Secrecy and Drones

Originally published in the JHU Politik on February 18th, 2013.

It’s been a bad week for people concerned with drone warfare. A week ago, a Department of Justice “white paper” memo was leaked to NBC spelling out what White House attorneys believe is the legal defense for authorizing drone strikes targeting American citizens. Despite Barack Obama’s insistent calls for greater transparency within his administration, this is the first time such arguments were shown to the public.

These ‘legal rationales’ are chilling. According to the Obama Administration, it is lawful to target and kill American citizens if they are believed to be “imminent threats.” However, the language used to define what “imminent threat” means is so watered down as to effectively mean nothing. The memo states, “The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons will take place in the immediate future.” 

I would certainly hope that when the government of the United States is authorizing the right to kill an American citizen without a trial and due process, they have some amount of “clear evidence” as to why this measure is needed. The scary bottom line of the white memo is: “just trust us.”

Next up was John Brennan’s confirmation hearing as Obama’s nominee to head the CIA. During the hearing Brennan adamantly defended Obama’s counterterrorism policies, including the increased use of armed drones and the targeted killings of American citizens. This is not surprising since he is credited to be a main architect of Obama’s “kill list.” In one remarkable moment Brennan insisted that, “What we need to do is optimize transparency on [drones], but at the same time, optimize secrecy and the protection of our national security.” At best, that seems to be quite a difficult aspiration.

And finally we arrive at Obama’s State of the Union address, which was utterly cringe-worthy when it came to drones. He danced around the issue with every euphemistic phrase—he just could not bring himself to say the “D Word.”

He made a pitch for “enlisting values in the fight,” but what does that mean? Because he also said that, “where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.” The lack of specificity is frustrating and leaves much to be desired. 

In his speech Obama said, “My Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations.” In light of the leaked memo, this claim is disconcerting. He even said that America “will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security,” even though the resentment in those countries for U.S drones is sky-high. On The Voice of Russia Christopher Swift, Adjunct Professor of National Security Studies at Georgetown University, said, “popular resentment in Yemen at US drone strikes is so strong that it’s starting to undermine the political transition that the US and Saudi Arabia want to see there…The drones are encouraging people to see the situation in Yemen as one where foreign actors are interfering with their ability to chart their own future, and that has a lot of resonance with the Arab Spring generation in Yemen.”

Drones can appear tempting. For hawkish Republicans, drones can be seen as taking a firm stance on terrorism. 

For Democrats, drones can be seen as a better alternative to the large, resource-intensive operations like we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, when they undermine our moral standing in the world and give our government license to conduct secret killings far from public scrutiny in the name of “national security,” they pose a serious and terrible problem. 

On live television Obama said, “I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.” While there were disappointingly no direct mentions of drones in Obama’s speech, and his administration has failed to ensure transparency in the past, I certainly hope Obama holds true to this declaration. 

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