WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is considering withdrawing its military support for the CIA, including potentially taking back much of the drone fleet used by the CIA, according to current and former officials. This change could dramatically curtail the agency’s counterterrorism efforts, which were significantly expanded after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The administration is considering several options that could come into effect on January 5. One would reduce the number of Pentagon personnel sent to the agency – many of whom are special operations forces working in the paramilitary branch of the CIA. But other changes envisioned would be much broader and more substantial, making it more difficult for the agency to work from military bases, use Defense Department medical evacuation capabilities, or conduct strikes. secret drones targeting terrorists in hot spots around the world.
Former officials have warned that President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. could immediately reverse any changes once he takes office next month. Nonetheless, depending on how quickly the Pentagon makes such decisions, the new administration might find it more difficult to overturn quickly.
It was unclear why the Trump administration insisted on their review, given that Mr. Biden could easily roll it back. Some former agency officers saw the move as a last-ditch attempt by President Trump, who has long insulted intelligence agencies for their assessment that Russia had intervened to aid its 2016 presidential campaign, to downplay the CIA.
The Pentagon is reviewing a 15-year-old memorandum of understanding with the CIA in an attempt to transfer some of the agency’s support staff to other positions, a senior administration official said. Some in the Pentagon believe that the CIA has obtained too much military means and that the Defense Department wants to have more say in their allocation.
Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who was installed last month as acting Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and is seen by some career officials as a highly ideological loyalist to Trump, led the effort, said current and former officials. Christopher C. Miller, the acting Secretary of Defense and longtime Army Green Beret, has long supported him and is part of the day-to-day business of the Pentagon, which must constantly review the way it uses its assets, according to a senior American official.
“The Pentagon has tried to better allocate its resources to focus more on the so-called great power competition with China,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Uriah L. Orland, a spokesman. word of the Ministry of Defense, in response to a request. for comment.
“Much has changed in the first two decades of this century, and the DOD is simply working with the CIA to ensure that the DOD and the CIA are able to jointly address the national security challenges facing states. -United ”, he declared.
While the CIA declined to discuss the deliberations, Nicole de Haay, a spokeswoman for the agency, said she was confident her close collaboration with the Defense Ministry would continue “for years to come.” .
“There is no stronger relationship, nor a better partnership,” she said. “This partnership has led to accomplishments that have dramatically improved United States national security.”
The review focuses on the assignment of military experts on detailed counterterrorism from the Pentagon to the CIA, but the changes could be broader than that, according to those briefed on the effort.
One version of the plan could reduce the number of military bases the Pentagon allows the CIA to use, and even reduce the number of places around the world where the Department of Defense provides medical evacuation and treatment for US agents. agency and subcontractors.
“It would mark a setback for US national security,” Michael P. Mulroy, former senior Pentagon Middle East policy official and former CIA paramilitary officer, said in an email about the proposed changes. “This relationship, together as a team, has led to some of the greatest successes we have had in Afghanistan, Iraq, and throughout the global war on terror.”
Defense One previously reported the Pentagon review.
Since the September 11 attacks, the CIA has supplemented its small number of unmanned armed drones with assets and pilots borrowed from the Pentagon. Today, about two-thirds to three-quarters of the CIA’s drone fleet are owned by the Air Force and are on loan to the agency, according to former officials.
CIA strikes are secret and the agency does not recognize them. During the Bush and Obama administrations, the CIA used army drones to conduct more and more deadly airstrikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. The CIA, not the military, has carried out some of the government‘s airstrikes over the past decades because some host countries have prevented the US military from operating on their territory. The CIA can also act faster, argued former officials.
“The CIA’s process of authorizing deadly strikes against individuals is faster than the more bureaucratic procedures of the military,” said Kevin Carroll, a former CIA officer. “Such evanescent and urgent counterterrorism targets could be missed.”
CIA drone strikes have waned in recent years and the agency has withdrawn from strikes in some countries like Pakistan, which were once the focus of its operations, according to former officials.
Over the past year, the Trump administration has begun to scale back the nation’s counterterrorism efforts as it attempts to shift the focus of intelligence agencies to China. This year, Richard Grenell, then acting director of national intelligence, ordered an overhaul of the National Counterterrorism Center, which led to a reduction in its size.
Human rights groups are likely to welcome any further reduction in CIA airstrikes. They have long opposed government-targeted assassinations of terrorism suspects, but have been particularly frustrated by the secretive nature of the CIA program.
“The CIA should not be responsible for targeted assassinations because, by its nature, it cannot meet international standards of transparency,” said Andrea J. Prasow, Washington deputy director at Human Rights Watch.
The Pentagon has told Biden’s transition officials it is considering his deal to provide CIA assistance in an effort to shift resources from the counterterrorism mission to the threat from China. .
Most administrations delay major decisions with far-reaching ramifications during the last days of a president’s term. Former officials say the revised operating agreement between the CIA and the Pentagon is exactly that kind of change with global ramifications that should be left to the Biden administration.
But the deal could be aimed at making it difficult for the CIA to conduct some of its operations in Afghanistan over the next month, as the Pentagon tries to reduce the number of troops there. People briefed on the matter, however, say the military continues to support the CIA despite the withdrawal orders.
The close ties between the CIA and military special operations personnel were highlighted last month when a CIA paramilitary officer was killed in Somalia. General Mark A Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly revealed the officer’s death in remarks last week to a think tank. General Milley noted that the officer had previously served in the military as a member of the Navy SEALs.
The Pentagon announced last week that nearly all of the roughly 700 troops in Somalia – most of the special operations forces that have conducted training and counterterrorism missions – will depart by January 15, five days before Mr. Biden’s inauguration.
Military officials have said the Pentagon will continue to conduct counterterrorism operations from neighboring Djibouti and Kenya, but the withdrawal of US forces is likely to complicate the role of CIA paramilitary officers who remain in Somalia.
Over the past two decades, the military-CIA partnership has ended “many terrorist attacks,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer who has devoted much of his career to operations. fight against terrorism.
“The fight against terrorism is not over even as we move to near-peer competition from China and Russia,” he said. “This reported decision also puts CIA personnel at risk. At a time when a CIA officer was recently killed in Somalia, it is hard to imagine why the Defense Ministry would withdraw the medevac platforms required for our officers on the spear.