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

White House Transparency and Targeted Killings

April 23, 2013

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In February, President Obama declared during a Google+ Fireside Hangout: “This is the most transparent administration in history, and I can document how that is the case.” Obama did acknowledge: “When it comes to how we conduct counterterrorism there are legitimate questions there, and we should have that debate.” One way the White House could cement its purported legacy as the most transparent administration ever, and contribute to counterterrorism debates would be to participate in congressional hearings on drone strikes.

Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing, “Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing.” Scheduled to appear as witnesses are scholars and experts on U.S. targeted killings, as well as Farea Al-muslimi, a Yemeni activist, who recently reported on a drone strike in his village that killed a suspected member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and four other suspected militants.

Missing will be anyone from the Obama administration. Just as the White House refused to provide a witness for a House Judiciary Committee hearing in February, they refused again today. When asked last week, NSC spokesperson Caitlin Hayden would not say why no witness would be representing the administration. Since committee staffers have been putting together this hearing for months, and it has been rescheduled, the White House had ample time to prepare an official to answer questions about this controversial counterterrorism tactic.

The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that it believes in the principles of transparency and debate regarding targeted killings, but then refrains from demonstrating this in practice. In March, White House spokesperson Jay Carney noted: “[Obama] believes very much in the need to be as transparent as possible on these matters with Congress as well as with the public. He has spoken about it. Senior administration officials have spoken often about it, and he looks forward to addressing those issues as well in the coming months.”

However, when asked specific or clarifying questions about targeted killings, administrations officials simply refer to an April 2012 speech by former White House senior counterterrorism adviser John Brennan: "The Ethics and Efficacy of the President’s Counterterrorism Strategy." For example:

Leon Panetta secretary of defense, April 30, 2012: “I’m going to let the speech speak for itself”

Mark Toner state department deputy spokesperson, May 8:  “I’m going to disappoint you because I don’t have a lot more to say beyond what’s already been said by John Brennan and others from various agencies within the government.”

Jay Carney, May 29: “I would refer you to John Brennan’s speech not long ago on these matters”

Jay Carney, December 12:  “There is nothing more that I can add to that discussion beyond that John Brennan said in his speech that you refer to…I would point you to the remarks that John Brennan made, which I think demonstrate our position on these issues and the broader issue you talk about in terms of transparency.”

Jay Carney, February 6, 2013: “The fact is, as John Brennan and others have made clear, our counterterrorism efforts are designed--including our targeted efforts--to limit civilian casualties.”

Jay Carney, April 11: “We have been, as an administration, very transparent through a series of speeches by John Brennan, the Attorney General and by others, as well as comments by the President, about the approach that we take in that effort.”

During a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last week, Rep. Jan Schakowsky asked Brennan, now the director of central intelligence: “Is there any way that you can define and distinguish between targeted strikes and signature strikes by drones?” His response was revealing about how committed the Obama administration is to transparency and public debate:

“I would refer to the comments that were made by a number of U.S. government officials publicly and speeches, including when I was at the White House. I’m not going to engage in any type of discussion on that here today, Congresswoman.”

Thus, fully closing the loop, John Brennan now tells policymakers to read earlier comments by John Brennan for any clarification. It is worth noting when he was asked directly about signature strikes by an audience member after his April 2012 speech, he refused to provide an answer. And if Senators seek further information about signature strikes today, there won’t be anyone from the Obama administration to answer them.

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