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McCain Sets Stage for Fight Over Drones

Armed Services Chairman McCain, right, wants to get the CIA out of the business of drone strikes. Senate Intelligence Chairman Burr  may have other ideas. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. John McCain is planning to shift the CIA’s secretive drone program to the Defense Department through the National Defense Authorization Act, setting the stage for a fight later this year with Senate Intelligence leaders and making him an unlikely ally of President Barack Obama. The Arizona Republican has been particularly critical of the program under the CIA’s watch following recent revelations that a drone strike in January in Pakistan killed American aid worker Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto.  

"We'll be looking at some kind of legislation on the defense authorization bill to see that that accelerates," McCain said. "I'm the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. We will be doing something in the NDAA."  

McCain said on Tuesday that he would discuss the matter with Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, but he anticipated the two would split.  

"We work very closely together, but this is an issue that I've been very clear on for a long time; it will not surprise him," McCain said, who downplayed concerns of a fight over the issue. "We may have a disagreement. That's what votes are for in the United States Senate."  

Burr on Tuesday wouldn't talk about the CIA drone program, which is an open secret in Washington.  

"I didn't know we had a drone program," he said, smiling.  

But Intelligence Committee ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, said on Tuesday the claims of the need to switch oversight was "premature," and that oversight of the program was best left as is.  

“I think they’re taking one incident and using it for this purpose,” Feinstein said. “We have much more oversight over the intelligence program than they have over the military program, and that’s just a fact.”  

Feinstein said the Intelligence Committee has already spent a considerable amount of time reviewing the program. She said a robust oversight system is already in place, with 61 staff sessions and approximately 350 real-time videos of strikes reviewed to date.  

“My own view is that this is a weapon that’s different from all other weapons and it takes long training of whoever is running the system,” she said. “And they’re attuned, and they are careful, and there are hundreds of hours of intelligence that goes into it. So it’s not just ‘Oh, let’s just move it.’”  

Feinstein suggested that McCain compare the two systems, the CIA drone program and the Pentagon’s, and compare the collateral damage.  

“Because that’s really important,” Feinstein said. “It’s really important that we not kill innocent people."  

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who sits on both the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Armed Services Committee, also would not comment on the existence of the drone program, but said he saw the issue from both sides.  

“I think it’s going to take a lot of discussion, because I’m on both committees,” he said. “So I see that question from both sides. ... I’m not confirming that there is a CIA program. It’s one that I think requires a lot of discussion.”  

McCain has a strong ally in Obama — who has talked about shifting drone policy for years.  

In a statement to CQ Roll Call, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price reiterated the president’s desire for transparency over both the basis of counterterrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out.  

“Without commenting on any specific counterterrorism operations, the President has been clear on this issue,” Price said. “Because of this, he has indicated that he will increasingly turn to our military to take the lead and provide information to the public about our efforts. We continue to work diligently toward this goal.”  

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.