Barack Obama and his new defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, left, listen to the new CIA director, John Brennan, at the White House on 7 January. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP
For years, senior Obama officials, including the president himself, have been making public claims about their drone program that have just been proven to be categorically false. The evidence of this falsity is so conclusive that even establishment sources are using unusually harsh language – including “lies” – to describe Obama’s statements. McClatchy’s national security reporter, Jonathan Landay, obtained top-secret intelligence documents showing that “contrary to assurances it has deployed US drones only against known senior leaders of al-Qaida and allied groups, the Obama administration has targeted and killed hundreds of suspected lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified ‘other’ militants in scores of strikes in Pakistan’s rugged tribal area.” That article quotes drone expert Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations as saying that “McClatchy’s findings indicate that the administration is ‘misleading the public about the scope of who can legitimately be targeted.'”
In his own must-read article at Foreign Policy about these disclosures, Zenko writes – under the headline: “Finally, proof that the United States has lied in the drone wars” – that “it turns out that the Obama administration has not been honest about who the CIA has been targeting with drones in Pakistan” and that the McClatchy article “plainly demonstrates that the claim repeatedly made by President Obama and his senior aides – that targeted killings are limited only to officials, members, and affiliates of al-Qaida who pose an imminent threat of attack on the US homeland – is false.” Beyond the obvious harms of having the president and his administration continuously lie to the public about such a crucial matter, Zenko explains that these now-disproven claims may very well make the drone strikes illegal since assertions about who is being targeted were “essential to the legal foundations on which the strikes are ultimately based: the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force and the UN Charter’s right to self-defense.” Marcy Wheeler uses the documents to show how claims about drones from other key officials, including Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, are also unquestionably false.
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Both Landay’s article and Zenko’s analysis should be read for the details, but I want to highlight the three key points from this: (1) The Obama administration often has no idea who they are killing.
This has long been the most amazing aspect of the drone debate to me. Not even the CIA, let alone ordinary citizens, has any idea of the identity of many of the people they are targeting for death. Despite this central ignorance, huge numbers of people walk around in some sort of zombie-like state repeatedly spouting the mantra that “Drones are Good because We are Killing the Terrorists” – even though the CIA itself, let alone citizens defending its killings, have no clue who is even being targeted. It has long been known that Obama (like Bush before him) approved the use of so-called “signature strikes”, where the identity of the target is not known but they are targeted for death anyway “based on a ‘pattern of life’ analysis – intelligence on their behavior suggesting that an individual is a militant” (the New York Times reported that “the joke [at the State Department] was that when the CIA sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks’, the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp” and that “men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers – but they might also be farmers”).
But these McClatchy documents make clear just how extreme this ignorance often is, even after the fact:
The documents also show that drone operators weren’t always certain who they were killing despite the administration’s guarantees of the accuracy of the CIA’s targeting intelligence and its assertions that civilian casualties have been ‘exceedingly rare.'”
Zenko adds: “even the US intelligence community does not necessarily know who it has killed; it is forced to use fuzzy categories like ‘other militants’ and ‘foreign fighters’.” Targeting people without knowing their identity is as dubious morally as it is legally, which is why, Zenko explains, “No US government official has ever openly acknowledged the practice of such ‘signature strikes’ because it is so clearly at odds with the bedrock principle of distinction required for using force within the laws of armed conflict.” How can any minimally rational person continue to walk around defending Obama’s drone kills on the ground that they are killing The Terrorists or that civilian deaths are rare when even the government, let alone these defenders, often have no clue who is being targeted and then killed? (2) Whisteblowers are vital for transparency and accountability, which is precisely why the Obama administration is waging a war on them.
Here is yet another example where we obtained proof of the falsity of the government’s claims, and possibly illegal actions, for only one reason: a whistleblower leaked top secret documents to a journalist, who then published them. When you combine an impotent Congress, a supine media, and a subservient federal judiciary – the institutions ostensibly designed to check excessive executive branch secrecy – government leakers have really have become the only reliable means for learning about the lies and bad acts of political officials. And that’s precisely why the Obama administration is waging an unprecedented war against them. Yesterday on Democracy Now, New York Times national security reporter Mark Mazzetti explained to Amy Goodman how this whistleblower war – by design – is impeding basic investigative journalism:
“AMY GOODMAN: And you, as a reporter, Mark – we see the greatest crackdown on whistleblowers that we have ever seen under any president: President Obama’s administration is going after more whistleblowers than all presidential administrations combined in the past. And the role of journalists, how do you feel, as you try to cover these issues? Do you feel the crackdown?
“MARK MAZZETTI: It’s harder. There’s no question. It’s harder and harder. People are – this crackdown has perhaps had its intended effect, which was maybe not to go prosecute the cases that have been brought, but also to scare others into not talking.And so, I find that in the last couple years covering national security issues, you just find people who were perhaps once more eager to talk or willing to talk, for reasons that- not just because they were whistleblowers, but because they thought it was important for reporters to have context and information about some of these operations -those people are increasingly less likely to talk.
“AMY GOODMAN: And you, yourself, being prosecuted or put under a kind of spotlight from the administration?
“MARK MAZZETTI: I mean, it’s certainly worrisome for us and is worrisome that, you know, they go after – they go after sources, and it brings the reporters into it, as well. I think we’re at a critical time here to – you know, hopefully this ends. But, you know, once there is a momentum in some of these cases, the Justice Department works in its own ways, and so people, once they make cases, they tend to try to make other cases. And so, that’s what some -that’s what’s concerning for us.”
There is no doubt that this is not only the primary effect, but also the primary purpose, of Obama’s vindictive though highly selective attacks on leakers: to create a climate of fear to deter whistleblowers and journalists who think about exposing the bad acts and lies of the government (leaking to glorify the President remains permissible and encouraged). As Mazzetti suggests, the traditional sources for national security investigative reporters have dried up and the journalists themselves are frightened about reporting on these matters. All of this from a President who vowed to have the Most Transparent Administration Ever and from a political movement that once professed such horror at the secrecy abuses of Nixon and Bush. (3) Secrecy ensures both government lies and abuses of power.
That the Obama administrations’ claims about its drone program have proven to be false should be viewed as anything but surprising. Aside from the potent impulse for governments to lie to their citizenry about what they do, secrecy in particular renders inevitable – not possible, not probable, but inevitable – both abuses of power and systematic lying. And secrecy has been the hallmark of the Obama administration generally and its drone killings in particular. A recent Washington Post article – headlined: “Drone use remains cloaked despite Obama’s pledge for more transparency” – discussed Obama’s repeatedly unfulfilled promises for more openness and explained:
“But there is no indication that moves have been made in that direction, and the White House has not taken a public position on any legislative initiatives [for greater transparency]. The administration has continued to contest legal challenges to the program’s secrecy. It has argued that national security concerns and the sensitivity of foreign partners who allow strikes on their territory preclude public explanations of how targets are selected and follow-up reports on who is killed.”
So extreme is this secrecy and the abuses that it is spawning that even former Obama officials, such as former Clinton State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter, are vehemently objecting. Slaughter told the Post:
“The idea that this president would leave office having dramatically expanded the use of drones – including [against] American citizens – without any public standards and no checks and balances . . . that there are no checks, and there is no international agreement; I would find that to be both terrible and ultimately will undermine a great deal of what this president will have done for good . . . .I cannot believe this is what he wants to be his legacy.”
Just to get a sense for how inevitable government lies are when political officials can operate in secret, consider the McClatchy revelation that “the [secret CIA] reports estimated there was a single civilian casualty, an individual killed in an April 22, 2011, strike in North Waziristan”. Aside from the fact that, as Zenko noted, this proves Brennan’s public claim of no civilian casualties during this period to be a lie, and independently is a claim that can be made only by virtue of Obama’s warped re-definition of “militant” to mean any military-age male in a strike zone, the demonstrated truth is that this exact drone strike killed “five women and four children”. So here you have Brennan lying to the public about civilian deaths, and the CIA lying in its own documents – all enabled by the radical wall of secrecy behind which this all functions.
That secrecy is the linchpin of abuses of government power is as central a political principle as exists. This week, WikiLeaks released a serachable catalog of millions of once-secret but now-declassified documents and highlighted an incredibly revealing transcript of a 1975 meeting between then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Turkish officials. The US Congress had just enacted an arms embargo on Turkey in response to its aggressive actions in Cyprus, and Kissinger, at this meeting, made clear that the Ford administration opposed the embargo and was committed to finding a way to get arms and other aid to Turkey. When a Turkish official suggested that Kissinger enter into a secret agreement for European countries to provide the arms, this is what was said:
People who exercise power inevitably abuse it when they can wield it in secret. They inevitably lie about what they do when they can act in the dark. This is just basic human nature, and applies even to the most kind-hearted leaders, even ones who are charming and wonderful family men. This is what makes pervasive secrecy and a lack of oversight and accountability so dangerous. It’s what makes it particularly dangerous when the powers in question are ones highly susceptible to abuse, such as the power to target people for execution.
For that reason, it’s entirely unsurprising that the Obama administration got caught making plainly false statements about its killing program. But for the same reason, it’s very significant that it has been caught. In light of this evidence, any journalists that continue to rely on US government statements about its killing program are revealing themselves to be eager propagandists, willing to be lied to and help amplify those lies (the same was true of journalists who continued to rely on government statements about “militants” being killed even after they knew how Obama officials had broadened that term to the point of meaninglessness). How many times do we have to learn these same lessons before recognizing their universality?