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Human rights groups: Getting CIA out of drone business is only first step

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Human rights groups are applauding reports that the White House is poised to shift the CIA's drone program to the Defense Department as a positive sign but say more clarity is still needed about the targeted killings.

The government maintains two separate drone programs, one run out of the CIA and another out of the Defense Department. The new plan would consolidate the command-and-control structure of targeted killings and create a cohesive set of rules and procedures, according to a report in the DailyBeast.com.

The White House declined to comment on the report.

"It's welcome news that the CIA is getting out of the drone business," said Human Rights First's Dixon Osburn, although he said the law and the policy governing drones strikes need to be clarified to the public.

"While the decision about which agency has the authority to use lethal force in drone strikes is important, it is equally important that the administration get the law and policy right, and be transparent about governing rules," he added. "If we get the rules wrong, any oversight is flawed.

The administration's drone program attracted unprecedented scrutiny from groups across the political divide after Sen. Rand Paul filibustered CIA director John Brennan's confirmation earlier this month, demanding answers from Attorney General Eric Holder on whether the government could use drones to kill Americans on U.S. soil.

Civil liberties and human rights advocates praised Mr. Rand's stubborn stand for more information and the answers it produced from Mr. Holder and the White House. Mr. Rand ended the filibuster only after Mr. Holder send him a letter clarifying that the president does not have authority to use drones to kill Americans on U.S. soil who are not enemy combatants.

Last month, the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel released a document known as a White Paper that addressed in some detail the legal justifications for the lethal targeting of U.S. citizens. It said the U.S. only has to cite an imminent threat in order to justify the killings and is not required to have "clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future."

Human Rights First has complained that the White Paper's definition of imminent threat is neither "specific nor immediate," which greatly expands the circumstances in which a president could order drone strikes outside an armed conflict against an ill-defined enemy.

"In his State of the Union address, President Obama promised additional transparency into the targeted killing program," Mr. Osburn said. "While his administration has made some signs of progress, more must be done to bring this program to light."

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