Spurred on by worries about his legacy, United States President Barack Obama is reportedly looking for ways to reduce government secrecy barriers he created that have made drone strikes and other prominent “counter-terrorism” programmes so unaccountable to the public before he leaves office in 14 months. He “wants to make available to the public as much information as possible about US counter-terrorism operations and the use of force overseas,” the White House said in a statement to the Hill this week, which originally reported the story about the latest potential policy change.
If that’s true, then the White House should stop fighting tooth and nail about virtually every tiny disclosure of the drone programme in court, which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and news organisations like the New York Times have been suing over for almost the entire length of the Obama administration.
Their constant battle to keep every kernel of information about the drone program secret over the past six years is why it’s so hard to take their claims at face value. This is a White House which infamously promised to be the most transparent in history and instead became one of the most secretive; the executive branch promised similar things in 2013 after a major speech where Obama laid out new “rules” for drone strikes, and in a State of the Union address where he promised to be more transparent.
More than two years later, almost all of the “promises” he made have been ignored or disregarded by the administration. The administration reportedly immediately issued waivers for at least one of the rules in Pakistan and then in Yemen, the two countries where the vast majority of CIA drone strikes take place (the rules never even applied to Afghanistan).
The few actions the administration has taken — finally acknowledging in public that drone strikes exist and releasing one of the many legal memos discussing when drones can assassinate American citizens — were only spurred on by constant news reports and leaks, coupled with lawsuits that forced their hand.
The idea that the secrecy surrounding drone strikes was for “national security purposes” rather than just preventing public and legal scrutiny was always specious to begin with but has been blown to pieces in recent months. While claiming they were being “transparent” about a “counterterrorism operation” in April that killed innocent hostages, the administration wouldn’t even acknowledge out loud that it was actually a drone strike that was to blame.
The Wall Street Journal reported after the incident that “the Attorney General’s office warned Mr Obama that publicly disclosing the CIA’s role in this case would undermine the administration’s standing in a series of pending lawsuits challenging its legality”.
Beyond the potential for challenging the legality of the programme, the more transparent the administration is, the more public scrutiny would inevitably come of the effectiveness of the programme. The Intercept’s recent (and excellent) ‘Drone Papers’ investigation — based on documents provided by an unnamed whistleblower — showed that almost nine out of 10 strikes killed people other than the intended target, and that these people — whether they were innocent civilians or not — were automatically labelled “enemies killed in action”.
The New York Times reported that any “military age male” in the vicinity of a drone strike was labelled a combatant after they were killed years ago, but the administration outright denied it. Now it’s sitting here in black and white. It makes you wonder if this US government can ever be honest about its drone strikes without exposing that the programme is creating more terrorists than it’s killing.
It’s not just human rights defenders that think this: The former head of the Defence Intelligence Agency, Michael Flynn, retired general Stanley McCrystal and former director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, have all concluded much the same and said so — after they’ve left government. Drone killings and extreme secrecy are now squarely in Obama’s legacy, whether he likes it or not.
Now, the only question is: Can he undo at least some of the damage he’s already done in time for the next president, and even if he can, will it matter?
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Trevor Timm is an executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit organisation that supports and defends journalism dedicated to transparency and accountability.