In Friday’s Washington Post, Greg Miller and Julie Tate published a must-read study tracing the evolution of the Central Intelligence Agency from an intelligence-collection and -analysis operation into a shadow military force:

In the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the agency has undergone a fundamental transformation. Although the CIA continues to gather intelligence and furnish analysis on a vast array of subjects, its focus and resources are increasingly centered on the cold counterterrorism objective of finding targets to capture or kill.

At the core of this evolution, we discover, is that for the first time in its history, the CIA has secured control of a state-of-the-art weapons system:

The drone program has killed more than 2,000 militants and civilians since 2001, a staggering figure for an agency that has a long history of supporting proxy forces in bloody conflicts but rarely pulled the trigger on its own.

Miller and Tate note that the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, which controls the drone fleet, now has 2,000 staffers, outnumbering current estimates of Al Qaeda’s membership.

Though the authors focus on the CIA’s new drone operation in the Arabian Peninsula, the Agency is also managing the war effort on the Pakistan side of the Durand Line separating that country from Afghanistan, which the Obama Administration made clear from the outset would be the central theater of its military campaign. The CIA’s mission there is plain: not simply to collect intelligence on a hostile military force, but to target and eliminate it.

Such efforts have nothing to do with the CIA that was born under the National Security Act of 1947. The Agency has adopted responsibilities that were formerly the preserve of the uniformed military. As the ACLU’s Hina Shamsi told Miller and Tate, “We’re seeing the CIA turn into more of a paramilitary organization without the oversight and accountability that we traditionally expect of the military.”

To add to Shamsi’s critique: The American military is trained to operate under the laws of armed conflict. It has professional officers sworn to ensure adherence to those laws, and a Uniform Code of Military Justice that provides a tool for enforcement. The CIA has no such checks. In fact, its culture has for decades been built on the notion that it operates outside of the laws of war.

The Agency’s transformation points to changes in the inner dynamics of the American national security establishment and its relationship to government. Institutions grow out of their initial boundaries and assume previously forbidden functions via a process of aggressive self-assertion. Such shifts — and the hundred-billion-dollar commitments of public resources that they entail — were once subject to public discussion and congressional deliberation. Not so in the unconstrained national-security state that is one of the most deeply entrenched legacies of 9/11.