The Terrible Toll of Secrecy

Featured photo - The Terrible Toll of Secrecy
President Barack Obama walking out of the Oval Office of the White House. (AP File Photo/ Evan Vucci)

The Intercept’s inaugural exposé, by my colleagues Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, illuminates the deeply flawed interaction between omnipresent electronic surveillance and targeted drone killings –- two of the three new, highly disruptive instruments of national power that President Obama has pursued with unanticipated enthusiasm.

All three (the third being cyberwar) have a lot in common. Despite their staggering implications, Obama has proceeded to establish the rules for them unilaterally, almost entirely in secret, based on dubious legal arguments, largely unchecked by judicial or congressional oversight, and with a seemingly unshakeable yet remarkably unfounded faith in their value.

But one of the many major takeaways from the eight-month-and-counting exploration of the  trove of secret NSA documents Edward Snowden gave journalists is that what may seem like good ideas within the confines of a like-minded military-intelligence establishment look very different when exposed to overdue public scrutiny.

Only then do you find out they don’t work so well. Or that they aren’t really legal, or constitutional. Or that they do more harm than good.  Or that the government relies on them too much, at the expense of things that might actually work.

History has shown time and again that secrecy and bad decisions go hand in hand.

So the fact that two new, secret U.S. government war-making abilities when used in tandem have particularly disastrous consequences for innocent civilians is newsworthy – but unfortunately not that surprising.

Because of the Obama administration’s refusal to disclose its selection or targeting criteria in any detail, it’s impossible to determine with any confidence which or how many of the civilian massacres by drone were the product of an overreliance on SIGINT rather than, say, a HUMINT asset settling a personal score or a government official eliminating possible rivals, or just plain user error.

But it’s probably more than the Obama administration would like you to think. The White House’s record of truth-telling when it comes to drone warfare is appalling. Years of administration arguments that civilian casualties in drone attacks have been inconsequential have proven again and again to be specious. Before Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s March 2013 assurance to Congress that the government wasn’t collecting data on Americans in bulk, the administration’s single biggest whopper might have been White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan’s assertion in June 2011 that over the previous year there had not been a single collateral death from drone strikes.

Exhaustive independent studies by the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the New America Foundation and the Long War Journal have documented that civilian casualties are endemic – the latest count is at least 440 since the drone campaigns began, according to the BIJ.

And countless journalistic accounts have described how the strikes are counterproductive, increasing civilians’ sympathy for al Qaeda and its allies in Yemen today as in Pakistan and Afghanstan before, and as in Somalia next.

Obama himself is hardly unaware of the dreadful downside of errant drone strikes. As Daniel Klaidman reported in his book, “Kill or Capture,” Obama authorized his very first drone strike on the third full day of his presidency, after having been assured by then-CIA director Michael Hayden that the targets were high-level al Qaeda and Taliban commanders. The Hellfire missile he sent into a compound in Pakistan instead killed a prominent pro-government tribal elder and four members of his family, including two children.

Klaidman wrote that Obama was “understandably disturbed” when he found out what happened, and insisted on some procedural changes. But civilian casualties continued. And each time, Obama evidently convinced himself that it wouldn’t happen again.

His most recent public assurance came in an October 2013 speech to the United Nations, where he announced that he had “limited the use of drones so they target only those who pose a continuing, imminent threat to the United States where capture is not feasible, and there is a near certainty of no civilian casualties.”

Less than two months later, missiles fired by a U.S. drone killed 13 people in a convoy of vehicles headed to a wedding party in Yemen.

How Obama’s faith in his military and intelligence leaders was restored or remained unflagging after all these incidents, despite the skepticism that he so clearly displayed during his first presidential campaign, is surely one of the great mysteries facing his supporters today, and historians tomorrow.

The spirited and informed public debate we need to have over these new ways of war has been stifled by the Obama administration, which has not only made a mockery of its promises of transparency, but has set new records in terms of its hostility toward journalistic leaks.

Congress, meanwhile, has shirked its oversight duties, in an unholy alliance of complicit leaders, happy campaign contributors, Republican ultra-hawks and partisan Democrats who don’t want to attack their president, even when he has enshrined precisely the kind of radical militaristic and anti-civil libertarian policies they convinced themselves during the Bush years were temporary aberrations.

And the elite Washington press corps, not yet recovered from its abdication of adversarial journalism after 9/11, has done an astonishingly poor job of raising and pressing important questions.

Where does that leave us?

Here. In a place and time where the only way to have the debate the country so desperately needs is for whistleblowers to speak up, and for independent journalists to make sure that they are heard.

Email the author: dan.froomkin@theintercept.com