Trump restores CIA authority for drone strikes

President Donald Trump has given the CIA "secret new authority" to conduct drone strikes against suspected terrorists, the Wall Street Journal reported March 13, citing US officials. This is said to depart from the Obama administration policy of a "cooperative approach" to drone strikes, in which the CIA used surveillance drones to locate suspected terrorists and the Pentagon then conducted the actual strike. The drone strike that killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in May 2016 in Pakistan was named as an example of that "hybrid approach." The report asserts that the Obama administration had the Pentagon carry out the strikes "to promote transparency and accountability." The CIA, operating under covert authority, wasn't required to report its drone strikes. The Pentagon, in most cases, was required to do so.

While the headline is ominous, it is uncertain how much will really change here. What the Journal calls a "turf war" between the CIA and Pentagon over the drone program has been going on for a while. In 2011 it was reported that the CIA had authority in Pakistan, while the Pentagon was responisble for drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia. The Pentagon began taking over from the CIA in Pakistan as well in the ensuing years, due to demands for accountability and growing outcry over civilian casualties. However, as late as 2015, most drone strikes were still being carried out by the CIA—partially due to Congressional resistance to formally transfering authority for the program. Pakistan officially barred the CIA from operating drones out of bases on its territory, but CIA drones continued to operate out of a base in Jalalabad, just across the border in Afghanistan. There were also reports in 2013 that the CIA had established a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia to carry out strikes in Yemen.