Is the Obama Administration Becoming More Transparent about Drones?


January 31, 2012

In a rare break with the usual silence regarding the CIA’s covert drone program, President Obama yesterday defended the controversial strikes that target suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders abroad, largely in Pakistan.

“Drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties. For the most part, they have been very precise precision strikes against Al Qaeda and their affiliates,” he said during an online chat hosted by YouTube and Google+.

Since taking office in 2009, President Obama has dramatically expanded the use of drones against high-value targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the strikes are incredibly unpopular in Pakistan, and in recent months, some high-profile former U.S. officials have raised questions about the drones’ effectiveness and have called for the program to be made more transparent.

“Our ability to respect the sovereignty of other countries and to limit our incursions into somebody else’s territory is enhanced by the fact that we are able to pinpoint strike an Al Qaeda operative in a place where the capacities of that military in that country may not be able to get them,” the president said yesterday, referring to Pakistan’s isolated and underdeveloped tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan where almost all of the covert strikes have taken place. “For us to be able to get them in another way would involve probably a lot more intrusive military actions than the one we’re already engaging in,” he added.

It is rare for government officials to speak openly about the covert program, but senior administration officials told CNN today that Obama’s remarks were “neither a slip-up” nor a “secret message to the Pakistanis.”

In fact, a report published by Newsweek‘s Daniel Klaidman last week suggests the administration has plans to discuss another aspect of America’s drone war, the legal justification for its controversial decision to target Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen last September.

According to Klaidman, Attorney General Eric Holder will deliver a major national security address in the coming weeks that will include “a carefully worded but firm defense of its right to target U.S. citizens”:

Holder’s remarks will draw heavily on a secret Justice Department legal opinion that provided the justification for the Awlaki killing. The legal memorandum, portions of which were described to The New York Times last October, asserted that it would be lawful to kill Awlaki as long as it was not feasible to capture him alive—and if it could be demonstrated that he represented a real threat to the American people. Further, administration officials contend, Awlaki was covered under the congressional grant of authority to wage war against al Qaeda in the wake of 9/11.

In the report, Klaidman describes at length the debate within the administration over whether to disclose details about the legal justification for killing Awlaki.

Among those who were lobbying for more disclosure, he says, were Jeh C. Johnson, the Defense Department general counsel, and Harold Hongju Koh, the State Department legal adviser.

Though Klaidman reports the CIA and other intelligence community officials were “opposed to any disclosures that could lift the veil of secrecy from a covert program,” CIA Director David Petraeus, backed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, “came out in support of revealing the legal reasoning behind the Awlaki killing so long as the case was not explicitly discussed.”

Two officials who argued against disclosure were Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano, who said the controversy over the Awlaki killing had died down, and White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, who warned it could threaten the government’s case in pending litigation.

Ultimately, the administration came to a compromise Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough described as “the half Monty,” (in a cheeky reference to the film The Full Monty.)

The limited disclosure will likely disappoint transparency advocates and journalists who have been pressuring the administration to disclose the full Awlaki memo.

In late December, The New York Times filed a lawsuit [PDF] against the Department of Justice for failing to release information under Freedom of Information Act requests records about its “legal analysis justifying the use of targeted lethal force, especially as it applies to American Citizens.”

Dig Deeper:

“How the Drone War Plays Out in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas” — Almost every single known U.S. drone strike in Pakistan has taken place in the country’s isolated, underdeveloped tribal areas. Off limits to most, evidence of America’s operations here is scant, but WIRED has published 13 rare photos of what appears to be the aftermath of the strikes.

“Covering Obama’s Secret War” — In this June 2011 piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, Tara McKelvey explores the difficulties for journalists in covering the CIA’s covert drone program, which takes place in Pakistan’s hard to access tribal areas where most journalists are forbidden from traveling to independently. She notes that though official U.S. policy is not to comment on the drone program, American officials are “more forthcoming” when high-level targets are killed. But “when the Western media do attempt to cover drone strikes that miss any high-value targets — and which, consequently, no U.S. official is willing to discuss — their stories are thin.”

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