Early in the Obama administration, the President reportedly told his national security team: "The CIA gets what it needs." Ever since, the Central Intelligence Agency has enjoyed great latitude in executing top-secret military missions in support of President Obama's foreign policy.
That has led to some dramatic successes like the killing of Osama Bin Laden. But as the CIA has undertaken an expanded and historically unprecedented role, the line between the CIA and the Pentagon has become increasingly blurred. The absence of clarity over the roles of the CIA and the Defense Department has made it more and more unclear which agency should be accountable for the results of politically sensitive, lethal and secret military operations.
Before the Obama administration ratchets up use of armed drones in Yemen, as it is poised to do, it must reckon with this reality - and clarify the division of labor between Defense and the CIA as they carry out America's shadow wars.
The separation of command between the CIA and Defense is not just a bureaucratic quibble - it has significant bearing on critical civilian oversight. Technically, both Defense and CIA clandestine operations require presidential authorization. In practice, the difference is substantial. The CIA flies largely below Congress' radar; its operations require prior presidential notification to the closed-door Senate and House intelligence committees, but in practice the committees do not constrain its covert operations. With respect to the Defense Department, on the other hand, the Senate and House armed services committees are more diligent. They ask more pointed questions about spending, about strategy - and about consequences.