The Increasingly Absurd Conceit That Drone Strikes Are Secret

The Obama Administration's invocation of national security to deny Freedom of Information Act requests from the ACLU and New York Times is ridiculous.

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Late Wednesday, the Obama Administration denied a Freedom of Information Act request demanding information about its targeted killing program. Among the public, there is broad support for the notion that the president and CIA should be able to act in secret while waging the War on Terrorism. For that reason, the White House hasn't gotten much grief for its denial. What needs to be more widely understood are the several issues that this particular denial raises. Even if you think the president should enjoy broad latitude to act in secret on matters of national security, there are good reasons to find his actions in this case objectionable and pernicious.

In broad strokes, here is the game that the White House is playing: President Obama, John Brennan, and other senior administration officials are happy to disclose information about government drone strikes when they are touting counterterrorism success stories. But every time critics of their national-security strategy seek information about their actions, they claim that some of the very things they've spoken about on and off the record are actually state secrets.

The absurdity of their assertions is best illustrated with specific examples. The legal brief that explains why various documents cannot not be released to the public states the following on page 10:

Whether or not the United States government conducted the particular operations that led to the deaths of Anwar al-Aulaki and the other individuals named in the FOIA requests remains classified.

It also states:

...whether or not the CIA has the authority to be, or is in fact, directly involved in targeted lethal operations remains classified.

All that may be technically classified, but it has long since ceased to be secret or unknown by any reasonable standard. Here is President Obama himself acknowledging that American drones kill people who appear on a list of terrorists. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has acknowledged that he made use of Predator drones during his tenure at the CIA. While Panetta was the sitting director of the CIA, he said that drones were "the only game in town in terms of confronting and trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership."

Said White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan in an April speech:

What has clearly captured the attention of many, however, is a different practice, beyond hot battlefields like Afghanistan -- identifying specific members of al-Qa'ida and then targeting them with lethal force, often using aircraft remotely operated by pilots who can be hundreds if not thousands of miles away. This is what I want to focus on today.

He went on to note that the U.S. "conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qa'ida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones." He went on to discuss "the rigorous standards and process of review to which we hold ourselves today when considering and authorizing strikes against a specific member of al-Qa'ida outside the "hot" battlefield of Afghanistan." He concluded that "in recent years, with the help of targeted strikes we have turned al-Qa'ida into a shadow of what it once was. They are on the road to destruction."

In summary, public statements by high-ranking Obama Administration officials have revealed enough about our targeted kills to make absurd the contention that "... whether or not the CIA has the authority to be, or is in fact, directly involved in targeted lethal operations remains classified."

Off-the-record leaks, most of them probably authorized, make the administration's position even more absurd.

Take this April Wall Street Journal story: "The Obama administration has given the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. military greater leeway to target suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen with drones, responding to worries a new haven is being established from which to mount attacks on the West. The policy shift, as described by senior U.S. officials, includes targeting fighters whose names aren't known but who are deemed to be high-value terrorism targets or threats to the U.S."

Dan Klaidman's new book on Obama's efforts in the War on Terrorism notes, "Though the program was covert, [Rahm] Emanuel pushed the CIA to publicize its covert successes.  When Mehsud was killed, agency public affairs officers anonymously trumpeted their triumph, leaking colorful tidbits to trusted reporters on the intelligence beat."

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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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