Drones, Defense and the CIA

By Laurie Bennett

February 13, 2013 at 7:41am

A question that hasn’t been asked of President Obama’s nominees for Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency could be one of the most important in months to come.

How well do the two men get along, and how closely will they collaborate?

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be Defense secretary Tuesday, with a party-line vote of 14-11. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would schedule a vote by the full Senate this week.

Chuck Hagel
Chuck Hagel

The nominee for CIA, John O. Brennan, appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week.

If confirmed, the two will direct operations of two arms of government whose responsibilities have blurred and overlapped in recent years. The Muckety map above shows major connections in leadership between Defense and the CIA.

The close links between the two departments is personified in the last two directors of the CIA.

David Petraeus was American commander in Iraq and head of the U.S. Central Command before heading the agency. Leon Panetta headed the CIA before becoming Defense Secretary. Robert M. Gates did the same, but in reverse order.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. John M. Deutch headed the CIA from from 1995 through 1996, after serving as deputy secretary of Defense. James R. Schlesinger was President Nixon’s Defense secretary after six months at the the CIA helm.


While the two departments have long shared missions, the crossover now draws attention because of rising concerns about drones.

Before 9-11, the CIA used drones only for surveillance. After the terrorist attacks of 2001, President George W. Bush authorized the agency to kill members of Al Qaeda and their affiliates “virtually anywhere in the world,” as Jane Mayer wrote in the New Yorker in 2009.

John O. Brennan
John O. Brennan

Obama gave the CIA approval in 2010 to establish a targeted killing program aimed at terrorists abroad.

The CIA traditionally has run drone operations outside recognized war zones, while Defense oversees operations in areas of conflict, the Council on Foreign Relations notes. Sometimes, as in Yemen, the two merge their efforts.

Obama’s nomination of Brennan, widely regarded as the architect of drone use, would seem to indicate his intention to continue the CIA purview.

Many Republicans, however, have called for the drone program to be transferred to Defense. As Sen. John McCain said on Fox Sunday, “Since when is the intelligence agency supposed to be an air force of drones that goes around killing people?”

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