Obama takes Bush’s secrecy games one step further

After repeatedly boasting about it in public, Obama officials tell courts it cannot confirm the CIA drone program

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(updated below)

The ACLU is suing the Obama administration under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), seeking to force disclosure of the guidelines used by Obama officials to select which human beings (both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals) will have their lives ended by the CIA’s drone attacks (“In particular,” the group explains, the FOIA request “seeks to find out when, where and against whom drone strikes can be authorized, and how the United States ensures compliance with international laws relating to extrajudicial killing”). The Obama administration has not only refused to provide any of that information, but worse, the CIA is insisting to federal courts that it cannot even confirm or deny the existence of a drone program at all without seriously damaging national security; from the CIA’s brief in response to the ACLU lawsuit:

. . .

What makes this so appalling is not merely that the Obama administration demands the right to kill whomever it wants without having to account to anyone for its actions, choices or even claimed legal authorities, though that’s obviously bad enough (as I wrote when the ACLU lawsuit was commenced: “from a certain perspective, there’s really only one point worth making about all of this: if you think about it, it is warped beyond belief that the ACLU has to sue the U.S. Government in order to force it to disclose its claimed legal and factual bases for assassinating U.S. citizens without charges, trial or due process of any kind”). What makes it so much worse is how blatantly, insultingly false is its claim that it cannot confirm or deny the CIA drone program without damaging national security.



Numerous Obama officials — including the President himself and the CIA Director — have repeatedly boasted in public about this very program. Obama recently hailed the CIA drone program by claiming that “we are very careful in terms of how it’s been applied,” and added that it is “a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists, who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases and so on.” Obama has told playful jokes about the same drone program. Former CIA Director and current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also likes to tell cute little jokes about CIA Predator drones, and then proclaimed in December that the drone program has “been very effective at undermining al Qaeda and their ability to plan those kinds of attacks.” Just two weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech purporting to legally justify these same drone attacks.

So Obama officials are eager to publicly tout the supposed benefits of the CIA’s drone programs in order to generate political gain for the President: to make him look like some sort of Tough, Brave Warrior single-handedly vanquishing Al Qaeda. The President himself boasts about how tightly controlled, precise and effective the CIA drones are. Everyone in the world knows the CIA has a drone program. It is openly discussed everywhere, certainly including the multiple Muslim countries where the drones routinely create piles of corpses, and by top U.S. Government officials themselves.

But then when it comes time to test the accuracy of their public claims by requesting the most basic information about what is done and how execution targets are selected, and when it comes time to ask courts to adjudicate its legality, then suddenly National Security imperatives prevent the government even from confirming or denying the existence of the program: the very same program they’ve been publicly boasting and joking about. As the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer put it after Obama publicly defended the program: “At this point, the only consequence of pretending that it’s a secret program is that the courts don’t play a role in overseeing it” – that, and ensuring that any facts that contradict these public claims remain concealed.

This is why the U.S. Government’s fixation on secrecy — worse than ever under the Obama administration, as evidenced by its unprecedented war on whistleblowers — is so pernicious. It not only enables government officials to operate in the dark, which inevitably ensures vast (though undiscovered) abuses of power. Worse, it enables the government to aggressively propagandize the citizenry without challenge: Obama officials are free to make all sorts of claims about how great and targeted the drone program is and how it Keeps Us Safe™, while simultaneously suppressing any official evidence or information that would test those claims and/or contradict them (even as some evidence suggests these assurances are false).

Worse still, it literally removes our highest political officials from the rule of law. The sole purpose of these vast claims of secrecy around the drone program — the absurd notion that they cannot even confirm or deny its existence without harming National Security — is to block courts from reviewing the legality of what they’re doing, which is another way of saying: they have removed themselves from the rule of law. Even Bush DOJ lawyer Jack Goldsmith, a vociferous advocate of executive authority and secrecy powers, understands how abusive this is:

First, it is wrong . . . for the government to maintain technical covertness but then engage in continuous leaks, attributed to government officials, of many (self-serving) details about the covert operations and their legal justifications.  It is wrong because it is illegal.  It is wrong because it damages (though perhaps not destroys) the diplomatic and related goals of covertness.  And it is wrong because the Executive branch seems to be trying to have its cake (not talking about the program openly in order to serve diplomatic interests and perhaps deflect scrutiny) and eat it too (leaking promiscuously to get credit for the operation and to portray it as lawful).

Indeed, one of the worst abuses of the lawless Bush presidency was that Bush officials repeatedly invoked secrecy powers (the State Secret privilege) to shield their most controversial and lawless programs from judicial review: warrantless eavesdropping, rendition, and torture. One of the earliest alarms about what the Obama presidency would be was when the Obama DOJ told courts early in 2009 that it would continue to assert those same radical secrecy claims: thus telling courts that the very programs which candidate Obama long denounced as illegal were now such vital State Secrets that courts must not risk their disclosure by adjudicating their legality. Beyond Obama’s decree that the DOJ must not investigate Bush-era crimes, that was the instrument used by Obama to shield Bush’s criminal policies from judicial challenge: through Kafkaesque claims of secrecy whereby programs that everyone in the world knows exist were Too Secret even to let courts examine. In sum, there is only one place in the entire world where these policies of warrantless eavesdropping, rendition, torture, and CIA drones cannot be discussed: in American courts, when it’s time to review their legality and/or allow its victims to vindicate their legal rights.

Now, in this ACLU/FOIA case, the Obama administration is taking these warped secrecy games one step further. They boast publicly about the programs to lavish themselves with praise, only to turn around once they’re sued in court and insist that the programs are too secret even to acknowledge. So extreme is the fixation on secrecy from the Most Transparent Administration Ever™ that they are routinely reduced to this type of self-parody; behold how they are insisting in response to a separate FOIA lawsuit from The New York Times that they cannot even confirm or deny the existence of the OLC memo which authorized the assassination of Anwar Awlaki — even though the NYT reported on its contents. More amazingly still, the Obama administration continues to insist that they cannot confirm or deny the memo’s existence even after Eric Holder talks about the memo in a Senate hearing.

This would be laughable if it were not so destructive. It results in the government’s most consequential actions being completely shielded not only from public scrutiny, but also from the rule of law. It enables the most powerful political officials to inculcate the public with claims about their actions while preventing any form of checks and suppressing any contrary information. It literally means that the Obama administration is able to conduct multiple secret wars around the world, ones conducted by drone attacks, the very existence of which they refuse to acknowledge. And it is yet another way the Obama presidency is cementing the worst abuses of the Bush presidency: the very same ones he so inspirationally vowed to reverse.

 

UPDATE: Just this weekend, The Washington Post published a lengthy, glowing profile of the anonymous CIA official who oversees the CIA drone program. We learned how the drone program has slain countless Al Qaeda leaders with such precision and force: the same program the Obama administration insists cannot be acknowledged without seriously harming national security. Given that claim, will the anonymous officials who enabled this hagiography by talking to the Post about this glorious official and all that the drone program has accomplished be prosecuted under espionage statutes? Yes, that question is rhetorical, and further highlights how severely secrecy powers are manipulated and exploited by this administration.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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