Hearing the Siren Song of Drone Strikes, Obama Won't Tie Himself Down

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The president and his underlings refuse to be bound even by secret rules they invented and believe to be prudent.

obama bomb pakistan full reuters.jpg
Reuters

For a year, the Obama Administration has been trying to codify rules to govern its drone strikes. The finest minds on the White House national security team have given their input. Now the carefully though-out rules are nearly finished. And guess what? The CIA won't have to abide by them!

In Pakistan, they can just keep doing what they're doing, according to a remarkable Washington Post story:

The carve-out would allow the CIA to continue pounding al-Qaeda and Taliban targets for a year or more before the agency is forced to comply with more stringent rules spelled out in a classified document... Among the subjects covered are the process for adding names to kill lists, the legal principles that govern when U.S. citizens can be targeted overseas and the sequence of approvals required when the CIA or U.S. military conducts drone strikes outside war zones.

This is beyond parody. The White House has so little regard for the importance of running a government of "laws, not men" that they can't even commit to be bound by secret guidelines they created. Would Circe even bother warning him if sirens were ahead? He'd never think to have himself tied to the mast. He would order the crew to put wax in their ears, but he'd exempt John Brennan: "Officials said concerns about the CIA exemption were allayed to some extent by Obama's decision to nominate Brennan, the principal author of the playbook, to run the CIA."

What example will Obama and Brennan be setting? That rules are just fine for some people, but it's important that others be able to break them if it's expedient and they're particularly wise. And what could possibly go wrong in a spy agency with that sort of attitude at the top? I'm sure the rank and file will understand that they should follow the rules because they're less wise and possess less moral rectitude than the president and his favorite counterterrorism adviser.

Critics of the drone program often lament the dearth of Congressional and judicial checks on President Obama's power. But don't get the idea that he's completely in charge within the executive branch: "Officials said the effort to draft the playbook was nearly derailed late last year by disagreements among the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon on the criteria for lethal strikes and other issues. Granting the CIA a temporary exemption for its Pakistan operations was described as a compromise that allowed officials to move forward with other parts of the playbook."

The CIA checked efforts to check the CIA.

After all, "imposing the playbook standards on the CIA campaign in Pakistan would probably lead to a sharp reduction in the number of strikes at a time when Obama is preparing to announce a drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan that could leave as few as 2,500 troops in place after 2014." In other words, if the Obama Administration only permitted drone strikes with prudent safeguards (as defined by the Obama Administration) we'd be striking a lot less. Apparently it isn't just drone war critics who think the way it's being carried out in Pakistan is indefensible. 

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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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