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Opinion

Where Rand Paul and John Brennan can agree on US drone program (+video)

Sen. Rand Paul's epic filibuster raised valid concerns about the US drone program, delaying the vote to confirm John Brennan as CIA director. Turns out Mr. Brennan also values transparency and accountability and may support the transfer of CIA drone operations to the US military.

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Mistakes are inevitable in war, but when they occur, they must be accompanied by public accountability, and the military generally takes responsibility for its actions. When an Air Force drone strike inadvertently killed 23 Afghan civilians in February 2010, the military issued a report explaining how mistakes had been made, revised its training protocols, and disciplined the responsible officers. This openness to public scrutiny enables the military to better maintain public trust, a source of legitimacy that current drone operations are sorely lacking. 

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Admittedly, the military’s Joint Special Operations Command has recently begun conducting drone strikes alongside the CIA in Yemen, and has inherited the spy agency’s propensity for secrecy. However, if drone operations were fully integrated into the Pentagon, they could become transparent. Although the military does not always disclose the details of its work, it does take public responsibility for its operations. 

Critics will argue that secrecy is a necessary component of drone operations and the oversight and bureaucracy of the military will hinder America’s ability to initiate drone strikes quickly and covertly when needed. However, this need not be the case. The military has been engaging in rapid target selection and response for decades using a rigorous process that still maintains the element of surprise. Similarly, as the February 2010 incident in Afghanistan revealed, the military can keep the specifics of its after-action investigations classified so as to not compromise the identity of soldiers or reveal the tactics and technology employed by the US, while still releasing public reports that take responsibility for its mistakes.

The CIA drone program should have been a military function from the very beginning, and the CIA knows this. In the summer of 2001, the US military was finalizing development of its first armed drone, and there was a protracted debate in the National Security Council about whether a potential drone strike on Osama bin Laden should be conducted by the CIA or the military. George Tenet, then the director of the CIA, insisted that lethal operations were the responsibility of the US military and the CIA had no business firing missiles. However, after 9/11, drones became the CIA’s ticket to a leading role in counterterrorism operations and the agency’s principled reservations were largely abandoned.

Now it is time for the White House to reign the CIA drone program back in. A sustainable drone program must be temperate, it must be transparent, and it must be well regulated. Current CIA drone operations are none of these things, but these qualities are attainable under the direction of the US military. The future of drones must, like all uses of force, lie with the professional armed forces.

Megan Braun is a Rhodes scholar and masters student in International Relations at Oxford University, where her research explores the evolution of US drone policy. Her work has previously appeared in Foreign Policy, CNN, and the journal Ethics & International Affairs.

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