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EDITORIAL: Drones for the military

The CIA is not entitled to an air force of its own

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Open government has seldom looked so secretive. President Obama's refusal to come clean on his use of airborne drones to kill terrorists has taken U.S. war fighting into a bizarre realm of science fiction. Mr. Obama can prove his claim that his is the "most transparent administration in history" by halting this clandestine behavior.

The Senate Judiciary Committee's Constitution subcommittee will confront the administration at a hearing on Tuesday over the practice of targeted killings, but the White House said last week that it wouldn't send a witness.

By any definition, that's not transparency. The closest the administration has come to making public its justification for drone strikes was the leak of an internal Justice Department memo that argued that attacks on Americans are authorized when "An informed, high-level official has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack" on the United States, "capture is infeasible," and the strike is "conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles."

Such "reassurance" is small comfort to those who take the Constitution seriously here and to survivors of innocents killed by mistake in regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that as of March, overseas U.S. drone strikes have killed up to 3,581 people, including al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki and his son. But nearly 200 of them may have been children.

The Central Intelligence Agency is likely behind the administration's reticence to discuss the program. Operation of the drones is shared by the CIA and the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). "Splitting the drone program between the JSOC and CIA is apparently intended to allow the plausible deniability of CIA strikes," writes Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations in a recent policy paper. "As covert operations, the government cannot legally provide any information about how the CIA conducts targeted killings, while Pentagon operations are guided by Title 10 'armed forces' operations and a publicly available military doctrine."

With the CIA's participation in drone operations, the administration allows the agency to stray beyond the bounds of its traditional mission of intelligence-gathering and analysis. CIA operations are by definition secret, and the government has a long tradition of refusing to comment on them. To clear away the obfuscation, the president should transfer authority for the planning and conducting of attacks unrelated to the Pentagon's battlefield operations. At his confirmation hearings, CIA Director John O. Brennan appeared to endorse such a decision: "The CIA should not be doing traditional military activities and operations," he said.

It took a 13-hour filibuster last month for Sen. Rand Paul to extract a reluctant acknowledgment from the Justice Department that the president may not target U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. Americans deserve assurances that airborne cloak and dagger does not undermine the Constitution in the name of homeland security. The president should provide the transparency he has promised.

The Washington Times

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