By JOHN T. BENNETT
Posted: Thursday Mar 21, 2013
WASHINGTON -- Two influential U.S. senators are split on whether most -- or any -- of the armed UAV strikes carried out by the CIA should instead be conducted by the military.
Since a filibuster earlier this month by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, about the Obama administration's armed drone policy, a debate is taking place on Capitol Hill about whether the CIA should leave the business of kinetic operations.
Lawmakers on both sides of the debate have strong opinions about whether it is the job of the military or intelligence community to kill al-Qaeda leaders and operatives. And behind the issue of whether the CIA should be firing missiles from remotely piloted aircraft is a simmering congressional turf war between the chambers' Armed Services and Intelligence committees.
If the Defense Department is eventually handed control of the CIA's armed drone fleet and strike missions against al-Qaeda targets, it would also gain what intelligence analysts say is the program's sizeable budget, and control over one of the White House's primary tactics for combating the terrorist group.
On one side are pro-military lawmakers like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., until January the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
On the other are members like Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who are skeptical of the military's ability to use what she sees as the CIA's rigorous decision process before carrying out armed strikes.
"I believe the majority of the responsibility for this should rest with the military," McCain told reporters Tuesday.
He wants most of the armed drone program shifted to the Defense Department, a move that would bring it under the oversight of the House and Senate Armed Services committees.
"The majority of it can be conducted by the Department of Defense," McCain said. "It's not the job of the Central Intelligence Agency. ... It's the military's job."
Transferring the program to the Pentagon -- and under the auspices of the House and Senate Armed Services committees -- would create more "openness" and "oversight" and public hearings about the program, he said.
Minutes later, Feinstein told reporters her "mind, certainly, is not made up." But she quickly added she has reservations about turning over to the military the CIA's armed drone fleet and the missions they conduct.
During the last few years, she said, "We've watched the intelligence aspect of the drone program: how they function. The quality of the intelligence. Watching the agency exercise patience and discretion," Feinstein said.
"The military [armed drone] program has not done that nearly as well," she said. "That causes me concern.
"This is a discipline that is learned, that is carried out without infractions," Feinstein told reporters. "It's not a hasty decision that's made. And I would really have to be convinced that the military would carry it out that way."