Shift to JSOC on Drone Strikes Does Not Mean CIA Has Been Sidelined

By Robert Chesney
Thursday, June 16, 2016, 2:29 PM

Greg Miller has an interesting and seemingly quite well-sourced article in the Washington Post today documenting (and offering explanations for) a significant decline in CIA drone strikes.  To be clear, the claim is not that drone strikes on the whole are in decline.  The point is that responsibility for them really is shifting, at long last, from CIA to DOD (JSOC).  

As the article makes clear, this shift has long been a stated priority of the Obama administration, but in the past it has not seemed to gain traction.   Miller reports that several recent developments explain why the shift is accelerating now:

  • A change in leadership at CIA's CTC (from a person fiercely opposed to the shift to someone more accomodating); 
  • The "collapse of the Yemeni government that had ordered" a ban on JSOC-led strikes there (leaving CIA in control of the field for a time);
  • Errors with CIA-led strikes that weakened the CIA's claim to be more effective in this area; 
  • Weariness with maintaining a posture of secrecy for CIA strikes even though so much is in fact known about them; and
  • A possible decline in the administration's willingness to orchestrate things so as to be least abrasive for the Pakistani government.

At some level, this is plainly important.  But beware overreading the extent of the change afoot. 

In a key passage, Miller explains that one important consequence from the change in leadership at CIA's CTC was that it enabled DOD and CIA to make progress on "overcom[ing] logistical and technical barriers, setting up a new system in which the agency yields to JSOC aircraft in the moments before missiles are launched."   This draws attention to a fact that is important but often overlooked. Everyone understands that both CIA and JSOC have evolved tremendously over the past fifteen years, adapting to the armed CT mission.  What gets overlooked is the degree to which this is not just a matter of independent institutional evolution, but also integration and cooperation on missions of just this kind. 

The hybridization trend complicates the question of who "leads" on drone strikes.  It seems like this should be a simple question, and it is if you focus only on who pulls the trigger (or, more specifically, whether the trigger puller is acting in a Title 10 or Title 50 capacity at that moment).  But that's too narrow a lens, given how important intelligence collection and analysis is to the ultimate decision to pull the trigger, and also how the overall chain of activities culminating in the strike itself might involve both CIA and JSOC assets, personnel, and authorities operating in increasingly-coordinated fashion.  A wider lens, accounting for that complexity, fits with the quote above.  The quote indicates that there were unspecified logistical and technological barriers to a new approach that would seem to still contemplate a substantial CIA role (presumably operating drones in an ISR capacity) joined to either (i) a last-minute transfer of control over those same air assets to JSOC personnel (who then can fire using the same platform) or (ii) the nearby presence of a separate JSOC-controlled drone which will do the actual shooting.  

Either way, DOD personnel acting in a Title 10 capacity pull the trigger, and the government finds it easier to talk publicly about what then happens. Which is interesting and important.  The point I want to make, however, is that CIA on this model seems to remain a central component of an overall system in which the strike itself is simply the apex of a complicated intelligence collection-and-analysis process.

For my part, I think that's a plus given what seems to be the overall effectiveness of the hybrid system that has evolved.  But for those who want DOD to take over drone strike in hopes that CIA will move away from its post-9/11 orientation towards targeting and armed counterterrorism, I don't think the new approach is going to prove all that meaningful (either at a functional level or in terms of how CIA prioritizes its resources and personnel).