Tensions Rising Over Drone Secrecy
ue> ADAM ENTOUS And
=true> SIOBHAN GORMAN
* DECEMBER 30, 2011
Tensions are quietly increasing between the White House and some
congressional leaders over access to sensitive information about the
government's use of drones in Pakistan and Yemen, officials said.
Congressional concern has increased over the secrecy surrounding the
deployment of U.S. drones, such as the Air Force's Predator, pictured.
The White House has brushed aside requests for information from lawmakers,
who argue that the strikes, carried out secretly by the Central Intelligence
Agency and the military's Joint Special Operations Command, have broad
implications for U.S. policy but don't receive adequate oversight.
Some current and former administration, military and congressional officials
point to what they see as significant oversight gaps, in part because few
lawmakers have full access to information about the drone strikes.
Lawmakers on Congress's intelligence committees are privy to information
about all CIA and military-intelligence operations, but members of at least
two other panels want insight on the drone program.
Compounding the dispute: Lawmakers who are briefed on classified information
are legally constrained from raising their concerns publicly. Current and
former officials say the White House wants to keep a tight hold on
classified information to avoid unauthorized disclosures.
The demand for lawmakers outside the intelligence committees to have access
to details on the covert drone program, said one U.S. official, "just
doesn't hold water."
Officials with the House and Senate Intelligence committees say they provide
rigorous oversight of the CIA's covert-action programs. Other lawmakers can
make requests to the committees for information on classified programs,
these officials add.
Concerns about oversight prompted Democratic and Republican leaders earlier
this month to slip language into newly approved defense legislation
requiring the Pentagon to provide the armed services committees with
quarterly updates on "counterterrorism operations and related activities
involving special operations forces," officials said.
The tensions come as groups such as Human Rights Watch step up pressure on
the White House to explain its legal justification for killing suspected
militants, including American citizens, without due process.
The disputes over the program have grown as improved technology has made
drone operations easier to conduct-and thus more frequent.
CIA drones have killed more than 1,500 suspected militants on Pakistani soil
since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, becoming the most lethal
program in the spy agency's history.
In Yemen, the CIA and the military's Joint Special Operations Command run
parallel targeted-killing programs using drones and manned aircraft.
A drone strike in September killed American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an
outspoken proponent of attacks on the U.S. Mr. Awlaki's son, also an
American, was accidently killed in a second drone strike in Yemen in
October, officials say.
While few U.S. lawmakers question the effectiveness of the targeted killing
campaigns, some top lawmakers complain about what they see as excessive
White House secrecy about how targets are chosen and how the administration
justified the killings, particularly of American citizens.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, has
been publicly and privately pressing the Justice Department to let his
committee review the secret memorandum prepared by Justice Department
lawyers that endorsed the legality of killing U.S. citizens abroad.
Similar qualms have come from members of the House and Senate armed services
committees, who have also sought more information in particular about the
CIA's drone program (they have some oversight over the drones run by the
After the CIA launches a drone strike, the intelligence committees receive a
notification telephone call almost immediately, which is followed by a
secure fax with the details of the strike, according to government
officials. There are also monthly meetings at the CIA's Langley, Va.
headquarters with congressional staff to review the program and classified
briefings or hearings on Capitol Hill at least every three months.
Administration officials say the drone programs run by the CIA and Joint
Special Operations Command are carefully monitored by top officials at both
agencies and by the White House National Security Council.
John Bellinger, a top legal adviser for the State Department during the Bush
administration, said the White House needs to start thinking about a legal
framework that would define acceptable practices. He pointed to the risk
that other countries will start using drones in ways that the U.S. may find
"If Russia starts using drones to go after terrorists, will the U.S. look
like we have a double standard if we criticize them?" Mr. Bellinger asked.
-Julian E. Barnes and Evan Perez contributed to this article.
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Received on Fri Dec 30 2011 - 06:53:13 EST