from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Obama’s Low Bar for Drones Transparency

Obama Counterterror Speech at National Defense University
Obama Counterterror Speech at National Defense University

I had a column published at Foreign Policy today that analyzes the divergence between what President Obama said about drone strikes in his counterterrorism speech last week, and what his senior aides selectively leaked to journalists. Subsequently, many columnists and journalists have mistakenly characterized Obama’s speech as placing tight restrictions on who can be targeted with drone strikes. Others listened to the speech and believed, as National Public Radio stated: “Obama Pledges To Be More Transparent About Drone Program.”

The actual speech neither presented new restrictions, nor offered much in the way of transparency. The president highlighted his decision to authorize attorney general Eric Holder to provide a letter to the senate judiciary committee that acknowledges that four U.S. citizens died in drone strikes, three of whom were not the intended target. Given that all but one of the citizen’s names was reported in the press, this was an example of belated transparency through the acknowledgment of already public information.

Unfortunately, this low bar for transparency about drone strikes is becoming the norm for the Obama administration. Two weeks ago, the Senate Armed Services Committee invited four Pentagon officials to testify at a hearing, “The Law of Armed Conflict, and the Use of Military Force, and the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force.” Although the media did not report it, the Pentagon’s joint statement for the record contained this remarkable passage:

We have also made significant efforts to increase transparency regarding whom the U.S. military targets in the current conflict…Last year, for example, we declassified information about the U.S. military’s counterterrorism activities in Yemen and Somalia in a June 2012 War Powers report to Congress. This type of transparency helps preserve public confidence, dispel misconceptions that the U.S. military targets low-level terrorists who pose no threat to the United States, and address questions raised by our allies and partners abroad.

In March, the former chief Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson admitted that agreeing to even that basic of language required “a long and difficult deliberative process to get there.” So what far-reaching and specific revelations were contained in the June 2012 War Powers report?

In a limited number of cases, the U.S. military has taken direct action in Somalia against members of al-Qa’ida…engaged in efforts to carry out terrorist attacks against the United States and our interests.

The U.S. military has also been working closely with the Yemeni government to operationally dismantle and ultimately eliminate the terrorist threat posed by al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)…Our joint efforts have resulted in direct action against a limited number of AQAP operatives and senior leaders in that country who posed a terrorist threat to the United States and our interests.

That’s all. Here again, the White House acknowledged (albeit with no specificity) to Congress what was public information, which the Pentagon touted as a “type of transparency.” Nothing contained in the White House War Powers report to Congress preserved public confidence, dispelled any misconceptions, or certainly addressed the many problems that U.S. allies and partners have with America’s interpretation of the scope of who can be lawfully killed by drone strikes. The White House communications strategy of repeating over and over again that it is committed to greater transparency and public debate regarding targeted killings does not make it so.