Drone Games

A little less than a year ago, President Obama delivered a major national security policy address at the National Defense University. The speech outlined specific proposals for revising important pieces of several thorny national security issues such as the closing of the Guantanamo Bay Prison and a long-overdue review of the broad counterterrorism authorities vested in the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) legislation that was enacted only a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, the piece that received the most attention from the President’s speech was the proposal for shifting control of the targeted killing program (commonly referred to as the drone program in the media) from the CIA to the military.

Neither of these proposals has gained significant traction with Congress just yet but several recent developments may finally be moving the needle on the drone debate.

Earlier this year, The Washington Post reported that when Congress shepherded a massive omnibus spending bill for FY14, Members on the Appropriations Committees secretly inserted a last-minute provision in the classified annex of the bill that essentially preserved the CIA’s control over major drone operations.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee (he was also a Ranking Member of the Committee from 2006 to 2012), did not take this news very lightly. He delivered a scathing critique on the Senate floor of the congressional appropriators and accused them of meddling in the business of the authorizing committees. Sen. McCain’s speech injected some renewed focus on the drone debate but it also showcased some of the unresolved divisions on this issue within Congress.

Most of the media reports characterized the move by the appropriations committees on the secret “drone” provision as a highly unusual policy intervention. But as Sen. McCain hinted not so subtly in his speech, appropriators have actually gotten in the habit of inserting controversial policy prerogatives in what are supposed to be strictly funding bills.

In addition, the spat between authorizers and appropriators is coming on the heels of explosive new revelations reported just this week by The Guardian. According to the paper, the covert and highly classified CIA drone program in Pakistan has been actually carried out by conventional Air Force personnel who are flying the armed Predator drones on missions under the direction of CIA personnel.

There are host of serious legal implications if these claims are proven correct. And there is no question that this new development will create a stronger impetus for lawmakers to renew the debate on the “ownership” for the drone program. Furthermore, one can foresee an interesting dynamic playing out between the respective authorizing committees on Intelligence and the Armed Services.

Sen. McCain may very well find himself at odds not only with the appropriators but with Members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence who provide oversight of the CIA drone program. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who is the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, has been extremely skeptical of the Obama Administration’s plans to shift the bulk of the drone program to the military. She has significant misgivings about the capabilities of the Joint Special Operations Command which is currently in charge of drone operations for the military in Yemen and Somalia. It is hardly a surprise that she would prefer that the targeted killing program remains under the jurisdiction of her committee. And did I mention that Sen. Feinstein is also a Member of the Senate Appropriations Committee?

It is no secret that Sen. McCain has been a strong proponent of transitioning the drone operations to the military and he has been generally supportive of President Obama’s proposals on this issue. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that he reacted so swiftly against the secret drone provision in the FY14 spending bill. But the odds are currently stacked against him and his fellow Members on the Senate Armed Services Committee who would love nothing more than to gain control of the oversight over the drone program.


Katina Slavkova is a Fellow and Director of the Certificate Program at the Government Affairs Institute