The Obama administration has floated the idea of putting the CIA’s controversial targeted killing operations under the control of the uniformed armed services. But sources familiar with the still-classified program, which uses unmanned aircraft to kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen, say the shift would be difficult to implement and would make little difference.
All of the specially outfitted Reaper and Predator UAVs used in the CIA’s program actually belong to the Air Force.
People familiar with the UAV program say that when it comes time to pull the trigger on a weapon aimed at a suspected terrorist, no matter whether the mission is run by the CIA or the Air Force, the action is always conducted by military officers. It is U.S. government policy that only uniformed personnel can be the “trigger pullers,” the sources said.
One former intelligence officer points out that the most important part of the entire program isn’t the UAVs at all. It’s the intelligence that officials use to pick their targets. And that’s the part the Air Force would have the most difficult time getting, if it were not for the CIA.
The major revelation in this story is not that the CIA will be maintaining control, but rather that its involvement with the targeted killing program has so much overlap with the Air Force. A common narrative is that the CIA has militarized itself in pursuing drone strikes; a shift to centralized military command would commensurately require the Pentagon to function like an intelligence organization.