Powell: Pentagon Should Run Drone Program

Reaper drops first precision-guided bomb, protects ground forces

Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the U.S. Defense Department and not the Central Intelligence Agency should run the drone program that kills suspected terrorists abroad.

Powell, a Republican who served in top positions in both the George Bush and George W. Bush administrations, said the CIA only began taking greater responsibility for targeted assassinations after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“The application of the state’s military force should be done by the military leaders and the Department of Defense,” he said during a May 26 interview with Bloomberg Television. “This doesn’t mean the CIA has nothing to do with it. The intelligence will come from the CIA and other sources and then be fed into the Department of Defense.”

Powell praised President Barack Obama’s speech last week that defended the use of drone strikes in part for their precision, even though newly declassified information revealed that three of the four Americans who died in such attacks since 2009 were killed accidentally.

“It was a very balanced speech,” Powell said. “He made it clear that there are still enemies out there that we have to deal with but we have to be more careful in the use of force, especially with respect to drones. Drones are a very, very effective weapon and we will continue to use them but in a more circumscribed manner to make sure that we are going after high-value targets that present a real immediate threat to us.”

Obama called for tighter criteria for using drones as part of an updated counter-terrorism policy. Before any strike, “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” he said in hisĀ remarks.

During a background briefing with reporters before the address, senior administration officials said the policy change includes a preference for the U.S. military rather than the CIA to take the lead on strikes involving unmanned aircraft.

Congress should also review criteria for the use of lethal force, Powell said.

“One of the problems with using drones too widely was sort of laid out to me by a Pakistani senior officer,” he said. “He said if you make a mistake and you end up killing 10 or 15 villagers or 20 villagers, in addition to the person you were after, you have created 20 new enemies for the United States of America. Their families will seek revenge. And, he said, the Pakistani Army gets blamed for being complicit in all of this.”

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Jay

    I agree that the DOD should have total control of the drone program but other agencies have their priorities as well. Centralization can be a good or a bad thing. Either way there needs to be accountability, when that fails, American rights can get screwed.

  • blight_

    Drones no longer have the plausible deniability that they used to. Everyone and their mother knows about them. Thus, the only reason to have CIA drones is if you expect the DoD to not approve a drone strike, or somehow DoD is too slow (as if the CIA lacked bureaucracy!)

    Or you could drop the rules of engagement such that you blow up whatever you damn well please, and then it doesn’t matter who is holding the joysticks, target will be taken out promptly.

    • Jay

      I agree but there’s also the “need to know” and the “target” could be as simple as just gathering intel with the possibility of a strike. Which we all know that the CIA will take a shot if the opportunity presents itself.

      • blight_

        The other argument (one that Prouty espoused in The Secret Team) is to use the military for direct action and intelligence gathering.


    All I have to say is this: whoever’s name is written across the side of the plane should control that aircraft. The Air Force is written across the F-22; the Air Force uses the F-22. The US Navy has their name written on the F-18. They use and control the F-18.

    • blight_

      You’re suggesting the present: that the CIA and the military have parallel drone hunter-killer forces, potentially casing out, surveilling and killing the same targets in vacuum, and not in coordination.

      What if the CIA decides to hang back and surveil a target, and the Air Force predator puts a Hellfire in it? The CIA and the DoD need to be in the same room, deciding together what is watched and who is killed. Ownership of the drones doesn’t matter nearly as much if the CIA and the DoD have the resources to case every target and have clear directives on who to watch and who to kill.

      That said, coordination between a component of the DIA and the CIA will work. I’m not sure who would be at the table for the CIA. The National Clandestine Service, which collects intel? The Directorate of Intelligence does the analytics, but is not tasked with /collection/.

      Presumably the day-to-day should be between the NCS, the DoI, and the DIA’s Defense Clandestine Service and Directorate for Analysis. Already that’s two agencies and four branches, and two different “groups”: the analysts and the collectors.

      Under ideal conditions both agencies would use sheep-dipped personnel or “civilians” to maintain the drones in places like Pakistan, but use military personnel to maintain drones elsewhere. The only fundamental difference between the two groups use of drones is intent, with considerable overlap.


        Yeah, I see that. I am guessing that this is kinda like how the SR-71 Blackbird program was conducted.

    • Hammer6

      The USA owns and operates the platform. Whoever operates it should do so to a high standard, maximizing protection of rights and minimizing collateral damage. GEN(Ret.) Powell is right; drone use should not be creating more enemies.

  • Jim

    Not sure I would trust anything Powell has to say after all the WMD lies that got is into Iraq.

  • Joseph

    Regardless of which agency takes control of the drone program there will be resentment towards the use of drones in the first place. What should be taking into consideration is the level of skill of which agency performs the task at hand. If one tends to outperform the other than logic says to hand the program over.

    • SJE

      I think the point is not just the level of skill, but the ability to coordinate drones into broader policy goals.

  • Y2K

    If it’s the CIA’s agents risking their lives on the ground getting the intel for the UAV strikes then the CIA should control them. Having the USAF take over is just adding another layer of bureaucracy and egos to the mix.

    • blight_

      The DoD will then respond, that’s what the DIA is for.

      Then they will expand their HUMINT/SIGINT/ELINT until they are duplicating the CIA’s groundwork.

  • IKnowIT

    Drones don’t seem like a traditional thing for the CIA do they? I mean, has the CIA every had tanks, bombers, etc? I am fine with them having passive systems, like spy planes, and agents (which may not be passive), but major strike systems? Seems like they are trying to fix an accountability issue by going through the CIA. In any case, the whole drone thing, and the general militarization of other (civilian) agencies such as DHS (which I think is getting drones) is actually a bigger concern as they are not outward facing, but inward..

  • SilverFalcon

    In the past, international assassination required Presidential authority. The operatives assigned were held responsible for any casualties other than the target and combative resistance individuals. This sort of precision operation takes time and a great deal of planning which the current trend seems to avoid. Drones were designed to save pilots lives, but, are now being used somewhat indiscriminately to justify attempted executions by laying the responsibility at the feet of no one. Drones are the new toy in the box and it seems we just can’t resist using them. Some time ago the agencies felt that satellites could replace human intelligence and therefore we put more spy satellites into orbit and reduced our ground intelligence to a minimum. This action has been well documented to have caused many lives. Let’s hope we do not repeat history by thinking drones can replace human operatives on the ground.

  • oblatt1

    Powell is a simpleton, the drones need to be run by the CIA so that the drone terror campaign can continue without regard to the inevitable American casualties from blowback.

    • blight_

      Under sane government, that would be the crux of why the CIA doesn’t need a huge drone force to kill people from the sky willy-nilly.

      Of course the other question is: does the DoD have any role killing individuals out of the air in other people’s countries? Chances are “CIA drones” are little more than sheep-dipped military drones.


        I would think that the DoD doesn’t really have a role in killing individuals. This contradicts what I said earlier, but you know. The CIA are known to have carried out clandestine operations. Are these drone strikes not “clandestine”?

        • blight_

          How can they be clandestine if everyone knows about them?

          Or a fragment of Hellfire missile with American serial numbers? Plus American obsession with body counts has essentially outed this program.

          “We bombed them, hooray America, god is great!” is not very clandestine.

          Clandestine is paying members of the Taliban to fight each other by spreading rumors one of them is going to defect to the Americans. *THAT* is clandestine. So is night letters, kidnapping and assassination of our enemies by guys wearing robes with AK-47’s and mopeds.

          Sending in a drone with a missile is about as clandestine as door-kickers and helicopters. Sending an F-16 to drop an SDB achieves the same purpose with about as much deniability.

          • USS ENTERPRISE

            I…..wasn’t meaning in the sense that the ARE clandestine; they would be “classified” as clandestine. Like, the invasion of Iraq was not clandestine; people knew about it, and it was pretty open for discussion in all three houses, and the American home. On the flip-side, the government occasionally tells us about drone strikes. However, that said, how do you know that only the drone strikes that are “reported” are the only ones being conducted? Also, on many occasions, other foreign news agency probably also report such strikes before the government admits to it. Once again, the point is that I wasn’t saying that the operations themselves are clandestine; but for the government, they would be CLASSIFIED as clandestine. Two totally different meanings.

          • IKnowIT

            Who says the missiles have serial numbers? Something goes boom, and people can guess it was a drone, but they wont know… You can achieve this with other LO aircraft, yes, but drone shave the loiter time. They are looking for individuals.

          • USS ENTERPRISE

            Well, it does leave a wreckage behind, which might have serial numbers, and what not. But even so, you can’t easily pick out a stenciled “US Air Force” symbol or roundel, or a pencil-inned “Send my regards from Texas” written by personnel. Possibly the wreckage can indicate who sent the package, just by looking at it. I dunno.

  • hibeam

    Powell should run a hot dog stand. In Nome.

  • KadAZ

    Even if the DoD owned all the drones, they would still need to be transferred to CIA control in order to strike in places like Pakistan and Yemen. It’s a Tile 10 vs Title 50 thing. It’s just like how the DeV Group guys who killed OBL were transferred to CIA control in order to make it legal. I’m surprised Powell doesn’t seem to know this, but then again not much he has done surprises me any more after 2008.

  • KadAZ

    Even if the DOD controlled all the drones they would have to be put under CIA control in order to strike in countries like Pakistan or Yemen. Powell should know this, it’s title 10 vs title 50 stuff. It was the same for the DEV groip guys who killed OBL, to work in Pakistan they were transferred to CIA control. So basically he’s rambling about nothing.


      Well yeah. If I am not mistaken, using the SR-71 as a stencil, wouldn’t the crews and personnel associated with the drone works for the Air Force? The information, no matter who is conducting operations, always ends up as a nice dossier in the CIA building.

  • KadAZ

    Even if the DOD controlled all the drones they would have to be put under CIA control in order to strike in countries like Pakistan or Yemen. Powell should know this, it’s title 10 vs title 50 stuff. It was the same for the DEV groip guys who killed OBL, to work in Pakistan they were transferred to CIA control. So basically he’s rambling about nothing.

    • blight_

      Which makes this whole CIA/DoD thing semantics, if you can pass off soldiers and machinery on the fly with some penmarks on a piece of paper.

      “We’re going to hit these guys in Pakistan, your drones now!”

      “Hang on, we have a truck to hit in Afghanistan, back to you Air Force!”

  • Old Farker

    Powell is the moral equivalent of Aldrich Hazen Ames. He should be deported to Cuba.

  • Bronco46

    I can’t believe the author of this article listed Powell as a Republican. He hasn’t voted Republican in at least 12 years if ever. The CIA should have some drones, but the majority should be under the military.

  • Betty Ramey

    Everyone should read Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service [Henry A. Crumpton]. Really opened my eyes as to why the CIA should control these

  • wpnexp

    The problem is the speech was so vague general and broad, you can take anything you want from it. There is a problem, that I can’t define, and I can do everything from using vast armies of robots to destroy people and things to ignoring the problem to giving other people lots of our money to solve it. But, just don’t ask me what I am going to do.

  • wpnexp

    Funny, no comment from Restore Palestine? Maybe a drone found out where he lives.

  • Drew

    I’m surprised Powell said “Assassination”. I thought the CIA stopped doing that in the 60’s; about the time they started neutralizing C3 nodes.

    Another thing… which of the four Americans killed by a drone was not accidental? Does his SGLI pay double for that?