Snapshots of Washington’s essence

A new Post article details the secret "killing operation" constructed by Obama: and Democratic muteness about it

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I intended to post sporadically or not at all this week, and that’s still my plan, but there is a new Washington Post article which contains three short passages that I really want to highlight because they so vividly capture the essence of so much. The article, by Greg Miller, is being promoted by the Post this way: “In 3 years, the Obama administration has built a vast drone/killing operation”; it describes the complete secrecy behind which this is all being carried out and notes: “no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.” Here is the first beautifully revealing passage:

Senior Democrats barely blink at the idea that a president from their party has assembled such a highly efficient machine for the targeted killing of suspected terrorists. It is a measure of the extent to which the drone campaign has become an awkward open secret in Washington that even those inclined to express misgivings can only allude to a program that, officially, they are not allowed to discuss.

In sum: the President can kill whomever he wants anywhere in the world (including U.S. citizens) without a shred of check or oversight, and has massively escalated these killings since taking office (at the time of Obama’s inauguration, the U.S. used drone attacks in only one country (Pakistan); under Obama, these attacks have occurred in at least six Muslim countries). Because it’s a Democrat (rather than big, bad George W. Bush) doing this, virtually no members of that Party utter a peep of objection (a few are willing to express only the most tepid, abstract “concerns” about the possibility of future abuse). And even though these systematic, covert killings are widely known and discussed in newspapers all over the world — particularly in the places where they continue to extinguish the lives of innocent people by the dozens, including children — Obama designates even the existence of the program a secret, which means our democratic representatives and all of official Washington are barred by the force of law from commenting on it or even acknowledging that a CIA drone program exists (a prohibition enforced by an administration that has prosecuted leaks it dislikes more harshly than any other prior administration). Then we have this:

Another reason for the lack of extensive debate is secrecy. The White House has refused to divulge details about the structure of the drone program or, with rare exceptions, who has been killed. White House and CIA officials declined to speak for attribution for this article.

Inside the White House, according to officials who would discuss the drone program only on the condition of anonymity, the drone is seen as a critical tool whose evolution was accelerating even before Obama was elected.

The Most Transparent Administration Ever™ not only prevents public debate by shrouding the entire program in secrecy — including who they’re killing and why, and even including their claimed legal basis for these killings (what Democratic lawyers decried during the Bush years as the tyranny of “secret law”) — but they then dispatch their own officials to defend what they’re doing solely under the cover of anonymity so there is no accountability. And, of course, the Post (in an otherwise good though imperfect article) dutifully allows them to do this. In other words: if you ask us about our systematic killing operation, we’ll refuse to answer or even acknowledge it exists and we will legally bar critics from talking about it in public; nobody in government can comment on any of this except us, which we’ll do only by issuing anonymous decrees declaring it Good and Right. Finally, we have this:

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Key members of Obama’s national security team came into office more inclined to endorse drone strikes than were their counterparts under Bush, current and former officials said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former CIA director and current Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, and counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan seemed always ready to step on the accelerator . . . 

The only member of Obama’s team known to have formally raised objections to the expanding drone campaign is Dennis Blair, who served as director of national intelligence.

During a National Security Council meeting in November 2009, Blair sought to override the agenda and force a debate on the use of drones, according to two participants.

Blair has since articulated his concerns publicly, calling for a suspension of unilateral drone strikes in Pakistan, which he argues damage relations with that country and kill mainly mid-level militants. But he now speaks as a private citizen. His opinion contributed to his isolation from Obama’s inner circle, and he was fired last year.

Obama officials love secret, targeted killing far more even than Bush officials did. They’re “always ready to step on the accelerator” (and, of course, they went further than Bush by even targeting U.S. citizens far from any battlefield). Only Admiral Blair raised objections, and was fired for them, and is now reduced to explaining in Op-Eds that these killings at this point do relatively little to harm Al Qaeda but rather do the opposite: they increase the risk of Terrorism by fueling anti-American hatred, predictably left in the wake of the corpses of innocent men, woman and children throughout the Muslim world piled up by the Obama program.

Americans love to think that they are so very informed as a result of the robust, free press they enjoy, while those primitive, benighted Muslims are tragically manipulated and propagandized by their governments. Yet here we have an extraordinarily consequential “vast drone/killing operation,” and while those in the Muslim world are well aware of what it is and what it does and debate all of that openly and vigorously, Americans are largely kept in the dark about it. That’s because: (a) the U.S. Government shields it all in secrecy (hiding it from nobody except their own citizens); (b) the U.S. media generally avoid highlighting the innocent victims of American violence; and — most of all — (c) this is all now enshrined as bipartisan consensus, with the GOP consistently approving of any covert government aggression that kills foreigners, and Democrats remaining mute because it is their leader doing it. That’s why this Post article provides such a vivid snapshot of what Washington is and how it works.

* * * * *

Two very related points:

(1) The always-excellent Zaid Jilani of Think Progress said this in response to the Post article:

There’s certainly no shortage of candidates from which to choose. There are commentators on that network who have periodically discussed Obama’s drone program critically (see here and here as 2009 examples from Rachel Maddow), and Chris Hayes has purposely sought to include usually-excluded perspectives from that region. But, in general, the actual victims of America’s military aggression are typically non-existent in the country’s media discussions (last week, I flagged a CNN article describing one such child-victim precisely because it was so rare to see, though that article has now been substantially re-written (without any explanation) to conform to U.S. Government denials of drone strikes in that part of Pakistan).

This media invisibility of America’s victims is due in part to the fact that it’s considered unpatriotic to discuss them in any prominent way (as MSNBC’s Ashleigh Banfield pointed out in the 2003 speech that led to her demotion and firing), but also because, at this point, there’s no partisan gain to be had from it: given that it’s a policy supported by both parties, it doesn’t help one side or the other win an election, so what’s the point of talking about it? Anyone who does raise it will be immediately met with these vapid questions from election-obsessed partisans: but what does this have to do with the election [the one that's still almost a full year away]? Won’t it help Mitt Romney if you complain about this? In general, people aren’t tuning in to MSNBC to hear stories about the Muslim children killed by President Obama’s covert killing operations (and certainly aren’t turning in to hear their bereaved relatives interviewed): it doesn’t prove how horrible Rick Perry and John Boehner are, so it’s the last thing Ed Schultz or Al Sharpton are going to talk about (as Charles Davis so memorably put it in parodying the Democratic partisan mentality: “Remember when Michele Bachmann killed all those innocent people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq and Libya? Ugh. Hate her”).

(2) I have an Op-Ed in today’s print edition of The Guardian regarding the challenge faced by GOP presidential candidates in attacking President Obama given that he has governed, in Paul Krugman’s words, as a “moderate conservative” (at least in the domestic policy realm; he’s further to the Right in the foreign policy/civil liberties realm). That Op-Ed can be read here.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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