Doubling Down on Drones and Secrecy

John Glaser, April 24, 2012

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.




8 Responses to “Doubling Down on Drones and Secrecy”

  1. Where the hell did this ridiculous notion of "state secrets" come from? Certainly not in the U.S. constitution. And why do courts keep accepting it as legit?

  2. This article tries to define a segment of the war on terror as something separate. After 9-11 there has been an atmosphere of fear in the United States that is brought on by ignorance in what we have the capability to do offense wise. I am sure Bin Laden's followers are eating this up. I have been on both sides of this thing, being liberal myself. But, as an adult who has lived in the United States for over five decades, I was there during all the "peace movements". Attacking drones is feeding into the Republican talking points instead of realizing the truth. THEY want the war I disapprove of. THEY want us continuing to send young men and women into a meat grinder to get killed and sent home in a box so they can say WE, the 99 percent, were REALLY BRAVE AND HONORABLE while they sit home on their yacht watching us defend their ideology. There is an old story about the kid with the tack in his shoe causing him to develop a limp and need a cane which causes blisters so he needs a special glove, his mom goes from doctors, to cane stores, to glove stores for the cane blisters, knee braces, ad nauseum…. TAKE THE TACK OUT OF HIS SHOE. The problem doesn't start with drones. The problem is the idea that anyone needs to be an authoritarian, imperialistic, overpowering force in the global community. One piece of military hardware is not the problem, the guy who orders people to send the drone is. During Vietnam we developed warfare equipment like "Puff". The computer Gatling gun could put at least one bullet in every square inch of a football field in less than a minute. By comparison, a drone is very humanistic. Have we killed innocent people at times? Yes, Why? This goes back to my original statement. The problem is the congress that sends the military to do these things, not the military who follows orders or the weapons they use to do it. This is like the old saying that guns don't kill people, people do. If the people didn't have guns? As long as that is a protected right, then you have to start with selecting which human being can own a gun. Restrict that and you have a problem with the anti gun legislation people who defend handguns that no one can hunt with, but they are protected by the NRA for the same reason rifles and shotguns are. That is wrong. You don't need a machine gun of any type to hunt.
    In the United States, we don't even need to hunt anymore. You can buy plenty of meat. But there are some families who have structured their lives around being able to live off the land. The rest are gun nuts. The true problem is anti intellectualism, the idea that education and intelligence are an elitist snob type of hierarchy developed to rule out those who know they are not intelligent and it makes them mad that they don't think, investigate, and reason. Those are the ones who are the first to stand in line because even if they can't think well enough to be smarter than a eight year old, they can sure vote to make sure no one else can take away their right to be heard, especially when what they have to say is misguided and information baseless. Isaac Asmimov said, "…There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding it's way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge." "
    In dealing with government, we have to remember that our nation started through taking other people's land away from them and squatting in their territory. We keep thinking that we are still living in that time of imperialistic rule when we, like the nations in Europe we escaped from, were trying to make everyone become as civilized (like us) as we are, with our religion and cultural artifacts that we, like a reformed smoker, insist everyone needs to get as excited as we are about it. Those who don't agree never will and those who never smoked are like, "YEAH? SO?" because we mistakenly believe that we need to share something everyone else already knows. That is the root of the problem.

  3. Colonialism, imperialism, genocide, ecocide, repression, oppression, racism, raping, looting, pillaging, and of course, terrorism are all proud American traditions since 1492!

  4. Just FYI, the right to keep and bear arms is not about hunting. Its the based on the recognition that human beings (all human beings, not just a select class such as those in government) have a natural right to defend themselves against violence or threats of violence from other human beings.

    Furthermore, the second amendment was placed in the constitution as a safeguard against government tyranny. An additional part of those "checks and balances" you could say. And, recognizing that all humans are equal, no government official should have anymore power (including firepower!) than what the common citizen has.

    The problem is not the weapon used. The problem is the initiation of aggression by some humans against others.

  5. Excuse me. But you'd have to be insane to believe that THIS nation and its corrupt leaders are in any way to be trusted. You've said so yourself that folks from the past have done some pretty nasty stuff. The nature of that beast hasn't changed. Do you assume that the same would not be carried out upon you or your loved ones? I sure as hell don't. And it's absurd to put your faith on a food supply with no guarantee it will be there tomorrow.

  6. Well, going back that far you're going to have to lump the Spanish and Portugese in because it was they who technically got that ball rolling. This nation only picked up the ball and ran with it once it shorn itself from the British empire. Still, I hold the belief that evil rests in the heart of the individual and don't paint a nation as a whole with so broad a brush.

  7. Walker: Republican talking points?!? Since when have any Republican leaders besides RP criticized the drone strategy? Did you vote for the current War Chief that is continually pressing the LAUNCH button — the same guy that would never think of actually lead a military action in person, but is a chest-beating, crowing, remote-control assassin? The pro-aggressive interventionist crowd and the neo-con interventionist crowd are on the same page as far as warmongering goes. If you are a liberal you probably agree that the Democratic Party is nowadays controlled by the interventionist "impervious-to-sane-argument" crowd.

  8. [...] With regards to Brennan’s speech, I watched it. In all its statements on the drone war, the Obama administration has dodged serious questions and pretended the inconvenient facts don’t exist, all while insisting a global program of extra-judicial assassinations is none of the American people’s business. For my previous posts on the drone issue see here and here. [...]