According to a latest documentary, a regular US Air Force Unit based out of Nevada is responsible for flying drone missions in Pakistan, TheGuardian reported.
The film identifies the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron as the unit which has been conducting CIA-led strikes in the tribal areas. They operate from a secure compound in a corner of Creech air force base, 45 miles from Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert.
Several former drone operators have claimed that the air force unit has been flying the armed predator drones in Pakistan for last 10 years, in which 2,400 people have been reportedly killed.
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said this posed questions of legality and oversight. "A lethal force apparatus in which the CIA and regular military collaborate as they are reportedly doing risks upending the checks and balances that restrict where and when lethal force is used, and thwart democratic accountability, which cannot take place in secrecy.
When contacted for the comment, National Security Agency (NSA) and CIA declined to comment, while Pentagon did not even respond.
However, former US Predator operator Brandon Bryant, told the film he was speaking out only after senior officials in Obama administration gave a briefing last year in which they said they wanted to "transfer" control of the CIA's secret drones programme to the military, which Bryant said was disingenuous because it was widely known in military circles that the US air force was already involved.
"There is a lie hidden within that truth. And the lie is that it's always been the air force that has flown those missions. The CIA might be the customer but the air force has always flown it. A CIA label is just an excuse to not have to give up any information. That is all it has ever been."
Another former drone operator, Michael Haas, added: "It's pretty widely known [among personnel] that the CIA controls their mission."
Six other former drone operators have also corroborated the claims. But none of them were prepared to go on the record because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"Everyone talks about CIA over Pakistan, CIA double-tap, CIA over Yemen, CIA over Somalia. But I don't believe that they deserve the entirety of all that credit for the drone programme," Bryant said. "They might drive the missions; they might say that these are the objectives – accomplish it. They don't fly it."
The film director said if revelations turned out to be true, then it would raise "a host of additional pressing questions about the legal framework under which the targeted killing programme is carried out and the basis for the secrecy that continues to shroud it."
Shamsi added: "It will come as a surprise to most Americans if the CIA is directing the military to carry out warlike activities. The agency should be collecting and analysing foreign intelligence, not presiding over a massive killing apparatus.
"We don't know precisely what rules the CIA is operating under, but what we do know makes clear that it's not abiding by the laws that strictly limit extrajudicial killing both in and out of traditional battlefields. Now we have to ask whether the regular military is violating those laws as well, under the secrecy that the CIA wields as sword and shield over its killing activities.
Theoretically, the revelations could expose serving US air force personnel to legal challenges for their direct involvement in a programme which UN special rapporteur and numerous other judicial experts are concerned may be wholly or partly in violation of international law.
Creech air force base, situated 45 miles north-west of Las Vegas in the Mojave desert, has played a key role in the US drone programme since the 1990s.
There is another, far more secretive cluster of units within the wing called the 732nd Operations Group, which states that it "employs remotely piloted aircraft in theatres across the globe year-round".
This operations group is consists of four drone squadrons, namely the 30th, 22nd, 867th and 17th Reconnaissance Squadron.
Established as a regular drone squadron in 2002, the 17thunit transitioned to its new "customer" in 2004 at the same time that CIA drone strikes began in Pakistan, former personnel have said.
According to one former mid-level drone commander, it is the CIA analyst who would decide ultimately whether – and against whom – to carry out a strike.
Creech air force base only confirm that the 17th squadron was engaged in "global operations".
"The 732nd Operations Group oversees global operations of four squadrons – the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron, 22nd Reconnaissance Squadron, 30th Reconnaissance Squadron and the 867th Reconnaissance Squadron. These squadrons are all still active … their mission is to perform high-quality, persistent, multi-role intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in support of combatant commanders' needs."