Neither panel is in a position to compare the CIA and JSOC kill lists or even arrive at a comprehensive understanding of the rules by which each is assembled.
The senior administration official said the gap is inadvertent. “It’s certainly not something where the goal is to evade oversight,” the official said. A senior Senate aide involved in reviewing military drone strikes said that the blind spot reflects a failure by Congress to adapt but that “we will eventually catch up.”
The disclosure of these operations is generally limited to relevant committees in the House and Senate and sometimes only to their leaders. Those briefed must abide by restrictions that prevent them from discussing what they have learned with those who lack the requisite security clearances. The vast majority of lawmakers receive scant information about the administration’s drone program.
The Senate intelligence committee, which is wrapping up a years-long investigation of the Bush-era interrogation program, has not initiated such an examination of armed drones. But officials said their oversight of the program has been augmented significantly in the past couple of years, with senior staff members now making frequent and sometimes unannounced visits to the CIA “ops center,” reviewing the intelligence involved in errant strikes, and visiting counterterrorism operations sites overseas.
Feinstein acknowledged concern with emerging blind spots.
“Whenever this is used, particularly in a lethal manner, there ought to be careful oversight, and that ought to be by civilians,” Feinstein said. “What we have is a very unique battlefield weapon. You can’t stop the technology from improving, so you better start thinking about how you monitor it.”
The return of armed CIA Predators to Yemen — after carrying out a single strike there in 2002 — was part of a significant expansion of the drones’ geographic reach.
Over the past year, the agency has erected a secret drone base on the Arabian Peninsula. The U.S. military began flying Predators and Reapers from bases in Seychelles and Ethiopia, in addition to JSOC’s long-standing drone base in Djibouti.
Senior administration officials said the sprawling program comprises distinct campaigns, each calibrated according to where and against whom the aircraft and other counterterrorism weapons are used.
In Pakistan, the CIA has carried out 239 strikes since Obama was sworn in, and the agency continues to have wide latitude to launch attacks.
In Yemen, there have been about 15 strikes since Obama took office, although it is not clear how many were carried out by drones because the U.S. military has also used conventional aircraft and cruise missiles.
Somalia, where the militant group al-Shabab is based, is surrounded by American drone installations. And officials said that JSOC has repeatedly lobbied for authority to strike al-Shabab training camps that have attracted some Somali Americans.
But the administration has allowed only a handful of strikes, out of concern that a broader campaign could turn al-Shabab from a regional menace into an adversary determined to carry out attacks on U.S. soil.
The plans are constantly being adjusted, officials said, with the White House holding strategy sessions on Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia two or three times a month. Administration officials point to the varied approach as evidence of its restraint.
“Somalia would be the easiest place to go in in an undiscriminating way and do drone strikes because there’s no host government to get” angry, the senior administration official said. “But that’s certainly not the way we’re approaching it.”
Drone strikes could resume, however, if factions of al-Shabab’s leadership succeed in expanding the group’s agenda.
“That’s an ongoing calculation because there’s an ongoing debate inside the senior leadership of al-Shabab,” the senior administration official said. “It certainly would not bother us if potential terrorists took note of the fact that we tend to go after those who go after us.”
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.