Limiting the CIA's Use of Drones (HR 487, 115th Congress)

The Policy


HR 487 is a concise bill that would bar the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) in “deliberately lethal” actions, such as weapons strikes.

The policy clarifies that this prohibition extends to every officer, employer, contractor, and detailee working for the CIA. Additionally, the bill commands the President of the United States to transfer all authority to utilize UAVs for lethal action solely to the Department of Defense.


The use of UAV technology in military operations has increased substantially since. 57 drone strikes against targets off the battlefield were executed during the Bush administration. This number increased nearly tenfold under President Obama.

Although 58% of Americans support drone strikes (as of May 2015), the CIA has faced public concern with its opacity, especially that regarding civilian deaths. The Council on Foreign Relations explains that the US government cannot “legally acknowledge covert actions taken by the CIA,” which makes full transparency nearly impossible. The CIA and Department of Defense are also subject to different oversight authorities, reporting requirements, accountability measures, and policies and procedures. While the Department of Defense must abide by specific laws of war and report all casualties to the Congressional armed service committees, the CIA is exempt from these rules. CIA strikes are instead reported to Congressional intelligence committees, and the government cannot release any information about how CIA strikes are planned or conducted.

These concerns were exacerbated by the CIA’s 2011 drone strike on Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen. Though he was classified as a “specially designated global terrorist” and al-Qaeda leader and recruiter, civil liberties advocates denounced the strike as an “extrajudicial execution.” The Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit claiming that the CIA’s strike on Al-Awlaki violated his Constitutional right to due process of law.

In addition to these concerns, disapproval from other global powers over the state of the CIA drone program pushed President Obama to restrict the CIA’s role in lethal strikes. While the CIA was still authorized to use drones for surveillance and locating suspected terrorists, it was the Department of Defense that had to conduct lethal strikes. More recently, the Trump administration has shown an interest in expanding the CIA’s power to conduct lethal drone strikes overseas.

The Science

Science Synopsis

Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, are aircraft that are remotely controlled by one or more operators who fly the aircraft, control sensors and/or weapons, and coordinate the mission as necessary. UAVs are unmanned only in the sense that humans are not physically on-board the aircraft. Most United States government drones are used for surveillance (i.e., maintaining close observation of a subject) and are equipped with sensors capable of observing at a distance, such as high-resolution cameras. Not all drones carry weapons. Those that do carry weapons, however, generally receive specific instructions based on detailed intelligence before striking with precision guided munitions or  “smart” bombs, which are highly accurate missiles that use guidance systems (i.e., directions from satellites or other aircraft) that can adjust their paths during flight.

In the past, the CIA has used the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drone models. The MQ-1 Predator can carry two laser-guided AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. It also utilizes a Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MTS), which combines multiple tools for surveillance, target acquisition and tracking, rangefinding, and laser designation for missile strikes. The MTS includes:

  • Infrared sensors that detect thermal energy or specific light wavelengths on the infrared spectrum, allowing them to recognize humans or other targets from long distances;
  • Color daylight and near infrared TV cameras that record high definition video data;
  • Laser designators that can identify targets in day or nighttime conditions, estimate range, and calculate a target’s location using GPS capabilities; and
  • Laser illuminators, which are large, focused military lights that illuminate an area of interest with a laser beam.

The MQ-9 Reaper utilizes the same Multi-Spectral Targeting System as the Predator, but also features a maritime surveillance radar. It can carry four Hellfire missiles, Paveway II Laser-Guided Bombs (LGB), or Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM).

Relevant Experts

David H. Schanzer, J.D., is an associate professor at the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy and serves as the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. His research focuses on homeland security, counterterrorism law, and strategies to reduce domestic radicalization.

  • Relevant Publications:
    • Schanzer, David H. and Timothy Nichols. 2015. “The Costs of the Knife.” Review of The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by Mark Mazzetti. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, March 25, Spotlight on 16.1—Inequality

The Debate

Endorsements & Opposition

There has not been any publicly reported support or opposition to HR 487, although the CIA’s use of drones has been a topic of political contention.

The drone program is supported by much of Congress and other government intelligence officials. Human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have historically opposed the CIA drone program, and the American Civil Liberties Union submitted a Freedom of Information Act request in 2010 “to disclose the legal and factual basis for its use of the Predator to conduct ‘targeted killings’ overseas.” Likewise, various foreign governments oppose the United States’s use of covert drone strikes in the war on terror.