Reports of Congressional Drone Oversight Are Greatly Exaggerated

Thanks in part to misleading statements from Dianne Feinstein, Americans get the false impression that Congress can do its job.
dianne feinstein full.jpg
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Critics of Team Obama's targeted killing program frequently complain that it is not subject to sufficient Congressional oversight, which is another way of saying that the core mechanism the Framers gave us to prevent catastrophic policies from arising and persisting is not being exercised. Professor Amitai Etzioni says that the critics are wrong. "Actually Congress is regularly briefed about this campaign," he wrote Tuesday here at The Atlantic. "As Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, a strong liberal herself, recently stated: 'Senate Intelligence Committee is kept fully informed of counterterrorism operations and keeps close watch to make sure they are effective, responsible and in keeping with U.S. and international law.'"

Etzioni's argument is weak.

This is why:

  1. The veracity of what Feinstein says cannot be trusted. The Senate Intelligence Committee is not kept "fully informed" of counterterrorism operations. Notice Feinstein's claim that they're kept fully informed is dated March 7, 2012. Yet here is what happened almost a year later: "Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office revealed Wednesday that the Obama administration has yet to show members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence seven additional opinions laying out the legal basis for targeted killing." The same month, February 2013, Feinstein was quoted in The Hill saying, "Right now it is very hard [to oversee] because it is regarded as a covert activity, so when you see something that is wrong and you ask to be able to address it, you are told no." Feinstein is also either ignorant of the number of innocent civilians the United States has killed, or else lying about the number. She claims civilian casualties in a given year "are typically in the single digits," an estimate with which no credible source agrees. (If you want to go deeper into the weeds on Feinstein's unreliability, make your way through this Empty Wheel post.)
  2. Senator Ron Wyden, another member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has waged a years-long effort to get the information on the drone program that he needs to fulfill his oversight responsibilities. Even after he was able to look at some of the drone memos during the John Brennan confirmation process, he said that the Obama Administration had a long way to go before it met the threshold of providing him with all the information that he ought to have. It makes no sense to claim that members of a Senate committee are fully briefed when at least one of them has been fighting tooth and nail for months and months to get basic information.  
  3. Even if the Senate Intelligence Committee had been given all the information it needs to meaningfully perform oversight on the drone program, which it hasn't, that would still fall short of what's needed. Here is a lengthy statement by Rep. John Conyers explaining why the House Judiciary Committee has direct jurisdiction over various aspects of the targeted killing program, and stating that as yet the Obama Administration had not provided the information needed to fulfill its oversight role. And if the House Judiciary Committee gets all the information it needs? That would still be insufficient. The Congress as a whole need not be told every operational detail about the drone program, but there is no legitimate reason to hide from Congress major aspects of it, like the names of all the countries in which we are taking lethal action, the number of civilian casualties, and the legal theories that ostensibly justify the program. None of that information would endanger national security. And all of it would presumably prove extremely important as Congress weighed whether current policy is in the national interest. 

There is a reason that the Obama Administration has hidden so much of what it's done from Congress and the American people: Officials know they cannot defend the policy they are pursuing if they forthrightly lay it out in all its indefensible details. Feinstein has repeatedly abetted their efforts to obscure reality, whether deliberately or because she is being manipulated. Certainly she has passed along factually inaccurate and misleading information to the public. The claim that Congress performs meaningful and sufficient oversight of the drone program is flat out incorrect, and citing Feinstein as if her words demonstrate the contrary reveals a willingness to trust elected officials even when the facts demand skepticism.

It is vital for Americans to understand that the Obama Administration has hidden much of what its done from their representatives in the legislature, and that many of their representatives are derelict in their duty to zealously guard their oversight power, as James Madison assumed they would.

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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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