Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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America’s Drones, Transparency, and Accountability

by Micah Zenko
February 4, 2012

An unarmed U.S. "Shadow" drone is pictured in flight (Courtesy Reuters). An unarmed U.S. "Shadow" drone is pictured in flight (Courtesy Reuters).

On Monday evening, President Obama made the unprecedented decision to publicly acknowledge U.S. drone strikes against suspected terrorists and militants in Pakistan. During a Google+ “Hang Out” webchat, the president overturned seven and half-years of policy when he stated that: “Obviously a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan] going after al-Qaeda suspects.”

Obama’s careful statement was the first explicit acknowledgment from a U.S. government official of the CIA’s drone strikes.  It was a welcome and long-overdue recognition that the policy of pretend secrecy harmed U.S. national interests by allowing myths and misperceptions to fester about this growing and controversial program. The president’s statement sets the stage for a speech that Attorney General Eric Holder will soon make, which will reportedly contain “a carefully worded but firm defense of its right to target U.S. citizens.” This is in response the use of a CIA drone in late September to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico-born U.S. citizen, who was also a key leader of an Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.

With President Obama’s explicit mention—that came within a longer four minute discussion of drones—the use of armed drones outside of the battlefield of Afghanistan can no longer be considered covert actions, which under U.S. law are those operations “where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.”

What has been the reaction of administration officials to this new era of openness initiated by President Obama’s acknowledgment? Though perhaps Attorney General Holder’s forthcoming speech will answer some of the numerous outstanding questions regarding drones, if the past week is any indication, nothing has changed.

First, a minor point, but there remains no transcript of the President’s Google+ webchat. When White House spokesperson Jay Carney was asked on Tuesday if a transcript would be made available, he said “we don’t put out transcripts of interviews” conducted by the president with people via the web. However, the White House did release transcripts when Obama did similar events for Facebook (April 20, 2011) and Twitter (July 6, 2011). Moreover, the president spoke at the Washington Auto Show earlier that day, and the White House revealed what he thought about “that Camaro with the American Eagle and the American flag.” It should also publish a transcript of his comments made during the Google+ webchat.

Second, when asked about Obama’s statements regarding the drones, White House spokesperson Carney was comfortable to speak at length about how U.S. counterterrorism policies are effective and “exceptionally precise, exceptionally surgical and exceptionally targeted.” However, when a reporter asked a follow-up question of whether the president’s statement “was purposeful or not?” Carney responded: “I’m not going to discuss broadly or specifically supposed covert programs.  I would just point you to what he said.” (emphasis added) Thus, the White House spokesperson is permitted to indirectly praise the CIA drone program, but is unaware if it remains a covert operation.

Moreover, on the same day that Carney refused to say if Obama’s comments were intentional, a senior administration official confirmed to CNN that they were “neither a slip-up,” nor a “secret message to the Pakistanis.” Thus, while anonymous administration officials can explain the fact that the President uttered a statement and shed light on why he did so, the official White House spokesperson cannot.

Third, during his Google+ webchat the president also responded to a New York Times story about the State Department’s use of unarmed surveillance drones in Iraq, which included the potential use of U.S. contractors to control them.  Obama stated that “The truth of the matter is we’re not engaging in a bunch of drone attacks inside of Iraq. There’s some surveillance to make sure that our embassy compound is protected.” Later, when asked about her organization’s potential use of drones in Iraq, State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland, stated: “I don’t have any comment on that, no,” but noted that there is “an ongoing dialogue about what’s appropriate” in terms of providing security for the Embassy’s presence in Baghdad. Nuland also noted “let me take the question” for a future response, but none has been posted on the State Department’s “Media Center” where such questions are usually answered with a news release.

In October 2011, in response to a New York Times Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the legal memo that reportedly justifies the killing of U.S. citizens, the Department of Justice responded that it “neither confirms nor denies the existence of the documents described in your request. We cannot do so because the very fact of the existence or nonexistence of such documents is itself classified, protected from disclosure by statute, and privileged.” That policy of pretend secrecy is no longer sustainable. On the day after Obama’s Google+ acknowledgment, the ACLU filed a new FOIA request for several U.S. government agencies for “the legal authority and factual basis for the targeted killing” of three U.S. citizens. The morning after his inauguration, President Obama stated that “the Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent, and of holding it accountable…Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

Thought it took ten years since drones were first widely-introduced for U.S. military and intelligence operations for the public, members of Congress, the media, and human rights organizations to press the White House to explain and defend their use. President Obama should live up to the principles he promised three years ago, and authorize the release of the Department of Justice memo that contains the legal justification for targeting U.S. citizens, and more broadly direct his administration to answer questions about America’s ever-expanding use of drones.

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