qaida compound in Pakistan killed two hostages.
Now that drones have become “an integral part” of U.S. military operations, it makes sense for such airstrikes to be managed by the nation’s armed services rather than by spy agencies, the Arizona Republican said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.
McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, acknowledged his bias in seeking to give the Defense Department greater control, adding that the military has “the capabilities and the equipment” that the Central Intelligence Agency lacks to conduct effective drone strikes.
The accidental killing of two hostages, one American and one Italian, in a January drone strike was disclosed last week and prompted a review of U.S. policy by the White House. It may also force Congress to revisit an issue that in the past had become a turf battle among lawmakers, with intelligence committees favoring the CIA and defense committees backing the Pentagon.
While the Pentagon already runs drone programs in overt war zones, such as Afghanistan, the CIA has conducted its own drone strikes against terrorist targets in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. President Barack Obama issued an order two years ago designed to give the military more control over drone strikes, though a role for the CIA was retained.
Tom Donilon, Obama’s former national security adviser, defended operating the program under the CIA when asked why it hasn’t been transferred to the Pentagon for greater congressional oversight.
“You have real congressional oversight over these operations,” Donilon said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. The protocol requiring “near certainty” that a strike won’t injure civilians was followed, he said, though it “turned out to be inaccurate” in the latest case.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who chaired the Senate’s intelligence committee in 2013 when Obama pushed to rein in the CIA, had expressed concern at the time.
Feinstein, now the committee’s top Democrat, issued a statement last week calling for greater transparency over drone strikes — a move that would be made easier if the Pentagon ran the program.
“To the greatest extent possible, more information on U.S. counterterrorism operations should be made public. I believe this should include an annual report on the number of deaths — both combatant and civilian — from U.S. strikes,” Feinstein said.
The CIA has conducted seven drone strikes in Pakistan this year, killing 33 to 45 people, according to information collected by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit group based at City University in London.
The U.S. conducted 25 drone strikes in 2014, killing 115 to 186 people, the group said. There’s been a substantial drop in reported civilian deaths, from as many as 197 in 2010 to two or fewer in 2014 as the CIA has responded to pressure to cancel attacks when there may be civilians in the area, the group’s data showed.
The use of drones also could become an issue in the presidential race next year.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who is weighing a presidential bid, echoed McCain’s call for the Pentagon to take over the program.
“I don’t believe the drone program ought to be run out of the CIA,” Kasich said in an interview that aired Sunday on CNN.
“The Air Force has the capability of doing extensive targeting,” he said. “You don’t have those capabilities in the CIA, and I’ve talked to former CIA people who’ve told me this.”