WASHINGTON — The deaths of an Italian and an American in a covert CIA drone strike in Pakistan — and the rhetorical contortions required of the president when he informed the world — have breathed new urgency into a long-stalled plan to give the Pentagon primacy over targeted killing of terrorists overseas.
President Barack Obama announced two years ago that he wanted the armed forces, not a civilian intelligence agency, to be in charge of killing militants abroad who pose a threat to the United States. One reason he cited was transparency: The military can talk about its activities, while the CIA usually cannot.
But the effort soon slowed to a crawl amid bureaucratic rivalries, intelligence sharing dilemmas and congressional turf battles. The vast majority of drone strikes since Obama's May 2013 speech have been carried out in Yemen and Pakistan by the CIA.
Now, administration officials and their allies in Congress want to get the transition moving again, U.S. officials said this week. The catalyst was Obama's struggle last month to explain how two hostages held by al-Qaida, American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto, were accidentally killed in an American drone missile attack in January. He had to do so without acknowledging that the CIA routinely conducts attacks in Pakistan, a "secret" in U.S. law but a known fact throughout the world.
The CIA also conducts targeted strikes in Yemen. The military does so in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Proponents of moving the drone program to the military worry that the CIA's focus on hunting and killing has allowed its spying muscles to atrophy. And they argue that the military is able to discuss its operations, adding a layer of public accountability. On the other side are those who believe the CIA has become extremely proficient at targeted killing, which relies more on precise intelligence than traditional bombing.
Much of the debate about whether the CIA should exit the killing business is taking place behind the scenes. In public, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who chairs the Armed Services Committee, says he intends to insert a provision in a defense bill requiring the military to take over the drone program. And last week, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, reiterated his previous support for the proposal.
"Our intelligence agencies should focus on their core mission" of espionage, Schiff told The Associated Press.
Schiff's stance puts him at odds with other intelligence committee leaders, including the panel's senior Democrat, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has been explicit in arguing that the CIA should continue its targeted killing. Feinstein says the CIA is more judicious than the military when conducting drone strikes.
"The CIA takes its time," Feinstein told the AP in February. "They are not hot dogs on a mission."
In the military, Feinstein said, there are short tours of duty and therefore, "constant turnover. There is no turnover in the (CIA) program. They're very careful about the identification of the individual. Sometimes the intelligence gathering goes on for months."
A Pentagon spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on Feinstein's remarks.
Many other Intelligence Committee members agree with Feinstein, and they inserted a classified provision in a spending bill last year that blocked the Obama administration from spending money on its plan to move drone strikes away from the CIA.
There is also a matter of turf: Intelligence Committee members want to maintain their jurisdiction over a high impact counterterrorism program. They argue that their oversight of the CIA is better than the oversight conducted by the Armed Services committees over military strikes. Intelligence committee staffers watch video of each CIA strike, but staffers on the Armed Services committees in Congress do not watch videos of each military strike, say congressional aides who were not authorized to be quoted by name about a classified matter.
The congressional resistance appeared to put the transition on ice. But U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be quoted discussing a classified program, said that while the planning slowed, it never stopped. And now it is picking up again.
The ultimate goal, the U.S. officials say, is an integrated model under which the CIA continues to hunt targets, but lets the military pull the trigger.
In theory that should be easy, since many of the CIA drone pilots are Air Force personnel who have been seconded to the agency. But in practice, there are serious impediments.
One is technology: The military and CIA use different systems, sensors and databases. It will take time to integrate them.
Another is intelligence sharing. Any military commander directing a lethal operation will want to fully understand the basis for it. But some of the intelligence that undergirds CIA drone strikes comes from the agency's most sensitive sources, whose identities it would be loath to share with anyone.
A third is bureaucratic rivalry. Those in the military who collect intelligence and hunt for targets resist the notion that the CIA take over all that work and relegate those in uniform to merely pulling the trigger.
There is also the thorny problem of Pakistan, which after the 9/11 attacks made a deal with the George W. Bush administration to allow CIA drone strikes — but not U.S. military operations — on its territory. Pakistan prefers the CIA because its activities can be denied by both governments.
While it would be possible for the military to conduct drone strikes in Pakistan and simply never comment on them, many U.S. officials believe the Pakistanis would not tolerate it.
Additionally, the U.S. often is reluctant to alert Pakistan ahead of a strike, for fear that elements of the government will tip off the targets.