NEW YORK - US President Barack Obama is reported to be close to transferring CIA’s deadly drone programme to the Defence Department, as the debate over the use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles for targeted killing of terrorism suspects intensifies.

The hope among critics is that this change would allow greater oversight by Congress – and, by extension, the public at large – of America’s targeted killing programme.

But elements within the Pentagon are just as secretive – if not more so – than the CIA, meaning critics might not get the degree of openness they might want, according to experts. The new White House directive is intended to shift the covert drone programme to one that is subject to international laws of war and undertaken with the consent of host governments, The Wall Street Journal said, citing US officials.

The draft document, according to the report, reflects a growing consensus within the Obama administration that the long-term future of the programme lies with the military, where US officials say it will be on firmer legal footing and be more transparent.

The drone programme has drawn fire from both Democrats and Republicans who say it is secretive and unpredictable.

But current and former US official say even under military control, however, the campaign is likely to remain relatively secretive.

The shift remains controversial on Capitol Hill, within the CIA and in some military circles among people who think the programme is more effective under the agency’s control, the Journal said.

One senior defence official, according to the newspaper, warned that putting the programme under military control could impose operational limitations. Human rights groups consider a shift in authority inadequate and want it to meet the demands of international law.

The administration shift on drones was outlined in recent weeks as a draft presidential directive, which provides formal guidance to federal agencies, the report said. The directive, once finalised, will set out a general framework for the shift to the military, providing a ‘clear marker’ of where the drone programme is heading without setting out hard and fast deadlines, a senior US official said.

Top administration officials have agreed to the change in principle, but final approval of the directive awaits the president’s nod, US officials said.

The draft directive still could take years to fully implement, the Journal said. It doesn’t specify a timetable for the phased shift, nor which CIA programmes in which countries would be first in line to be phased out.

Under the directive, the CIA won’t immediately leave the business of unmanned strikes, but eventually would return to its more traditional role of providing intelligence to the military, which can in turn target suspected terrorists.

The CIA began conducting unmanned drone strikes to kill alleged Al-Qaeda and affiliated operatives in Pakistan’s tribal areas after some militant group’s leadership relocated there following the start of the US offensive in Afghanistan in 2001. The CIA launched a similar programme in Yemen in 2011 to counter an Al-Qaeda affiliate there. The military also has a parallel drone programme in Yemen, which was established before CIA’s.

The CIA defines the programmes as ‘covert action’ under US law even though some details of the programmes have become public.