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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White House Transparency and Targeted Killings

by Micah Zenko
April 23, 2013


In February, President Obama declared during a Google+ Fireside Hangout: “This is the most transparent administration in history, and I can document how that is the case.” Obama did acknowledge: “When it comes to how we conduct counterterrorism there are legitimate questions there, and we should have that debate.” One way the White House could cement its purported legacy as the most transparent administration ever, and contribute to counterterrorism debates would be to participate in congressional hearings on drone strikes.

Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing, “Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing.” Scheduled to appear as witnesses are scholars and experts on U.S. targeted killings, as well as Farea Al-muslimi, a Yemeni activist, who recently reported on a drone strike in his village that killed a suspected member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and four other suspected militants.

Missing will be anyone from the Obama administration. Just as the White House refused to provide a witness for a House Judiciary Committee hearing in February, they refused again today. When asked last week, NSC spokesperson Caitlin Hayden would not say why no witness would be representing the administration. Since committee staffers have been putting together this hearing for months, and it has been rescheduled, the White House had ample time to prepare an official to answer questions about this controversial counterterrorism tactic.

The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that it believes in the principles of transparency and debate regarding targeted killings, but then refrains from demonstrating this in practice. In March, White House spokesperson Jay Carney noted: “[Obama] believes very much in the need to be as transparent as possible on these matters with Congress as well as with the public. He has spoken about it. Senior administration officials have spoken often about it, and he looks forward to addressing those issues as well in the coming months.”

However, when asked specific or clarifying questions about targeted killings, administrations officials simply refer to an April 2012 speech by former White House senior counterterrorism adviser John Brennan: “The Ethics and Efficacy of the President’s Counterterrorism Strategy.” For example:

Leon Panetta secretary of defense, April 30, 2012: “I’m going to let the speech speak for itself”

Mark Toner state department deputy spokesperson, May 8:  “I’m going to disappoint you because I don’t have a lot more to say beyond what’s already been said by John Brennan and others from various agencies within the government.”

Jay Carney, May 29: “I would refer you to John Brennan’s speech not long ago on these matters”

Jay Carney, December 12:  “There is nothing more that I can add to that discussion beyond that John Brennan said in his speech that you refer to…I would point you to the remarks that John Brennan made, which I think demonstrate our position on these issues and the broader issue you talk about in terms of transparency.”

Jay Carney, February 6, 2013: “The fact is, as John Brennan and others have made clear, our counterterrorism efforts are designed–including our targeted efforts–to limit civilian casualties.”

Jay Carney, April 11: “We have been, as an administration, very transparent through a series of speeches by John Brennan, the Attorney General and by others, as well as comments by the President, about the approach that we take in that effort.”

During a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last week, Rep. Jan Schakowsky asked Brennan, now the director of central intelligence: “Is there any way that you can define and distinguish between targeted strikes and signature strikes by drones?” His response was revealing about how committed the Obama administration is to transparency and public debate:

“I would refer to the comments that were made by a number of U.S. government officials publicly and speeches, including when I was at the White House. I’m not going to engage in any type of discussion on that here today, Congresswoman.”

Thus, fully closing the loop, John Brennan now tells policymakers to read earlier comments by John Brennan for any clarification. It is worth noting when he was asked directly about signature strikes by an audience member after his April 2012 speech, he refused to provide an answer. And if Senators seek further information about signature strikes today, there won’t be anyone from the Obama administration to answer them.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Phillip Bolster

    When I read things like this which puts all the bullshit people like Jay Carney give us over the years on a pedestal for all to see which should clearly anger us all I usually filter it through my ‘big picture, real world’ screen and remain philosophical about the world and the dirty reality of presidential politics and that way I stay rational. But it’s not easy, not when hypocrisy reaches this magnitude. I imagine that a dinner with one of these hardened ‘real world’ guys, Brennan for instance, would play as follows:
    I would say ‘why all the bullshit Mr Brennan? The drone thing is wrong on so many rational and moral levels so why do it? and tell so many lies about it?’
    and I imagine he would say something like:
    ‘No more red tape. No more getting the bad guys caught in our sights, then watching them escape while we wait for somebody in Washington to issue the order.
    [on seeing my disapproval]
    Oh come on. I’ve seen the raw intel, Phil. I know how
    real the danger is. We need these programs now. ‘
    (a la Robert Ludlum script)

    and that’s the issue isn’t it – we’re trying to understand it and argue it with our pens and our clicks- but they believe in it 100% because they really think they are the only ones who see the light – the reality and they are the only ones who can really protect us, they understand the big picture, we’re just mere citizens, we haven’t seen the raw intel, we wouldn’t understand or have the cajonas to do what they do – to give the orders they give – to send troops into battle or order drone strikes on 60% hunches, these Cheney’s, Brennan’s, Wolfowitz’s are living in another sphere and they choose to be the sin-eaters on our behalf – they see a higher purpose and they do what they do because they genuinely believe they’re the only ones who will and we just wouldn’t understand. They’re absolutely right – we don’t and we wouldn’t. But we do understand democracy and these people are supposed to represent our elected politicians and somebody better start talking soon or we’re talking 60’s level street protests and anger boiling over in various manners in all age groups, all intelligent people who would like to know what their own country is doing because they have a right to know. What happened to a Government of the people, by the people, for the people – if you are US, if you are FOR us then you better start answering TO us. When your government remotely assassinates 4000 people with robotic planes 7000 miles from home and refuses to tell you about it or be accountable for it people need to write more articles like this one. Public record is important. Bush is going to get abuse for decades if not more for what he allowed snowball into the disaster which is Iraq 2003 and that is good because we all know what happened now and so we will not allow it to happen that way again. We know now that individuals can really attain massive power within an administration and use the executive office to carry out personal plans and convince the whole nation to follow their lead. That ain’t gona happen again – we got wise. Obama, Brennan and the rest of the drone team leaders are getting busted right now because of writers like Zenko and others. They’re being pushed into a smaller and smaller corner and the light of all our questions and investigations and media spotlights are reducing places for them to hide, Holder, Koh, Brennan, Petraeus, Bush,Obama and all those who turned to drones and then turned to signature strikes, all those who signed an order, those who agreed to the Chenagai Airstrike and other similar crimes against humanity – they will all face the light in the end, either from the witness box of a congressional inquiry or in Pullizer prize winning books written by respected journalists and their legacies will all be summarily executed like so many arbitrary victims who never posed any sort of imminent threat to the US. The War on Terror needs to end. KSM was caught and tortured and jailed. Osama was assassinated and AQ has gone from being a large highly centric highly funded spiritually led terrorist organization to thinly spread poorly funded bunch of disgruntled franchise bangwagoning idiots who’s biggest threat is to bomb a local market or something comparable to that and so our ability to cease their existence is never going to realize now but it doesn’t have to. We got hit by them. We got smart to them. We changed and we applied to rules of anti-fragility and we are now more resilient. Terrorism is a problem for sure, but it’s not a war. It needs to end now. We need more hard hitting drone articles. We need to continue to pressure them for answers and demand transparency and accountability and eventually the political cost of drone strike will outweigh the pressure of those like Brennan to continue them. The nation will read about it, the mistakes will be identified, those who deserve blame will get it, in spades and the world will adjust to a bad set of choices. Each article like this published, adds political cost to the next done strike and we’re not that far from a threshold point. On that basis I would surmise that they know this too and so there’s going to be seriously itchy drone trigger fingers wanting to carry out those final big strikes on those guys they always wanted to hit… before the books are opened and the music stops and somebody is left without a chair! Brennan’s chair is probably welded to his ass : )

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    On transparency, Obama is still reading his bogus campaign speeches from five years ago.

    OBAMA ’08
    * Protect the Openness of the Internet
    * Encourage Diversity in Media Ownership:
    * Protect Our Children While Preserving the First Amendment
    * Safeguard our Right to Privacy
    * Open Up Government to its Citizens: The Bush Administration has been one of the most secretive, closed administrations in American history. Our nation’s progress has been stifled by a system corrupted by millions of lobbying dollars contributed to political campaigns, the revolving door between government and industry, and privileged access to inside information—all of which have led to policies that favor the few against the public interest. An Obama presidency will use cutting-edge technologies to reverse this dynamic, creating a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America’s citizens. Technology-enabled citizen participation has already produced ideas driving Obama’s campaign and its vision for how technology can help connect government to its citizens and engage citizens in a democracy. Barack Obama will use the most current technological tools available to make government less beholden to special interest groups and lobbyists and promote citizen participation in government decision-making. Obama will integrate citizens into the actual business of government by:
    Making government data available online in universally accessible formats to allow citizens to make use of that data to comment, derive value, and take action in their own communities.
    –Establishing pilot programs to open up government decision-making and involve the public in the work of agencies, not simply by soliciting opinions, but by tapping into the vast and distributed expertise of the American citizenry to help government make more informed decisions.
    –Requiring his appointees who lead Executive Branch departments and rulemaking agencies to conduct the significant business of the agency in public, so that any citizen can watch a live feed on the Internet as the agencies debate and deliberate the issues that affect American society.
    Restoring the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials.
    Lifting the veil from secret deals in Washington with a web site, a search engine, and other web tools that enable citizens easily to track online federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and lobbyist contacts with government officials. etc. (end Obama)

    Did lots of U.S. citizens gain access to information technologies that wind up being politically empowering? No. Quite the opposite. This is an administration that has brought domestic repression, attacks on whistle-blowers and lack of transparency to new, higher levels.

  • Posted by DeeJay

    Carney is nothing more than Obama’s lap dog. If I were him, I’d be ashamed to show my face at that podium.

  • Posted by Phillip Bolster


    Game of Drones

    Why do we blow these Pakistani people up?
    With our robotic drones is this a score we got to even up?
    What are we trying to achieve here?
    We’re Terrorizing them the way we accuse THEM of?
    And Now we breed the fear.

    We kill their brothers and mothers and fathers
    Creating more Jihadists out to become the next martyrs
    This strategy has got to change it’s so deranged
    and it’s illegal and worst of all they do it in our name!

    This War on Terror is not a war it’s just nonsense
    My violence breeding your violence,
    and it’s not between the west and Islam, Good or bad
    these poisoned men really believe in their jihad.

    We aint gona change things by killing their daughters,
    with our hellfire missiles direct from the Presidents orders,
    How can there be an end to this insanity?
    if we continue to see it in black and white like Hannity.

    We need to inject some humanity into this mess,
    You tell me that Signature strikes are fair justice?
    Tell that to the dead Pakistani children’s father…
    Tell him not to strap that vest on and become the next martyr.
    Tell that to the mother holding her headless child,
    That just so happened to be in the way of our
    hellfire missile !
    and Tell that to the Pakistani Public,
    who suffer suicide bombings now as a direct result of it

    While we pay their corrupt military billions,
    Our Reapers hunt from the air – we be blowin up civilians,
    There has got to be a better way,
    This is not how a democratic country is supposed to behave !

    It’s not reflective of our values, it’s not who we are,
    Our kids with joysticks fly these kill missions from afar,
    patriotic fear mongering gets our terror-bills passed,
    But this shit is not war man it’s just murder en masse.

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