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Trump Restores CIA Power To Launch Drone Strikes


As senators left that hearing this morning, some weighed in on another military development. The Wall Street Journal reports that one of the Trump administration's first acts was to authorize the CIA's use of drones to carry out targeted strikes against suspected terrorists. The Obama administration took that ability away from the CIA and gave it to the Pentagon. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Not every senator I approached was ready to talk about the CIA being put back in the business of carrying out drone strikes.

MARTIN HEINRICH: I can't comment on that.

WELNA: That's New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich. He's also a member of the secretive Intelligence Committee which oversees the CIA. Maine Independent Angus King also sits on both committees. He was a bit more forthcoming about what is clearly a touchy subject.

ANGUS KING: The new president has authorized some expansion. This is an issue that I've been involved with, but I'm not going to comment on strikes by any particular government agency.

WELNA: Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal for his part said he understands there is indeed an effort underway to broaden the use of drone strikes.

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: I'd want to scrutinize very closely any change in the rules of engagement involving drones.

WELNA: But another senator welcomed the CIA's reported return to carrying out drone strikes.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: I'm OK with the CIA being back in the drone business.

WELNA: That's South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham. He wants an all-of-the-above approach.

GRAHAM: I want to go after the enemy as aggressively as I can. I want to make sure that any drone strike people are accountable, you know, for authorizing the strike, concern about collateral damage. But the CIA has tools in their toolbox that go further than Title 10, DOD.

WELNA: Title 10 refers to military operations, but drone strikes had in the past been done under Title 50, which covers covert and intelligence operations. Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine says the Obama administration limited drone strikes to military operations.

TIM KAINE: I supported the Obama policy of trying to unify these strikes which are military under the DOD rather than under the intel agency. I'm in strong support of that policy. And so going back to the CIA being able to take these actions separately from DOD I think is a mistake.

WELNA: Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain was among those who pushed hard for drone strikes to be limited to the military, but McCain now says the Obama administration put too many restrictions on the military and wants the armed forces to act with more autonomy.

JOHN MCCAIN: I am for giving the commanders in the field more latitude in what they think is best to base their decisions on.

WELNA: One critic of giving the CIA authority to carry out drone strikes, says McCain and other members of Congress, have a hard time knowing what was going on with any strikes not carried out by the military.

CHRISTOPHER ANDERS: They have a very, very hard time finding out the truth of what's taking place when it's being done by the CIA.

WELNA: Christopher Anders is a deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union. He says the CIA has the legal ability to carry out drone strikes secretly and to deny they ever happened.

ANDERS: In a constitutional system of checks and balances, you want something like the power to take life in massive ways to be with institutions that are accountable to other parts of the government, certainly accountable to Congress, accountable to the White House, accountable to courts. And the Defense Department fits into that category.

WELNA: And the CIA, Anders adds, most certainly does not. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.