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Obama talks drones: Will it increase transparency for Pentagon to take lead?

In a speech Thursday, President Obama acknowledged some of the complexities involved in the drone war. A new presidential directive released this week says that the Pentagon, rather than the CIA, should ‘have the lead for the use of force.’

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / May 23, 2013

President Barack Obama talks about national security at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, Thursday, May 23. Declaring America at a 'crossroads' in the fight against terrorism, the president revealed clearer guidelines for the use of deadly drone strikes, including more control by the U.S. military, while leaving key details of the controversial program secret.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

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Washington

In his widely anticipated foreign-policy speech Thursday, President Obama rejected the wisdom of a global “war on terror” and warned, in the words of President James Madison, that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

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Continual warfare has been the plight of the United States since 2001 – and for much of the past decade, the US government has used drones to prosecute its wars.

Some of these wars are well known to the American public – Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. Others are secret wars, waged out of the public eye in places like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

The secret wars have been prosecuted largely using drones and under the auspices of the Central Intelligence Agency. Critics have long argued, however, that the American public should have greater knowledge and oversight of these wars.

“Covert operations have their place, but what we’re doing with drone strikes is really a part of war – and it should be treated as such,” says Mark Jacobson, former deputy NATO senior civilian representative in Afghanistan.

To that end, a new presidential directive released this week in advance of Mr. Obama’s speech says that the Pentagon, rather than the CIA, should “have the lead for the use of force” – not just in Afghanistan, but also in other countries where the US is fighting against Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The hope among nongovernmental organizations that have long endeavored to raise awareness about America’s secret drone war is that this move will result in greater transparency.

“This is a big deal. It’s something that we’ve been pushing for for quite a long time – to have it moved over to the DOD,” says Sarah Holewinski, executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict. “The military is actually quite accountable not only to Congress but also to the American people.”

During the years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military went to great lengths to explain “how they handle and avoid civilian casualties,” Ms. Holewinski says. “They’ve wanted to be transparent, to prove, ‘Here’s how we avoid casualties.’ They wanted people to see how they tried to avoid civilian harm.”

For this reason, the public has every reason to expect that the Pentagon will shed more light on America’s secret wars than has the CIA, which does not directly answer to the American people, Holewinski says.

Others argue, however, that the move could actually decrease transparency. Currently, the CIA is required to report anticipated covert activities to the “Gang of Eight,” which is made up of the top intelligence leaders in Congress.

But as the Pentagon takes over greater responsibilities for drone operations, “there is no obligation of the military to report before or after any drone strikes,” says Bruce Fein, deputy attorney general under President Reagan and author of Constitutional Peril: the Life and Death Struggle for Our Constitution and Democracy.”

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