Tensions Rising in Washington Over Access to Drone Information

FILE: This photo shows an Air Force stealth drone called the Avenger.

FILE: This photo shows an Air Force stealth drone called the Avenger.  (General Atomics)

Tensions are quietly increasing between the White House and some congressional leaders over access to sensitive information about the government's use of drones in Pakistan and Yemen, officials said.

The White House has brushed aside requests for information from lawmakers, who argue that the strikes, carried out secretly by the CIA and the military's Joint Special Operations Command, have broad implications for US policy but do not receive adequate oversight.

Some current and former administration, military and congressional officials point to what they see as significant oversight gaps, in part because few lawmakers have full access to information about the drone strikes.

Lawmakers on Congress's intelligence committees are privy to information about all CIA and military-intelligence operations, but members of at least two other panels want insight on the drone program.

Compounding the dispute: Lawmakers who are briefed on classified information are legally constrained from raising their concerns publicly. Current and former officials say the White House wants to keep a tight hold on classified information to avoid unauthorized disclosures.

The demand for lawmakers outside the intelligence committees to have access to details on the covert drone program, said one US official, "just doesn't hold water."

Officials with the House and Senate Intelligence committees say they provide rigorous oversight of the CIA's covert-action programs. Other lawmakers can make requests to the committees for information on classified programs, these officials add.

Concerns about oversight prompted Democratic and Republican leaders earlier this month to slip language into newly approved defense legislation requiring the Pentagon to provide the armed services committees with quarterly updates on "counterterrorism operations and related activities involving special operations forces," officials said.

The tensions come as groups such as Human Rights Watch step up pressure on the White House to explain its legal justification for killing suspected militants, including American citizens, without due process.

The disputes over the program have grown as improved technology has made drone operations easier to conduct -- and thus more frequent.

CIA drones have killed more than 1,500 suspected militants on Pakistani soil since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, becoming the most lethal program in the spy agency's history.

Administration officials say the drone programs run by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command are carefully monitored by top officials at both agencies and by the White House National Security Council.

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