Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Formalizing Oversight of Military Targeted Killings

by Micah Zenko
May 14, 2013

Six members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including Mac Thornberry (R-TX) who stands at the podium, hold a press briefing at the Pentagon on November 6, 2003 (Ward/Courtesy Department of Defense).


On Friday, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), vice chairman of the house armed services committee (HASC), introduced a bi-partisan bill with twenty-nine co-sponsors. The full text of the bill (H.R. 1914) was only made available today by the Library of Congress. The “Oversight of Sensitive Military Operations Act” essentially formalizes into law existing oversight procedures for non-battlefield capture or targeted killing operations conducted by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces. As Thornberry acknowledged last week, “We’ve been doing a lot of this oversight anyway,” with the military briefing the HASC’s subcommittee on intelligence, emerging threats, and capabilities within “hours or days” after drone strikes or other “lethal targeting actions.” This is much faster reporting than required under current law—a “global update on activity within each geographic combatant command” every three months.

Thornberry’s public descriptions of the HASC’s oversight procedures were the first instance that a defense committee leader has touted congressional oversight of JSOC targeted killings. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the senate select committee on intelligence, and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), chair of the house permanent select committee on intelligence, have repeatedly proclaimed how their committees exercise careful oversight of CIA drone strikes. Rogers even claimed that he reviews every single counterterrorism airstrike, whether conducted by the CIA or JSOC. Meanwhile, Feinstein asserted that her committee watches “the intelligence aspect of the drone program…literally dozens of inspections…The military program has not done that nearly as well. I think that’s fact.”

Therefore, Thornberry’s unprecedented comments and bill could be an attempt to get credit for oversight that the armed services committees are doing anyway. And as I previously noted, officials with exposure to how the CIA and JSOC report targeted killings to their prospective committees claim that the latter makes available a much broader range of information to the staffers and members.

The bill would mandate that the secretary of defense “promptly submit to the congressional defense committees notice in writing of any sensitive military operation following such operation.” “Promptly submit” is not defined. The bill goes on to state, “The term `sensitive military operation’ means a lethal operation or capture operation conducted by the armed forces.” The bill also contains a reporting requirement, whereby sixty days after its passage into law, the secretary of defense would have to submit “a report containing an explanation of the legal and policy considerations and approval processes used in determining whether an individual or group of individuals could be the target of a lethal operation or capture operation.”

Expanding and formalizing congressional oversight of targeted killings is overdue and should be lauded. Thornberry’s bill would cover JSOC operations in Yemen, Somalia, and any future JSOC lethal operations conducted in the Middle East, North Africa, or who knows where else. It would establish and make public the mechanism for congressional oversight of all targeted killings, if they were all transferred from the CIA to the military—which President Obama should authorize.

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