Waging War in Secret vs. American Democracy

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By fighting terrorism with covert CIA actions, President Obama deprives us of the ability to meaningfully evaluate American foreign policy.

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The War in Iraq is mostly over. We're drawing down forces in Afghanistan. Barring an unexpected terrorist attack or another Libya-style troop deployment, Election 2012 will proceed in a world where the War on Terrorism is being waged by intelligence agencies making drone strikes in places like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and one in which we may be taking covert action inside Iran too.

In others words, much of American foreign policy will be a state secret.

Think about what that means for democracy.

The Iraq War was a major campaign issue in 2004 and 2006. President Obama owes his victory in 2008 partly to the fact that he opposed it, persuaded voters he'd exercise better judgment if faced with a "3 a.m. phone call," and vowed to double down on winning the War in Afghanistan.

But in 2012, Americans won't benefit from as freewheeling a debate about the War on Terror, nor will we be afforded the opportunity to make as informed a judgment about how it is being waged. There are no images from the front, reporters embedded with troops, or generals hauled before Congress. There are, rather, an unknown number of drone strikes and other covert activity in an unknown number of countries, where an unknown number of people have been killed based on secret evidence that may or may not be required to meet an unknown standard. Whether we are trying to kill militants in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, or perhaps assassinating nuclear scientists in Iran, official secrecy makes robust civic debate impossible.

Consider the CIA's drone program.

Until recently, President Obama hadn't even explicitly acknowledged the covert strikes. They're officially classified -- the White House spokesman carefully avoids confirming that they're happening -- although anonymous administration officials brief reporters on the subject when doing so benefits them. That's why it was unexpected when the president acknowledged the program during a question-and-answer session on YouTube and Google+.

Here's a transcript of the exchange:

QUESTIONER: Mr. President, since you took office you've ordered more drone attacks in your first year than your predecessor did in his entire term. These drone attacks kill cause a lot of civilian casualties. I'm curious to know, how do you feel they help the nation? And whether you think they're worth it?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I want to make sure that people understand drones have actually not caused a huge number of civilian casualties. For the most part they have been very precise, precision strikes against Al Qaeda and their affiliates. We are very careful about how it's been applied. I think there's this perception somehow that we're just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly. This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities and bases, and so on. It is important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash. It's not a bunch of folks in a room somewhere just making decisions. And it is also part and parcel of our overall authority when it comes to battling Al Qaeda. It is not something that's being used beyond that.

In that short, on-the-record response to a voter's concerns, Obama has made claims about the number of civilian casualties drone strikes are causing, their precision, who is targeted, the degree of oversight, who is empowered to order a drone strike, and the legal authority that governs them. But voters should be wary of his claims. That's because officials privy to contrary information are legally prohibited from going public with the truth, or even acknowledging the program. Blowing the whistle on the Obama Administration could land them in jail. And the notion that Obama is telling untruths is a real possibility. What little we know about the CIA drone program is directly at odds with the account he gave the public in his Web interview.

Conservative estimates suggest hundreds of noncombatant civilians have been killed in Pakistan alone, which is a huge number given that the Obama Administration itself estimates that just two high-value operatives remain the country, and at most hundreds of low-value militants. Though Obama claims those targeted by drones appear on a list of known terrorists, the fact of the matter is that the CIA often doesn't even know the names of the people it is killing. And it is in fact "folks in a room somewhere" who've often decided that drones should kill. As The Wall Street Journal reported in a November story, "The CIA has had freedom to decide who to target and when to strike. The White House usually is notified immediately after signature strikes take place, not beforehand, a senior U.S. official said." Have the rules changes since then?

That's classified.

It's always troubling when a president tells voters blatant untruths about foreign policy. In an election year, the combination of untruths and state secrets is particularly pernicious. And it is making it significantly harder to judge whether Obama is an effective, moral steward of our interests.

Jane Mayer put it this way in her landmark 2009 story on America's drone war:

The Predator program has occurred with remarkably little public discussion, given that it represents a radically new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned lethal force. And, because of the C.I.A. program's secrecy, there is no visible system of accountability in place, despite the fact that the agency has killed many civilians inside a politically fragile, nuclear-armed country with which the U.S. is not at war. Should something go wrong in the C.I.A.'s program -- last month, the Air Force lost control of a drone and had to shoot it down over Afghanistan -- it's unclear what the consequences would be.

My colleagues Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder showed two years later that Obama's policies toward Pakistan caused that country's leaders to start moving its nuclear arsenal around in lightly guarded conveys on public highways. Other critics of Obama have suggested that his frequent drone strikes are likely to create as many terrorists as they eliminate. Says my colleague Robert Wright:


The inevitable drone-induced civilian casualties tend to make life easier for recruiters for al-Qaeda and other anti-American terrorist groups. It's one thing if, in thus expanding the ranks of terrorists in the long run, we're at least doing major damage to al-Qaeda in the short run; it still may be, on balance, bad anti-terrorism strategy, but at least you'd have to do the math, comparing short-term benefits to long-term costs, before being sure of that. But if -- as seems to be the case -- most of the drone strikes are protecting American soldiers in Afghanistan from attacks by the Taliban, then there may be no big upside in terms of homeland security.

Just as the Obama Administration's secrecy makes it impossible to have a robust national debate about the efficacy of its strategy, it also makes it difficult to make judgments about its morality.

The American people are being told that our intelligence agencies are on "a short leash," that its targets are al-Qaeda operatives intent on harming America, and that there aren't many innocents killed. Many voters are willing to go along with the policy with those caveats in mind. But a new report by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism alleges that after the Obama Administration orders drone strikes on suspected militants, it is common practice for the drones to stick around until rescue workers show up and to fire on them too. Eyewitnesses also say that the United States has attacked funerals held for militants killed in drone strikes. And that strikes on rescue parties and funeral mourners have killed some innocent noncombatant civilians.

Glenn Greenwald argues persuasively that we ought to take allegations from this group very seriously:

As I noted at the time -- and again when I interviewed Chris Woods of the Bureau -- their methodology virtually guarantees significant under-counting of civilian deaths (and, indeed, their July, 2011, count was much lower than other credible reports) because they only count someone as a "civilian" when they can absolutely prove beyond any doubt that the person who died by a drone strike was one. The difficulty of reporting and obtaining verifiable information in Waziristan ensures that some civilian deaths will not be susceptible to that high level of documentary proof, and thus will go un-counted by the Bureau's methodolgy.

The point is that the Bureau is extremely scrupulous, perhaps to a fault, in the claims it makes about civilian drone fatalities. Its findings here about deliberate targeting of rescuers and funeral attendees are supported by ample verified witness testimony, field research and public reports, all of which the Bureau has documented in full. As Woods said by email: "We have been working for months with field researchers in Waziristan to independently verify the original reports. In 12 cases we are able to confirm that rescuers and mourners were indeed attacked."

And how has the Obama Administration responded? Take a look at The New York Times writeup of the report: 

The bureau counted 260 strikes by Predator and Reaper drones since President Obama took office, and it said that 282 to 535 civilians had been "credibly reported" killed in those attacks, including more than 60 children. American officials said that the number was much too high, though they acknowledged that at least several dozen civilians had been killed inadvertently in strikes aimed at militant suspects.

A senior American counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, questioned the report's findings, saying "targeting decisions are the product of intensive intelligence collection and observation." The official added: "One must wonder why an effort that has so carefully gone after terrorists who plot to kill civilians has been subjected to so much misinformation. Let's be under no illusions -- there are a number of elements who would like nothing more than to malign these efforts and help Al Qaeda succeed."
Note that the Obama Administration official doesn't rebut the veracity of the civilian death numbers -- he or she asserts that "intensive intelligence collection" goes into drone strikes, which isn't inconsistent with subsequently firing on rescuers or funerals; that there is a lot of misinformation out there, which is undoubtedly true regardless; and that critics of the Obama Administration are acting like Al Qaeda sympathizers, the sort of scurrilous charge that the executive branch typically throws out when it wants to distract everyone from the substance of the matter.

Before we choose our next president, we deserve an honest accounting of our drone policy: the rules of engagement, the legal authority that supposedly justifies the killings, how frequently innocents are killed, and testimony under oath about whether rescue workers or funeral-goers have been targeted.

Secrecy can be useful in foreign affairs. But if its benefits come at the cost of a citizenry that can no longer meaningfully decide whether its country's foreign policy is in accordance with its interests and values, the price is too high. The American people are arguably being made complicit in policies we'd never permit if we knew about them. Disagreements about how we ought to conduct ourselves abroad are always going to persist. As we hash them out during presidential elections, we ought to at least agree on the need for accurate information about the status quo.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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