Why Is the Drone War Secret?

John Glaser, February 11, 2013

During his Senate confirmation hearing, Obama’s pick for CIA director, John Brennan, placated the Senate committee by promising to impose greater transparency on the drone war. He even promised to acknowledge publicly when drone strikes kill civilians (that’s a lot easier to do when you regard as automatically guilty anyone who is killed by a drone strike).

Some commentators have tried to argue that Obama and Brennan truly yearn to be more transparent about the drone war. They point to Brennan’s speech last year at the Woodrow Wilson Center, which was the first official public acknowledgement of the drone war, as well as to Obama’s increasing willingness to acknowledge the drone war, instead of just dismissing all inquiries with “I cannot discuss classified information.”

But this perception is the byproduct of a pretty sophisticated propaganda campaign by the Obama administration. Obama has defined his approach to the war on terror with an emphasis on covert activities – either with targeted killings or JSOC commandos being deployed into countries without anybody’s knowledge. Here, he distinguishes himself from Bush, whose legacy will surely be the large conventional ground war – and subsequent military quagmire – in Iraq.

Secrecy has its benefits and its downsides. One downside to keeping the drone war entirely secret is that Obama doesn’t get to present himself as tough on terror. As long as it’s known that he is killing lots of people, there are few political costs to avoiding showy conventional ground wars. Therefore, ever since the early days of Obama’s presidency, there have been consistent leaks to the press about the wild success of drone strikes and all the bad terrorists they kill.

So why not just make the whole program public? Then Obama could get all the credit, right?

Well, there are benefits to secrecy too. Those parts of US foreign policy that are of questionable legality or are particularly cold-blooded in their execution must be kept secret in order to avoid public and judicial scrutiny. If the ugly parts of the drone war – like the fact that its illegal, kills civilians, and represents a radical expansion of executive power – were out in the open, the administration might be predisposed to some accountability.  An ignorant public is absolutely essential to the functioning of Obama’s foreign policy.

So with selective leaks of the generally secret drone war, plus lots of propaganda, we end up in a situation where most of the public approves of Obama’s targeted killing program, where senators like Dianne Feinstein seriously believe the number of civilians killed is in the single digits, and where the courts have no way of challenging the program.

As US District Judge Colleen McMahon, who upheld the Obama administration’s ability to throw out legal cases by claiming disclosures would harm national security, said in her ruling, “I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.”

The current debate about whether or not Obama’s drone war is legal and humane is resolved by simply recognizing that it is secret. It isn’t a covert war because Obama wants to “protect sources and methods.” Indeed, enough is known about the program that sources and methods aren’t really secret. What is kept secret, revealingly, is the administration’s legal case for the drone war, as well as a government accounting of who is being killed. If it were perfectly legal and humane, Obama would have little reason to keep it secret.




10 Responses to “Why Is the Drone War Secret?”

  1. “I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.”
    ~ US District Judge Colleen McMahon

    If the certain actions of politicans and their agents operating within the US government are incompatible with our Constitution and laws then the politicans and their agents operating within the US government are criminals.

  2. the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.”

  3. The White Letter from The White House smells not quite like a White Rose
    by michael hall

    First obama murdered children inside of foreign nations
    the people shopped at walmart to show their displeasure
    then obama assassinated children in countries we were not war with
    so flags & troops were honored at every sports game in the land

    Some lawyers screamed foul as did the few with conscience like Chomsky, Hedges & Blum
    but their voices were drowned out by the silence of the bored & apathetic the meekly submissive
    still the good loyal citizens did scream for more guns as their constitutional right
    & american idol worship tonight is supposed to be a killer so guess which takes priority?

    Then obama & the exalted mighty military murdered an unarmed american across the pond
    so what did the people then do you ask?
    they swallowed a blue pill sunk their head deeper into the rabbit hole and breathed patriotically
    hush hush now little children its all a transparent secret nothing to see here just move along

    While a depressed american teenager with his cousin out looking for his murdered father
    stopped along a dirt road in the middle of a vast desert praying for his dad
    in the middle of a cookout sitting around the fire alone these two american kids
    without warning silence was broken by terrorism & they were subsequently droned to smithereens

    Ah but some fires did light up more intensely this time
    so obama & his bunch of hooligans had to reluctantly crawl out of their dark dungeon
    they argued with legal thickets of sharpened stakes, moats, pickets, shielded by secrets & lies atop turrets no one could reach
    through a tapestry of intricate semantics innuendos & bizarre definitions they claimed they were upholding the constitution oxymoronically tagging this odium as wise and ethical

    Claiming the research was so sensitive & so secret that it could not be revealed
    our heroes would then be exposed to violence & that would be quite unamerican
    if that happened whistleblowers then would be scapegoated & we know what happens to them
    do you really think that renditions & retaliatory vengeance are deeds of the past?

    Cattle mooed as they contentedly chewed the cud of american idol worship
    sheep bleated via indoctrination by years of cognitive brainwashing and dissonance bleaching
    the superbowl was a commercial success & beyonce lip-synced flawlessly again
    & the flags, ah, the flags flew so high & piously, almost above it all, but did i see, a bloodstain, a tear or was it smoke?

  4. [...] prevented their expansive application. Indeed, to avoid legal scrutiny, the Executive Branch simply keeps the program technically secret and conducted by the CIA. Covert activities are those that would be illegal…if the [...]

  5. [...] all of it is secret. The Obama administration, like every administration before it, keeps secret that which is legally and morally questionable, while justifying it with practiced tropes about “protecting sources and [...]

  6. [...] all of it is secret. The Obama administration, like every administration before it, keeps secret that which is legally and morally questionable, while justifying it with practiced tropes about “protecting sources and [...]

  7. [...] all of it is secret. The Obama administration, like every administration before it, keeps secret that which is legally and morally questionable, while justifying it with practiced tropes about “protecting sources and [...]

  8. [...] all of it is secret. The Obama administration, like every administration before it, keeps secret that which is legally and morally questionable, while justifying it with practiced tropes about “protecting sources and [...]

  9. [...] secret. The Obama administration, like every administration before it, keeps secret that which is legally and morally questionable, while justifying it with practiced tropes about “protecting sources and [...]

  10. [...] all of it is secret. The Obama administration, like every administration before it, keeps secret that which is legally and morally questionable, while justifying it with practiced tropes about “protecting sources and [...]