On Monday, Admiral Denis Blair, former National Intelligence Director for President Obama, presented remarks concerning military readiness and potential defense budget cuts at a function hosted by the Aspen Institute. In response to a question from Fox News’s Catherine Herridge about the development of drone policy, Blair offered a surprisingly forceful critique of the CIA’s drone war in Pakistan:
Covert action that goes on for years doesn’t generally stay covert. And you need a way to make it something that is part of your overt policy. I think that the way that we know about to do that is to make it a military operation and to — therefore, when you are going to be using drones over a long period of time, I would say you ought to give strong consideration to running those as military operations.
Within the armed forces we have a set of procedures that are open, known for how you make decisions about when to use deadly force or not, levels of approval degrees of proof and so on and they are things that can be and should be openly put out. So yet another of the problems of trying to conduct long-term sustained covert operations is this secrecy, which you do for other purposes but then puts you in this position which we said. So, I argue strongly that covert action should be retained for relatively short duration operations which — no kidding — should not be talked about and should not be publicized. That if something has been going for a long period of time, somebody else ought to do it, not intelligence agencies.
The remarks can be viewed on CSPAN here, beginning at the 1:17 mark.
Blair was sharply critical of the CIA-run drone war in Pakistan in his final months in the Obama White House, and he has acknowledged that friction with the CIA led to his departure. But his critique (which is almost identical to the one I have been raising for the past three years) is firmly rooted in American national-security doctrine.
The CIA has been able to stifle serious discussion of its highly anomalous military role in Pakistan thanks to a combination of mission creep and secrecy. First the agency secured command of drones as an intelligence asset. Then it gained control of drones armed with lethal weaponry for occasional covert operations. These two stages were arguably within the scope of the agency’s charter under the National Security Act. But then developments in Pakistan during the course of the Afghanistan War led the White House to conclude that drone operations there were best conducted covertly and by the CIA. This clearly occurred because Islamabad wanted to maintain a posture in which it publicly opposed the use of drones, even as it was not only enabling them but actively helping the U.S. target at least some of the strikes.
As Blair points out, the CIA ended up running a military campaign that has entailed hundreds of strikes, often linked to hostilities in Afghanistan, over a period of seven years. The agency developed targets, operated strikes, and performed post-strike assessments, all using covert assets on Pakistani soil. The scope of this campaign amounts to a de facto militarization of the CIA — minus the training, procedures, and public justification that Blair notes must accompany military action.
The current crisis in U.S.–Pakistan relations — which is to some extent the consequence of avoidable missteps by the CIA, such as the Raymond Davis affair — further validates Blair’s critique. As the United States and Pakistan seek to mend their relationship, the White House should carefully reassess some of the decisions that have led to the breakdown, one of which is clearly the unprecedented, essentially military mission being conducted by the CIA. Blair’s resistance may have earned him Langley’s enmity, and may have hastened his departure from the White House, but he was right about every element of it. Indeed, the CIA’s drone war goes to the heart of America’s challenge in forging a stable relationship with Pakistan and the nations emerging from the Arab Spring. The campaign cannot be reconciled with the Obama Administration’s talk of dedication to democracy, nor of respect for the rule of law.