Drones: Hidden in plain sight

How the government talks about a drone program it won't acknowledge exists

Topics: ProPublica, Drones, U.S. Military, CIA, Barack Obama, ACLU, Department of Justice,

Drones: Hidden in plain sight (Credit: AP/Robert Ferguson)
This originally appeared on ProPublica.  

Drones have become the go-to weapon of the U.S.’s counter-terrorism strategy, with strikes in Yemen in particular increasing steadily. U.S. drones reportedly killed twenty-nine people in Yemen recently, including perhaps ten civilians.

Administration officials regularly celebrate the drone war’s apparent successes — often avoiding details or staying anonymous, but claiming tacit credit for the U.S.

In June, a day after Abu Yahya Al-Libi was killed in Pakistan, White House spokesman Jay Carney trumpeted the death of “Al Qaeda’s Number-Two.” Unnamed officials confirmed the strike in at least ten media outlets. Similarly, the killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki by a CIA drone last September was confirmed in many news outlets by anonymous officials. President Obama called Awlaki’s death “a tribute to our intelligence community.”

Just last week President Obama spoke about drone warfare on CNN, saying the decision to target individuals for killing rather than capture involves “an extensive process with a lot of checks.”

But when it comes to details of that process, the administration clams up.

The government refuses to formally acknowledge that the CIA even has a drone program, let alone discuss its thornier elements, like how many civilians have been killed, or how the CIA chooses targets.



Officials have given speeches on the legal rationale for targeted killing and the use of drones in broad terms. The administration has also acknowledged “military operations” outside the “hot” battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, but again, details have remained under wraps.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times have both filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for documents relating to the CIA’s drones. The agency has responded by saying that it can “neither confirm nor deny the existence of records.”

As part of a lawsuit challenging the CIA’s response, the ACLU collected nearly two hundred on- and off-the-record statements to the media by current and former U.S. officials about the CIA’s use of drones for targeted killing. In a graphic accompanying this story, we’ve laid out many of the statements, alongside the CIA’s legal stances refusing to confirm or deny the program. The statements cover most of Obama’s first term in office. Taken together, they show the extent to which the government keeps disclosures about the CIA’s drone war mostly on its own terms.

In court briefs, Justice Department lawyers argue that widespread “unofficial” discussion notwithstanding, revealing the existence of any number of documents relating to the drone program or targeted killing would convey sensitive information about the nature and scope of such a program. They add that quotes from unnamed sources or former CIA officers don’t constitute official acknowledgment. As for public remarks about drones by President Obama and other officials — the government argues that they never explicitly mention the CIA and could be referring to military operations.

A federal judge in D.C. already ruled in favor of the CIA in one suit last September, a decision the ACLU is appealing. A hearing is scheduled for next week.

A White House spokesman declined to comment to ProPublica on the FOIA suit or on the CIA’s drone program. The CIA did not respond to our requests for comment.

Some top administration officials have become well-practiced at coy references to the classified program.  

In October 2011, Defense Secretary — and former CIA director — Leon Panetta said, “I have a hell of a lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had at the CIA, although the Predators aren’t bad.” In the ACLU suit, the government argues that Panetta’s comments were too vague to constitute an acknowledgement that the CIA actually had drones, or whether it used them for targeted killing, “as opposed to surveillance and intelligence-gathering.”

A year earlier, Panetta said that Al Qaeda in Pakistan had been beaten back in part to due “the most aggressive operation the CIA has been involved in in our history.” The government notes that he never said the word “drone.”

Semantics aside, details on the most controversial aspects of the program have been revealed through a patchwork of these unofficial comments. For example, in May the New York Times reported that the CIA counts any military-aged male killed in a drone strike as a “militant,” even if his identity isn’t known. Many outlets had previously reported that the CIA conducted “signature strikes” in Pakistan, and now in Yemen, which target men believed to be militants whose identities aren’t known. But neither the Times story nor subsequent reporting by ProPublica garnered much detail on how the CIA actually assesses casualties after a strike. As usual, neither the White House nor the CIA would comment on the record.

It has also been widely reported that mainly the CIA conducts strikes in Pakistan, because the U.S.’s tense diplomatic relationship with the country requires the patina of deniability provided by a covert program. When Obama referred to drone strikes in a public video chat this January, saying that that “obviously a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA,” the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, many assumed he had to be talking about the CIA.

The government insists the president’s comments didn’t count as disclosure of anything, saying he could have been talking not about CIA strikes but military (though, as a government brief in the ACLU suit points out, those haven’t been acknowledged in Pakistan either). As the government argues, “It is precisely this sort of unbridled speculation that is insufficient to support a claim of official disclosure.”

The same brief framed it another way: “Even if there is speculation about a fact, unless an agency officially confirms that fact, the public does not know whether it is so.”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>