Sunday, January 20, 2013

Oversight of drone attacks

I have long been concerned about Pentagon efforts -- pushed especially by former Secretary Rumsfeld -- to create paramilitary forces that could avoid the processes used to assure accountability of CIA-run covert actions. Thanks to a process created to implement a law I helped write many years ago, the President must personally authorize CIA-run covert actions and must then inform Congress, at least the senior leadership and eventually the intelligence committees. For the most part, so far as I've heard, people in both branches of government involved in this process believe it has worked well to assume accountability and good policies.

The rapid expansion of U.S. drone operations, some of which are conducted by the military, some by the intelligence community, have created an oversight gap. Lawyers want to know whether an action is "under Title 10 or Title 50 authority," referring to the sections of the U.S. Code dealing with the Defense Department and the intelligence community and war powers, respectively. This had led to calls for a "Title 60" covering both.

I support that idea and have some practical suggestions. Congress doesn't need to know everything about every military operation that might have some broader purposes or consequences, but it should be told about actions that could be significant -- if they succeed, if they fail, or if they are publicly disclosed. The test of significance, in my view, should be whether the Executive Branch itself  requires presidential involvement. If the matter is important or worrisome enough that cabinet officers want to be sure the president knows and supports it, it's the sort of activity that Congress needs to be notified about.

The Washington Post reports today that the administration is drawing up a "playbook" for handling drone operations beyond those involving the CIA in Pakistan.
The playbook has adopted that tighter standard and imposes other more stringent rules. Among them are requirements for White House approval of drone strikes and the involvement of multiple agencies — including the State Department — in nominating new names for kill lists.
That's a clear example of where Congress ought to be included in the loop -- when there has to be White House approval.

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