As Nancy Pelosi likes to say, you can’t find out what’s in a bill until you pass it … or until someone reads it. The Washington Post reported this morning that a clause in the omnibus spending package passed by the House last night contained an interesting line item inserted by appropriators. The bill denied any funding to switch the drone program from CIA to Defense, as the White House planned:
Congress has moved to block President Obama’s plan to shift control of the U.S. drone campaign from the CIA to the Defense Department, inserting a secret provision in the massive government spending bill introduced this week that would preserve the spy agency’s role in lethal counterterrorism operations, U.S. officials said.
The measure, included in a classified annex to the $1.1 trillion federal budget plan, would restrict the use of any funding to transfer unmanned aircraft or the authority to carry out drone strikes from the CIA to the Pentagon, officials said.
The provision represents an unusually direct intervention by lawmakers into the way covert operations are run, impeding an administration plan aimed at returning the CIA’s focus to traditional intelligence gathering and possibly bringing more transparency to drone strikes.
The problem is that the DoD has some target selection issues, as the Post’s Greg Miller goes on to note:
Those apprehensions were amplified after a U.S. military strike in Yemen last month killed a dozen people, including as many as six civilians, in an 11-vehicle convoy that tribal leaders said was part of a wedding procession. U.S. officials said that the strike was aimed at a senior al-Qaeda operative but that reviews of the operation have raised concern that it failed to comply with White House guidelines requiring “near certainty” that no civilians would be harmed.
On Wednesday, there were reports that another U.S. strike had killed a farmer in Yemen.
The “secret” provision didn’t stay secret for long. After the Post’s report went out, an angry John McCain took to the Senate floor to rip appropriators in both chambers for overstepping their bounds:
Waving around a copy of The Post while speaking on the Senate floor, McCain blasted his colleagues on the Senate and House Appropriations committee for making such a key decision without formally and publicly consulting the authorizing committees for the CIA and Defense Department.
“The Appropriations Committee has no business making these decisions,” he said. “The job of the Armed Services Committee and the job of the Intelligence Committee is to authorize these things. There was no hearing on the Intelligence Committee. There was no hearing on the Armed Services Committee.”
“The appropriations have gotten into the business of the authorizing committees,” he added later. “That is a violation of every procedure and process that this Senate is supposed to be pursuing.”
The big question should be whether the shift of drone warfare to Defense is wise. Target selection and competence comes into play here, but there are legitimate questions of transparency involved, too. However, one can’t help but think that politics might be taking precedence over results here. Obama gets hammered on drone policy from the Left, and he might be looking for ways to limit the damage by making it more transparent — which might have the effect of making it less effective, too, as well as less accurate.
For an example of the attacks Obama gets from his allies on this, here’s the transcript from Greta van Susteren noting that Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright made a pointed comparison between Martin Luther King, Jr and Obama, and CNN also covered the remarks:
VAN SUSTEREN: And Griff Jenkins joins us live from Chicago. Griff, that didn’t quite work out as well as you had planned.
JENKINS: Hi, Greta. Well, after being invited to his speech, Reverend Wright completely ignored us, all of us in the media, and kicked our cameras out when he gave his speech, for which we found out why, the content of the speech. Reverend Wright wasted no time launching into his incendiary remarks, many of which were directed at President Obama, saying things like we need to tell the truth about our politicians and their policies. He used lines and I, quote. “King said, ‘I have a dream.’ Barack said, ‘I have a drone’.” He went on to describe a kill list that President Obama looks at every Tuesday and chooses who he is going to kill.
To McCain’s point, though, how should Congress formulate their policy? The reason why both chambers have intelligence and armed services committees is so that they can specialize on those policy areas and make wise decisions … or at least wiser. At the very least, appropriators should have consulted those committees before inserting secret provisions that usurp their jurisdiction.
And this leaves another pertinent question: Just how many more secret provisions are in this omnibus spending bill, and what do those do? We’ll see if McCain forces the Senate to slow down on this bill and get people to take a closer look at it so that we don’t discover just those nuggets that the media find interesting.