On September 1st, the Washington Post featured a story revealing the start of a joint drone campaign between the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Syria. Two days ago, it was reported that this joint campaign successfully targeted and struck the infamous Jihadi John. The British militant, whose actual name is Mohammad Emwazi, became well-known after appearing in a series of Islamic State videos depicting the beheadings of US, British, and Japanese citizens. While it’s highly improbable to confirm the death of Emwazi with DNA samples, US officials believe confirmation can come from intercepted militant communications.
This strike, while being perhaps a large victory in the fight against the Islamic State, is also interesting in the manner it was carried out. Currently, the US operates drones strikes under both the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. Both groups operate in a number of countries, with different levels of overlap and cooperation.
For several years, US officials have suggested, proposed, argued, and debated which program should control the use of drones. John Brennan, current director of the CIA, during his Senate confirmation hearing in 2013 stated that the CIA “should not be doing traditional military activities and operations.” In March of 2013, reports surfaced of the Obama administration contemplating changes to the drone program that would shift all CIA use over to the Pentagon. Eventually, those plans died.
Yet, they were revived earlier this year when the administration confirmed CIA drone strikes accidentally killed two Western hostages in January. In response to the revelation, Republican Senator John McCain and Ohio GOP governor John Kasich publicly called for the end of CIA drone strikes. Obama responded by ordering an internal review of the CIA’s drone operations.
So the question is; if the Director of the CIA doesn’t want to use drones, if Republican leaders believe the CIA shouldn’t use drones, and the Democratic President and his administration have considered for several years at shifting the program over to the DOD, then why hasn’t this happened? The answer may be bureaucracy.
Renewed opposition on Capital Hill has reduced the political will of any proposed changes. Leading this opposition are both the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House intelligence and armed services panel. Senator Diane Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee remains skeptical of the DOD’s drone performance. She has now become a strong proponent for keeping a drone program under the CIA.
Therefore, it seems this new hybrid drone approach may be the result of a revised Obama plan. However, this Syrian model is not intended to serve as a template in Yemen or Pakistan. Primarily, if it works well, it could serve as a future model. With the news of a successful strike against Jihadi John, perhaps this model is trending in the right direction.
CFR Backgrounder on Targeted Killings - Here
CFR Policy Memorandum on Transferring CIA Drone Strikes to the Pentagon - Here
FP Argument doubting a transfer of the CIA program would improve transparency - Here