Obama And The Drone Awakening

The release of Justice Department documents is an exercise in "CYA." "It's not clear that they have fully obeyed their own guidelines."

A strange thing happened in America this week: The country started to show signs of outrage over the Obama administration's targeted killing program. The occasion: the leak of a now infamous Department of Justice white paper to NBC's Mike Isikoff outlining the legal arguments the administration has used to justify the secret killings of three American citizens — one of them a 16-year-old boy — since 2009. That memo became the basis for today's confirmation hearings of drone program architect John Brennan, the Obama administration's intelligence guru who is currently chasing David Petraeus' old job as director of the CIA. (Brennan reportedly was the first to tell Petraeus he needed to resign.)

This is The Drone Awakening many of Obama's fiercest civil liberties critics on both the left and right have been pushing toward: a public accounting of the legality and morality of a program that has gone on in secret for more than 10 years now. Drone strikes expanded exponentially under Obama, from 52 drone strikes under Bush to the Nobel Peace Prize winner's 311. (Those numbers are just for Pakistan; the Obama administration has ordered 61 others in Somalia and Yemen.) Critics of the program believe it violates the most basic of constitutional principles, mainly, the right to due process, as well as the general qualms about its imprecise nature, which has left as many as 4,515 dead, including 216 civilians under the age of 18 — kids. As Senator Ron Wyden told the Oregonian: "It's not too much to ask that the president and the executive branch tell the American people why they have the authority to kill American citizens."

But the recent eagerness to discuss drones — Obama authorized the release of more DOJ memos to Congress this week — isn't just a reminder of the administration's promised commitment to transparency. It's also an attempt to provide the legal cover for actions the administration has already taken as explanations are being demanded of them at home and abroad. Two weeks ago, the United Nations launched an investigation into legal and human rights implications of targeted drone killings. Researchers will examine 25 specific cases where civilian casualties have been recorded. The investigation will take into consideration photographs, original witness statements, satellite images, and forensic evidence. Putting the memos out is a "CYA," or cover-your-ass strategy, notes national security expert Daniel Goure at the Lexington Institute.

"Are they trying to cover past actions? Sure. If you think about it, they're just framing the incidents," to counter human rights groups, says Goure. "By putting out the memo, they're trying to [CYA], but they might end up in a worse situation because it's not clear that they have fully obeyed their own guidelines... This is the rationale for everything you've done, and do all the cases fit?"

Brennan's confirmation today has brought out the debate that didn't happen during the 2012 election. Those on the left who were dissatisfied with the drone program largely kept quiet, and those who remained vocal were ignored. Now even Obama allies, like Wyden, have promised to ask tough questions of the aspiring CIA chief.

While the drone debate has taken center stage, a myriad of court challenges designed to penetrate the Obama administration's expansion of the national security state — including lawsuits over the ability to eavesdrop on Americans and the authorization of the military to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens without a trial — have gained traction. The ACLU alone has its name on five drone-related lawsuits, and on Wednesday, a federal appeals court heard the case of Hedges v. Obama — so far one of the most successful legal challenges to date, which forced the Obama administration to defend a controversial provision in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, section 1021, regarding the indefinite detention of American citizens. (The Supreme Court is going to take up Hedges' other lawsuit — over warrantless wiretapping of journalists — in June.) And on the cultural front, the hit documentary at the Sundance Film Festival Dirty Wars will receive national distribution in theaters, making it the first drone-focused project of its kind with the potential to reach a broad audience. Meanwhile, the increasingly popular show Homeland, on Showtime, in fact features the immorality of an American drone attack as a key plot point.

Interestingly enough, until today, much of what we'd learned about the drone program has come through the work of lawyers, investigative journalists, and human rights activists. With the work of reporters at The New York Times and Washington Post like Charlie Savage, Scott Shane, and Greg Miller, along with independent journalists like Jeremy Scahill (who stars in Dirty Wars) and, critically, human rights activist Clive Stafford Smith and Pratap Chatterjee from the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (who've produced the most credible numbers regarding civilian casualties), among others, we've learned about the kill lists, the "disposition matrix," "bug splat," "signature strikes," "personality strikes," as well as glimpses of the administration's internal process of drafting the legal rationales; names of the victims; and the Kafka-esque nature of the "secret laws," as Senator Wyden put it, of the Obama administration.

The Obama administration has vigorously resisted these disclosures — addressing the issue only a handful of times, and, ridiculously, yesterday pointing reporters to the president's comment about drones on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show as proof of their transparency. The drone strikes, White House spokesperson Jay Carney declared, were "legal, ethical, and wise." Carney's comments happened to occur the day before a New York Times story documented how one innocent Yemeni man who had spoken out against al-Qaeda, cleric Salem Ahmed Al Jaber, was killed when he tried to meet with alleged al-Qaeda linked militants for a meeting to resolve their dispute. Killing an innocent religious figure who opposed al-Qaeda does not seem to fit the definition of "wise," perhaps.

That same Times story, unfortunately, was marred by the disclosure of a CIA base in Saudi Arabia that the Times had agreed to keep secret at the request of the White House. The White House, according to the paper, was concerned that reporting about the base would jeopardize CIA counterterror operations as well as upset our Saudi allies, who wanted to hide the existence of the CIA's drone hub from their population. The Washington Post fell over itself to keep up with the Times, finally informing us that they, too, had helped keep the CIA's secret — noting that they'd only referred to the drone base in the past as one on "the Arabian peninsula." Hilariously, as it turns out, the Post's eagerness to take credit for a scoop they didn't publish made them all look like assholes: As Adrian Chen noted, the Saudi base had been previously reported by both Fox News and the London Telegraph as early as 2011.

The program isn't going away — the administration's drone romance is part of the strategy to avoid the kind of catastrophic ground wars of the previous decade. It's part of an evolution to find a foreign-policy balance that hits "the sweet spot," as one senior administration official described it to me — not a quagmire in the Middle East, but not a move back to "pre-9/11" posture. That desire to avoid another Iraq, though, has turned into its own less visible nightmare. "Is this a power you really want to turn over to the president of the United States and the intelligence community? It's not policing, and it's not war," continued Goure, the national security expert. "This is dangerous as hell, and it's the weapon of choice for this administration, which is terrifying."

—CJ Lotz contributed reporting to this story.

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