The Increasingly Absurd Conceit That Drone Strikes Are Secret

Here's another passage from his book:

But as the Americans were closing in on Awlaki, Obama let it be known that he didn't want his options preemptively foreclosed. If there was a clear shot at the terrorist leader, even one that risked civilian deaths, he wanted to be advised of it. "Bring it to me and let me decide in the reality of the moment rather than in the abstract," he said, according to one Obama confidant. "In this instance," recalled the source, "the president considered relaxing some of his collateral requirements." But in the end Obama was never forced to confront that awful dilemma.

On the morning of September 30, after finishing breakfast, Awlaki and several of his companions left the safe house and walked about seven hundred yards to their parked cars. As they were getting into their vehicles, they were blown apart by two Hellfire missiles. (Also killed was Samir Khan, the Pakistani American propagandist for AQAP and editor of the terrorist organization's Internet organ, Inspire. Justice Department lawyers had told the military that they could not approve Khan's killing, but after officials learned he had died in the raid, Khan was deemed "acceptable collateral damage."

The White House is not angrily seeking out the source of this detailed insider account. Various revelations about the CIA drone program, many attributed in the press to "senior administration officials," are not part of the leak investigation launched by Attorney General Eric Holder, despite the fact that the Obama Administration insists that it has not declassified any of it.

There is, finally, the much talked about New York Times story, sourced to "three dozen" of Obama's "current and former advisers," that goes into great detail about how names are added to America's kill list, explicitly affirming the CIA's role in targeted drone killings. While the sourcing on some specific facts in the story is vague, other passages are sourced more narrowly.

For example, here's a "top White House adviser" talking about a CIA drone strike gone wrong:

Just days after taking office, the president got word that the first strike under his administration had killed a number of innocent Pakistanis. "The president was very sharp on the thing, and said, 'I want to know how this happened,' " a top White House adviser recounted.In response to his concern, the C.I.A. downsized its munitions for more pinpoint strikes.

Or consider this passage:

Mr. Obama gave his approval, and Mr. Awlaki was killed in September 2011, along with a fellow propagandist, Samir Khan, an American citizen who was not on the target list but was traveling with him. If the president had qualms about this momentous step, aides said he did not share them. Mr. Obama focused instead on the weight of the evidence showing that the cleric had joined the enemy and was plotting more terrorist attacks.

"This is an easy one," Mr. Daley recalled him saying, though the president warned that in future cases, the evidence might well not be so clear.

So there you have Obama's former chief-of-staff acknowledging that Obama ordered the Awlaki strike. 

Without getting into additional examples -- there are many -- suffice it to say the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer is on solid ground when he notes:

The notion that the CIA's targeted killing program is still a secret is beyond absurd.  Senior officials have discussed it, both on the record and off. They have taken credit for its putative successes, professed it to be legal, and dismissed concerns about civilian casualties. If they can make these claims to the media, they can answer requests under the Freedom of Information Act. The public is entitled to know more about the legal authority the administration is claiming and the way that the administration is using it. The administration should release the legal memos that purportedly justify the targeted killing program, and it should release more information about the process by which individuals, including American citizens, are added to government kill lists. It should also release the evidence that led the administration to kill three Americans, including a 16-year-old boy, last year.

Their legal rational is pertinent to the decision voters must make about whether to oust Obama from the White House or reelect him.

Presented by

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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