TOPICS > Nation

What’s Next for the U.S. Drone Campaign as Obama Tries to End a Decade of War?

May 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
According to reports, U.S. drone attacks on militants in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere are conducted by both the CIA and the U.S. military, but will eventually be handled solely by the Defense Department. New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti talks to Jeffrey Brown about the CIA's shifting role in the fight against terrorists.

JEFFREY BROWN: For more than 1,000 Midshipmen at the Naval Academy, this was commencement day. For the president, it was also a chance to address key military and national security issues in his graduation speech at Annapolis.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The superintendent told me that Marines and folks in the Navy don’t mind a little water.

JEFFREY BROWN: Winds and rain pelted the future leaders of the Navy and Marines, evocative of stormy times facing the nation’s military, especially sexual assaults. The commander in chief pushed the graduates to uphold the honor of the armed forces.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime; they threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong. That’s why we have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they have got no place in the greatest military on earth.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president also acknowledged another major challenge, deep budget cuts, but he insisted military readiness will not suffer.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The United States of America will always maintain our military superiority. And, as your commander in chief, I am going to keep fighting to give you the equipment and support required to meet the missions we ask of you and also to make sure that you are getting the pay and the benefits and the support that you deserve.

JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama lauded the Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden, but he spoke, too, of the changing nature of the fight against terror.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: For even as we have decimated the al-Qaida leadership, we still face threats from al-Qaida affiliates and from individuals caught up in its ideology. Even as we move beyond deploying large ground armies abroad, we still need to conduct precise targeted strikes against terrorists before they kill our citizens.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just yesterday, in a major national security speech, the president spoke of transferring the secretive drone aircraft program from the CIA to military control and making it more accountable.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The same progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power, or risk abusing it.

And that’s why, over the last four years, my administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists, insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight, and accountability that is now codified in presidential policy guidance that I signed yesterday.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, officials in Pakistan, where many of the U.S. drone strikes occur, welcomed the move to curtail their use, but they also argued that any strikes violate Pakistani sovereignty.

The new approach to using drones and fighting terror that the president outlined yesterday will impact a number of national security and military forces, notably the CIA.

Reporter Mark Mazzetti wrote on that in today’s New York Times. He also documented the evolution of American warfare in the post-9/11 era in his recent book “The Way of the Knife.”

Well, Mark, welcome to you.

Just to set the context a bit, take us back briefly. How and why did both the CIA and the military come to have their own drone programs? And what are the differences?

MARK MAZZETTI, The New York Times: Well, the — both the CIA and the military were working on Predator drones before 9/11.

And shortly after the Sept. 11th attacks, President Bush gave the CIA this wide authority to go capture and kill around the globe. The CIA started using drones in Afghanistan, did a drone strike in Yemen, and then starting in 2004 began using drone strikes in Pakistan.

And from there, what started as a real trickle of drone strikes really went into a — sort of escalated dramatically, starting around 2008, to the point where there’s been hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan carried out by the CIA.

The military has also done a parallel — had a parallel drone program in Iraq and Afghanistan. And what we have seen in recent years, both the CIA and the Pentagon have both had programs in Yemen. So there’s been a certain redundancy in these operations. And what we have — what we heard both the president say yesterday and other aides to the president talk about on background was this need to sort of shift more of the resources to the Pentagon, although it should be pointed out that the CIA’s not entirely giving up its part or its aspect of the drone program.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so what would this mean for the CIA in terms of how hard it would be to transition back to more of an intelligence-gathering from what I gather has really developed into more of a paramilitary service?


So, for nearly 12 years, the CIA has been in many ways almost singularly focused on counterterrorism, capturing, killing, interrogating. And this is — these are sort of very paramilitary functions that the CIA has been deeply involved in. This is maybe just the beginning of a shift back towards more traditional espionage operations and also the strategic analysis that the CIA has done in the past.

Now, as I write about in the paper today, it’s going to take some time. You can’t just sort of change the agency overnight. The agency, as I said, has been doing this for about a dozen years, and a whole generation of CIA officers have been trained in this sort of tactical manhunting mission.

And so going back to the sort of more traditional espionage that many people knew about and know from the Cold War and from spy movies, I mean, this does take time. It could take years. It could take another generation.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in terms of this decision to move the drone program primarily back to the Defense Department, the theory that there is that it will be more accountable, more — more what, open, more efficient? What’s the idea?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, I mean, the idea is that missile — missiles fired from airplanes should be the job of the — should be done by the military, right? It’s a military operation.

And, in theory, the idea is that this will be more accountable and more transparent. Now, in practice, this doesn’t always happen. As we said, the military has a drone program right now in Yemen, and it is very hard to get any information about that program, who is killed, where the strikes take place. And so just because it’s in the Pentagon’s hand doesn’t make it necessarily more transparent or even necessarily more accountable.

So, again, just by saying that there’s going to be a shift, there’s going to have to be more details about what the future is. And I thought it was interesting that actually in his speech yesterday, President Obama didn’t even actually mention the CIA once, which does sort of indicate that this transparency only goes so far.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how much can you tell at this point about reaction to all this from the CIA?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, it’s hard to tell.

You know, there are certainly constituencies within the CIA that would want to would have — hold — would have held on to the bulk of joint operations. The Counterterrorism Center, as I write about, has really dramatically expanded since 9/11 and sort of become the beating heart of the CIA. If the drone strikes leave the Counterterrorism Center and go to the military, then the Counterterrorism Center may find itself having less power within the agency.

That being said, John Brennan, the new CIA director, has indicated that he wants this change to gradually happen, for paramilitary functions, many of them, to go to the Pentagon. So it is clearly a change that’s coming from the top. And I also do think that there’s elements within the CIA that are happy to give it up, because they see that there’s been some opportunity costs for what they have not done by doing this counterterrorism.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, exactly. That’s what I just wanted to ask you in our last minute, because of course the other part of the context since 9/11 and on is the criticism of U.S. intelligence-gathering overall.

MARK MAZZETTI: That’s right.

There’s a question of what are they not doing. Obviously, there was the famous failure of the Iraq WMD analysis, and then there’s other issues, which are, for instance, you know, is the CIA assessing global trends? Was the CIA up to date on the Arab Spring? Was it behind the curve as these revolutions were going on throughout the Middle East? Were they providing policy-makers with analysis in order to make decisions?

I mean, these are some of the things that the CIA was founded to do. And the question is, when you’re doing a tactical manhunting counterterrorism operation, can you also see the big picture? And some of these moves, at least in theory, are designed to get the CIA back to seeing the bigger picture.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mark Mazzetti, thanks so much.

MARK MAZZETTI: Thanks very much.