U.S. officials have told the press that President Trump has quietly given the CIA authority to carry out drone strikes against suspected terrorists. The CIA has already used its authority to eliminate Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden who was a senior leader of al-Qaeda in Syria, in late February. U.S. officials are still analyzing the results of that strike. At this time, the CIA’s new authorization is limited to Syria but could be extended to include other countries with ties to terrorism, such as Yemen, Libya and Somalia.
CIA Authority To Carry Out Drone Strikes
This is a change from the Obama Administration’s policy, in which the CIA could use drones to conduct intelligence operations such as locating suspected terrorists. The decision to use drones to actually conduct drone strikes against terrorists was the responsibility of the military. Obama’s policy was meant to encourage transparency because the military is required to disclose information such as the number of terrorists and civilians killed in each drone strike it carried out – but the CIA isn’t.
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Obama’s hybrid approach had some measure of success in operations such as a May 2016 drone strike that took out a Taliban leader named Mullah Mansour in Pakistan. However, President Trump has stated that he wishes to accelerate the fight against terrorist organizations like ISIS and this may be a step in that direction. Spokespersons for the Pentagon and CIA have declined to comment.
Human Rights Groups Concerned About Transparency
Human rights groups such as the ACLU expressed concern that the secretive nature of the CIA could have an impact on both transparency and accountability on the part of those who conduct drone strikes. ACLU officials expressed concern about the consequences of taking the decision of conducting deadly drone strikes out of the hands of the military chain of command and putting it in the hands of a less transparent government agency like the CIA. “There are a lot of problems with the drone program and the targeted killing program, but the CIA should be out of the business of ordering lethal strikes,” Christopher Anders, ACLU’s deputy Washington director, told Wall Street Journal.
This, of course, ignores the fact that drone targets are not necessarily sitting ducks when they see the drone coming. Yemeni residents who watched fighting between al-Qaeda forces and U.S. aerial assets that included drones described fierce fighting between the combatants that could have brought down or damaged some of the drones. Considering that extremist groups like al-Qaeda have a proven track record of beheading and abusing captives, it is a good thing that any drones that were brought down did not have a pilot on site. Besides the amount of propaganda that al-Qaeda would have gotten out of such a thing – not to mention yelping from “Never-trumpers” and liberals alike – it’s really just as well that the military and the CIA have the option of using drones that can be piloted remotely. It means less risk to the human operator.
Besides, human troops on the ground are no more immune to making a mistake that costs the lives of civilians than drone operators are. In 2004, a U.S. helicopter operating in Iraq inadvertently killed 40 civilian members of a wedding party in a location that its crew had believed to be a safe house for enemy combatants. ISIS certainly does not have any qualms against targeting civilians and the helpless, as evidenced by events like a March 8 attack on a hospital, in which ISIS operatives dressed as doctors slaughtered 30 people and injured 50. So the difference is that U.S. troops usually don’t deliberately attack civilians (or if they do, intelligence failures are usually a major contributing factor), while extremist groups make a point of targeting civilians as a way to sow terror and chaos.
In a case where it’s darned where he does and darned if he doesn’t, President Trump might as well choose the option that claims fewer American lives. Putting the CIA in charge of drone strikes in Syria may or may not be a good move from the transparency standpoint, but at least it’s one that doesn’t put American pilots at risk. Then it becomes the tactical decision to avoid handing extremist groups any propaganda opportunities if at all possible.
Besides, American media outlets often have their own “troops on the ground” in the form of reporters who can talk to local civilians about what they saw. Even if the CIA “chooses not to comment” about any drone strike, they may come up with at least a rough estimate of how many civilians might have been killed by recent strikes. That’s the advantage of having freedom of the press when that press cares about getting the facts straight even when a government agency is not being very talkative.
So the accountability will still exist even if the buck stops at the president’s desk. A smart president will, of course, want to know the exact chain of events that led up to a catastrophic failure involving a drone. However, Trump is unlikely to be believed if he says that he never signed that order authorizing the CIA to use deadly drone strikes in Syria. He will be the one who is ultimately responsible if something goes wrong in a CIA-ordered drone strike.
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