Previewing Obama’s New Drone-Strike Policy: ‘A Dial, Not A Switch’

A Predator unmanned aerial vehicle returns from a mission. Drone aircraft have become President Barack Obama's favorite tool in America's fight against al-Qaida. But the president on Thursday is expected to tighten the rules for drone strikes. (Rob Jensen/USAF via Getty Images)

President Barack Obama is slated to deliver what even his top aides are billing as a landmark counterterrorism speech, with the commander in chief expected to announce his administration will tighten the targeting rules governing drone aircraft strikes.

Attorney General Eric Holder, in a letter sent to lawmakers this week, stated the new CT policy calls for using drone strikes only when a target poses “a continuing, imminent threat to Americans” and also can’t be nabbed by U.S. forces or any American allies willing to get their hands dirty.

The New York Times, which got a sneak peak at the speech, reported Thursday the new CT policy seems to signal past strikes in places like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia won’t be repeated unless al-Qaida types are known to pose an immediate threat to America or its interests abroad. The Times also predicted Obama might not clearly state the drone program is shifting from the CIA to the Pentagon, but he will imply as much. (Watch the speech on C-SPAN at 2 p.m. EST.)

So by tightening the targeting guidelines, what direction is Obama aiming to take the controversial U.S. drone-strike program? One former senior CIA official told Intercepts this week he has some idea — and he supports the policy shift.

The idea is to transition the CIA out of the targeted-killing business, and back to its traditional missions of collecting and analyzing intelligence, the former senior official said.

“Do you want the nation’s top espionage agency conducting a paramilitary mission or performing espionage?” the former senior official asked rhetorically. “The agency, since 9/11, and it’s understandable, has gotten away from its core missions. A lot of the collection and analysis really is now used for targeting.”

The former senior official predicted Obama will shift most of the drone program to the military without completely taking the CIA out of the targeted-killing business.

Turning his hand for effect as if turning the dial of a safe or adjusting a thermostat,  the former senior CIA official concluded: “What you want is a dial, not a switch.”

Editor’s Note: The former senior CIA official spoke to Intercepts briefly following a not-for-attribution event Tuesday evening in Washington.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett