With drone strikes in Pakistan accelerating since 2008, the CIA has transformed into a quasi-military force. But as a spy agency, the CIA's instincts are to wage war the way it runs covert actions – in secret, and by its own rules. As it goes about its mission, the agency's habit is to check the boxes, doing the minimum work necessary to achieve legal cover and political buy-in. The CIA selectively leaks details of its drone strikes to the press, so the public only ever learns of its successes, never its failures.
This sounds plausible and even palatable if the CIA is just a spy agency secretly running down terrorists once in a while, as in fictional television shows like Homeland. It is untenable, though, as the model of warfare it is fast becoming. More than 300 drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have killed about 3,000 people, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. If the CIA's hunter-killer role becomes permanent, the US government will have no grounds for protest when other countries inevitably follow the CIA's example of carrying out drone strike campaigns in any place, at any time, and without any official acknowledgement or need to publicly and legally justify its actions.
Knowing the dangerous precedent the CIA is setting, Obama has alluded to a "due process" for death decision-making. Details are few, but we know the process does not involve the courts or the public, and vests full discretion within the executive branch. Even if it met concerns about the legality of drone strikes, though, this kind of decision-making would be wrong for the CIA, which has a history of grabbing for all the power it can get while failing to rein in abusive agents.
Though it ill fits the CIA's targeted killing program, the internal due process Obama described would somewhat match what military commands traditionally do on the battlefield. The difference is that in democracies, the public entrusts the military to wield lethal force only because it is subject to laws and the enforcing machinery of political oversight. The military has the responsibility of earning public approval for its actions overall, or it risks losing its mandate for war. Public disapproval of the war in Iraq, and dismay at continuing involvement in Afghanistan, led to the US troop drawdowns of the last few years.
This system of public approval and disapproval for military action is imperfect and sometimes fails, but it markedly contrasts with the oversight of the CIA's secretive war-making. Although the Obama administration touts the drone campaign as a success, it is officially a state secret – giving the CIA a free pass on disclosing civilian casualties to courts or to Congress, except in closed sessions with a few members.
In this climate, polls show the American public broadly approves of a drone campaign of which it knows alarmingly little. In American media, the slick and sanitized image of a Predator drone suspended mid-air accompanies news stories on drone strikes that report "militants" killed. Precisely who these men were and how they were selected for execution are rarely mentioned.
The bodies of civilian dead are never pictured, even when these deaths are reported. Reports that drone strikes have killed more than 100 children have sullied the international reputation of the United States, and have led to UN calls for an investigation. Within the US, however, there is little if any public interest in debating the cost of drones on civilian lives.
In Monday's nomination announcement, Obama complimented Brennan on recognizing the responsibility to be as "open and transparent as possible" about counterterrorism policies. Brennan himself pledged "full and open discourse" – though only with "appropriate elective representatives". Despite these nods, it would be naive to expect the CIA, under Brennan, to engage fully with the American public about the drone program. The CIA is too accustomed to secrecy ever to let it go.
If Brennan and Obama were serious about transparency over killing, they would extract the CIA from the drone program altogether. America's premier spy agency should no longer also be its chief assassin.