The Obama administration has soothed concerns about its Predator drone program by assuring that foreign governments give "full consent" before drones drop Hellfire missiles on unsuspecting targets on their territory. Turns out, though, that's not always the case.
In Pakistan, for example, the government has stopped signing off on drone strikes, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal's Adam Entous, Siobhan Gorman and Evan Perez. But that doesn't mean the CIA has stopped the strikes. Using a silence-is-consent rationale, drones still fly because Pakistan doesn't say "no":
About once a month, the Central Intelligence Agency sends a fax to a general at Pakistan's intelligence service outlining broad areas where the U.S. intends to conduct strikes with drone aircraft, according to U.S. officials. The Pakistanis, who in public oppose the program, don't respond.
On this basis, plus the fact that Pakistan continues to clear airspace in the targeted areas, the U.S. government concludes it has tacit consent to conduct strikes within the borders of a sovereign nation.
Pakistan's game of silent treatment began after the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in May 2011, and is a symbol of the deteriorating relationship between the two countries. "Not responding was their way of saying 'we're upset with you,' " an official says. But for the purposes of the Journal story, the silent treatment is a big problem because the State Department's top legal adviser Harold Koh thinks it puts the drone program in an untenable gray area.
Lawyers at the State Department, including top legal adviser Harold Koh, believe this rationale veers near the edge of what can be considered permission ... Because there is little precedent for the classified U.S. drone program, international law doesn't speak directly to how it might operate. That makes the question of securing consent all the more critical, legal specialists say ... For some U.S. officials, including Mr. Koh, the lack of an ISI response to faxes was unnerving, leaving already-vague communications even more open to interpretation ... Conducting drone strikes in a country against its will could be seen as an act of war.
While that may be troubling, it's also troubling that the Obama administration misled the public about the nature of its drone strikes. Up until this spring, U.S. officials almost never spoke about the drone program due to its classified nature. But in March and April, U.S. officials finally broke the vow of silence after facing stuff pressure from the press. One of those people was President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan. Here's what he told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday:
"When we're doing this, we are doing it in full consent and cooperation with our partners internationally. This is something that the president has told us we need to work closely with these partners."
For now, it's safe to say the phrase "full consent and cooperation" is more than overstated. And according to the dates listed in the Journal story, Pakistan had not been giving its "full consent" for almost a year by the time Brennan delivered that line on Fox News. Maybe somebody should ask Brennan about that quote during his next Sunday talk circuit.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.