Doubling Down on Drones and Secrecy
Despite the legal burdens in keeping it secret, the Obama administration is doubling down on the drone war.
In procedures for FOIA requests on “targeted lethal operations” conducted by the CIA – that is, the drone war – government lawyers asked the court to allow them more time to decide how to respond to the request for the classified information. Secrecy News:
“Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. has personally directed us to seek this additional time to allow the Government to finalize its position with regard to the sensitive national security matters presented in this case,” the Justice Department attorneys told the judge.
“Given the significance of the matters presented in this case, the Government’s position is being deliberated at the highest level of the Executive Branch.”
At issue are two FOIA lawsuits brought by the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union. The request for an extension until May 21, 2012 was granted by Judge Colleen McMahon.
Steven Aftergood of the Secrecy News blog sees this as potentially a good sign: “The attorneys’ request seems to portend a possible change in the government’s persistent refusal to acknowledge the widely reported fact of the CIA’s use of drones in targeted killing operations.” I think he’s far too optimistic. The criticism the administration faces now for stubbornly keeping the drone war secret is nothing compared to the criticism they would face if they began to declassify the programs. Simply employing state secrets privilege and stonewalling the process is too easy an out for them to start declassifying now.
That said, keeping the well-known drone war a secret is recognized for its absurdity more and more everyday. As Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations wrote yesterday, “the existence of these drone strikes is no secret, and no longer justifies the thick veil of secrecy.” He calls the borderless drone program America’s Third War and argues, “the charade of the ‘covert’ nature of the Third War is indefensible.”
Since 9/11, the United States has attempted targeted killings in four other countries [other than Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya]: approximately three hundred in Pakistan, thirty in Yemen, twenty in Somalia, and one in Syria. These attacks were primarily conducted by armed drones, but also by ship- and aircraft-launched cruise missiles, AC-130 gunships, and special operations raids. Although estimates vary, perhaps three thousand people were killed in these attacks, including suspected al-Qaeda members, local militants, and some unintended civilian victims.
By any common-sense definition, these vast targeted killings should be characterized as America’s Third War since 9/11. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan—where government agencies acted according to articulated strategies, congressional hearings and press conferences provided some oversight, and timelines explicitly stated when the U.S. combat role would end—the Third War is Orwellian in its lack of cogent strategy, transparency, and end date.
But while the government stalls the courts through these FOIA procedures, the CIA is seeking explicit authority to expand its covert drone war in Yemen by assassinating individuals even when their identities are not known. Such authority would merely codify what appears to already be current practice in Pakistan. Illustrating what I think Zenko means when he says the drone war lacks a cogent strategy, Abdul Salam Mohammed, director of Abaad Strategic Center, told CNN recently that, “U.S. involvement is far more than ever in Yemen. We have no evidence that all those being killed are terrorists. With every U.S. attack that is conducted in Yemen al Qaeda is only growing in power and we have to ask ourselves why that is happening.”
Additionally, the Obama administration’s recent security deal with Afghanistan appears crafted specifically to continue the drone war in Pakistan unabated. With the drawdown of the war in Iraq and the new arrangement set to take place in Afghanistan in 2014, the trend appears to be a move away from full-scale ground invasions and military occupations. The Obama administration seems to be making America’s wars targeted operations programs…and making them increasingly secret.