17 Mar Is the CIA in the Drone Kill Chain? (Answer: Likely.)
Wells Bennett calls my attention to this statement by Marc Ambinder in a recent article in The Week entitled “Five Truths About the Drone War”:
The CIA does not “fly” drones. It “owns” drones, but the Air Force flies them. The Air Force coordinates (and deconflicts) their use through the CIA’s Office of Military Affairs, which is run by an Air Force general. The Air Force performs maintenance on them. The Air Force presses the button that releases the missile. There are no CIA civilians piloting remote controlled air vehicles. The Agency has about 40 unmanned aerial vehicles in its worldwide arsenal, about 30 of which are deployed in the Middle East and Africa. Most of these thingies are equipped with sophisticated surveillance gear. A few of them are modified to launch missiles. The Air Force owns many more “lethal” RPVs, but it uses them in the contiguous battlefield of Afghanistan.
Wells points out at Lawfare that “if Ambinder is correct, then it is military personnel who do the drone-flying and the button-pushing, and military personnel can invoke a public authority justification for strikes implicating 1119, in Kevin’s view.” In other words, Wells suggests that it might be irrelevant whether CIA officers are entitled to a public authority defence, because they may not actually be involved in lethal drone attacks, including the one that killed al-Awlaki.
I completely agree with Wells’ restatement and application of my position on the public authority defence. But I am less sure that Ambinder’s “truth” insulates CIA from potential criminal liability. Ken Dilanian, a leading national-security reporter, had a long article in the Los Angeles Times last month discussing the possibility of the military taking over much of the CIA drone program. Ambinder’s reporting seemed to contradict Dilanian’s article, so I tweeted Dilanian about it. Here was his reply:
@kevinjonheller no it doesn’t. The cia doesn’t fly it’s drones, but it does the targeting and gives the order to fire.
— Ken Dilanian (@KenDilanianLAT) March 17, 2013
Dilanian is right: the articles don’t necessarily contradict each other. Ambinder says that the military flies the drones and pushes the button that launches the weapon; he does not claim that the military chooses the targets and makes the decision to launch the attack. There are some interesting questions about what it means for the CIA to “give the order to fire,” but it seems clear that CIA officers are still involved in lethal drone attacks in a manner that gives rise to a potential violation of the foreign-murder statute — as conspirators or instigators or as aiders-and-abettors. So the fact that a CIA officer is not entitled to a public authority defence remains an important issue.