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.

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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.”

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