The Process of Transferring Drone Operations from the CIA to the Pentagon: Slow Track, Just Stalled, or Terminal?

On Tuesday evening, Foreign Policy published an exclusive report, with a headline suggesting that the administration has terminated the idea of transferring drone operations from the CIA to the Defense Department: “Exclusive: The CIA, Not The Pentagon, Will Keep Running Obama’s Drone War.” Initial reactions on twitter suggest the story is being interpreted that way. But does the report actually say so?

The content of the story is more nuanced.

The authors do not refer to an official decision to stop the migration, but rather to the status of the process. The broad objective of the transfer might remain the same, with the issue still boiling down to timing. Indeed, the story’s key quote by a US official adopts that line (my emphasis added):

“‘The physics of making this happen quickly are remarkably difficult,’ one U.S. official told FP. ‘The goal remains the same, but the reality has set in.’”

And the lede of the story includes a temporal element:

“But six months later, the so-called migration of those operations has stalled, and it is now unlikely to happen anytime soon, Foreign Policy has learned.”

The slow bureaucratic death of a policy objective such as this one would not be a surprise. But is it over? Recall that this summer, Senator John McCain vowed to raise the issue on the Senate floor. He stated that he would push for accelerating the shift to the Pentagon as part of the upcoming debate on the defense appropriations bill. He may have his work cut out for him. 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.