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U.S. military denies mortar ban will jeopardize service members

The Pentagon pushed back hard on an Associated Press report today about a supposed "worldwide" ban on 60 mm mortar rounds in the aftermath of a deadly accident at an army depot in Nevada.

The 60 mm rounds are used in infantry units across multiple branches of the military and are highly effective at rooting out insurgents in Afghanistan. But officials at the Pentagon and Marine Corps told Foreign Policy the ban only applies to the Marine Corps and, even then, includes exemptions for units engaged in combat operations.

"This is not a service-wide suspension, but rather only a USMC suspension," said Pentagon spokeswoman Anne Edgecomb. "Additionally, commanders operating in combat theater (Afghanistan) can use the 60 mm mortar system following an operational risk management assessment."

The Marine Corps mortar ban was implemented after an explosion at the Hawthorne army depot in Nevada killed seven marines. According to reports, the mortar round blew up in its firing tube during a training exercise. (An investigation is ongoing as to why the round went off.)

The specter of a worldwide ban on the mortars surprised weapons analysts this morning given the weapons' utility on the battlefield. "In a place like Afghanistan, with widely dispersed operating locations, mortars can often be the only fire support a local commander has until aircraft appear overhead," said Chris Dougherty, a war games expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments  "In that sense, they can function as a sort of 'security blanket.'"

In its report, the AP stated that the Pentagon "banned the use of 60mm mortar rounds by its troops worldwide."

"Absolutely not," said Marine Corps spokesman Richard Ulsh, in an interview with FP.

When asked if the red-tape requirement that combat units fill out risk management assessments to acquire mortar rounds might prevent the weapons from getting in the right hands, Ulsh said the process was simple and that the "precautionary measure would be removed sometime after the investigation is done." He added, "the exception provides  the commanders in Afghanistan the flexibility to weigh the risks themselves and use it at their discretion."

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Feinstein is worried about the CIA losing the drone program

If Barack Obama is moving the CIA's drone program to the Pentagon, as Newsweek's Daniel Klaidman reports, he has yet to convince senior Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein that it's a good idea.

On Capitol Hill yesterday, Feinstein cast doubt on the prospect of transferring the targeted killing program to the Defense Department, where it would presumably come under stricter oversight. Her remarks, largely overlooked in yesterday's news, were picked up by John Bennett at Defense News

Feinstein told reporters her "mind, certainly, is not made up." But she quickly added she has reservations about turning over to the military the CIA's armed drone fleet and the missions they conduct.

During the last few years, she said, "We've watched the intelligence aspect of the drone program: how they function. The quality of the intelligence. Watching the agency exercise patience and discretion," Feinstein said.

"The military [armed drone] program has not done that nearly as well," she said. "That causes me concern. This is a discipline that is learned, that is carried out without infractions.... It's not a hasty decision that's made. And I would really have to be convinced that the military would carry it out that way."

If the Pentagon does take over the program, as "three senior U.S. officials" say it will, Feinstein will lose her current oversight access of it as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Interestingly, transferring the program to the Pentagon would likely put it under the auspices of the House and Senate Armed Services committees. And Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican of the Armed Services Committee, just so happens to support the idea of the Pentagon taking it over. "The majority of it can be conducted by the Department of Defense," McCain said yesterday. "It's not the job of the Central Intelligence Agency.... It's the military's job."

As both McCain's and Feinstein's remarks indicate, the decision about which agency should control the drone program is not one that falls reliably along partisan lines, or even divides doves and hawks. (Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KT) have each called for greater openness in how the drone war is conducted.)

So what's the substantive difference between a CIA drone program and a Pentagon drone program? It depends who you ask.

Dan Metcalfe, the former director of the Justice Department's Office of Information and Privacy, told Foreign Policy that a Pentagon takeover would inevitably mean greater oversight and transparency. "This shift bodes well for both congressional oversight and greater public disclosure through targeted FOIA requests," he said. "It's clear that the CIA's unprecedented regime of drone secrecy has hit an indefensible peak."

But Klaidman, in a somewhat counterintuitive take, says the Pentagon takeover could actually mean less oversight. "There's nothing in the law that says the military has to brief congressional committees about its lethal activities," he writes. "The CIA, on the other hand, is compelled under Title 50 to notify Congress of its intelligence activities."