President Trump has given the CIA new authority to conduct covert drone strikes, the Wall Street Journal reports. This authority was apparently exercised in the targeted killing of al-Qaida commander Abu al-Khayr al-Masri in the Idlib province of Syria in late February.
While the agency has had such authority in the past, the Obama administration, under pressure from human rights and civil liberties groups, gradually shifted control of the drone program from the CIA to the military over the past few years. By the end of the Obama administration, according to the Journal, the CIA would use drones to locate suspected terrorists, but the military would carry out the actual strike. The distinction is important for transparency: The Pentagon reports most strikes while the CIA doesn’t.
Trump’s order is meant to apply to operations against ISIS and al-Qaida in Syria, but it could also allow the agency to conduct strikes in other countries. This may already be happening. The Journal notes that a suspected U.S. drone strike in Pakistan earlier this month was not acknowledged by the Pentagon, as it normally would be. This wasn’t the only unusual thing about that strike. Though once the center of America’s covert war on terrorism, drone strikes in Pakistan have become rare: There were only three in 2016, down from a high of 122 in 2010, according to data from New America.
As I wrote last week, U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria have been killing a significantly higher number of civilians so far this year. It’s too soon to attribute that to Trump: The uptick in Syria and Iraq began in the closing days of the Obama administration and may have more to do with the fact that the fight against ISIS is moving toward the urban centers of Mosul and Raqqa. But it’s also true that the new administration has taken steps to undo some of the measures put in place to protect civilians. These include Trump giving the military more authority to conduct counterterrorism operations without White House review, and asking the Pentagon to recommend changes to the rules of engagement for these operations. Giving the CIA more authority to conduct these missions will further reduce the accountability and transparency around how the U.S. goes after terrorist targets.
The move, reportedly made shortly after Trump visited the CIA’s headquarters a day after his inauguration, is also interesting in light of the perceived tension between the administration and the U.S. intelligence community. Trump, whose CIA Director Mike Pompeo has not yet been confirmed, publicly disparaged U.S. intelligence agencies before he was inaugurated over their consensus view that Russia had tried to influence the 2016 election, suggesting their assessments were politically motivated. Trump’s allies have suggested an ongoing campaign by the “deep state” to undermine his presidency. Still, it appears Trump does trust the CIA to kill people.