The Drone Secrecy Farce

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No Comment Blog / Harper's

The Drone Secrecy Farce

Following Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech at Northwestern, publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times responded with renewed demands for the release of the Department of Justice memorandum (or “OLC Memo”), written by Martin Lederman and David Barron, that provides the legal framework for targeted killings. The Obama Administration came to power promising to end secret Justice Department memos like the ones that approved torture and warrantless surveillance. It also published most of the controversial Bush-era memos, which makes it look particularly disingenuous when withholding its own controversial legal opinions.

Why is it doing so? When pressed, government figures cite the same reason, always off-the-record: drone operations on and over Yemeni territory depend to some degree on the approval of Yemen’s dictator, who has insisted that they be kept secret. Indeed, according to an understanding the United States has reached with Yemen, the latter’s government will generally claim internally that U.S. drone strikes were carried out by Yemen’s own air force.

This past week, however, Reuters and the Associated Press reported on a series of strikes in Yemen that killed at least thirty persons allegedly linked to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The stories included both claims from Yemeni officials of air-force involvement and acknowledgements from other Yemeni officials that the attack was really conducted by the United States, as “the Yemeni military does not have the capacity to carry out nighttime air strikes and had no orders to do so.” The charade has gotten so tiresome that Sanaa isn’t even bothering to keep it up.

Former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Al Jazeera on Friday that the Obama Administration’s cover has long been blown on the “secret” arrangement with Yemen. A classified WikiLeaks cable from the American Embassy in Sanaa spelled out the situation in some detail. In the communication, the American ambassador, Stephen Seche, reported on a conversation he had with Yemeni deputy prime minister Rashad al-Alimi, in which the two rehearsed the false statements they would make in an effort to camouflage U.S. operations:

[The Yemeni regime] “must maintain the status quo” with regard to the official denial of U.S. involvement in order to ensure additional “positive operations” against AQAP. Alimi seemed more concerned with the political opposition and Southern Movement’s use of the Abyan operation as an example of the government’s heavy-handed response to groups the [Yemeni regime] deems a threat. The Ambassador cautioned Alimi that the [Yemeni regime] may need to nuance its position regarding U.S. involvement in the event more evidence surfaces, complicating its ability to adhere to the official line that [Yemeni] forces conducted the operations independently. Alimi appeared confident that any evidence of greater U.S. involvement—such as U.S. munitions found at the sites—could be explained away as equipment purchased from the U.S. However, Alimi informed the Ambassador that senior [Yemeni] officials continue to the discuss media strategy and the public posture of the [Yemeni regime].

The cable goes on to question whether the tactic of claiming that drone strikes are in fact Yemeni air-force attacks would hold up under the scrutiny of international press observation. Indeed, it hasn’t. Not only has the deal with Yemen become the subject of broad commentary, a detailed discussion of the agreement between the Yemeni dictator and General David Petraeus has been published. The agreement has also been routinely confirmed by Yemeni officials, who are increasingly stressed at having to spin unconvincing lies to cover the CIA’s tracks, and who cannot be bothered to keep up the facade.

This brings us to a fundamental question: Why would the domestic political concerns of a malicious dictator be allowed to chill America’s internal democratic process? I don’t for a second believe that the memo is being kept secret in order to maintain the stability of the regime in Sanaa. The Yemeni government is unstable for many reasons, and would not be affected by the disclosure of an American legal memo. Besides, everyone in Yemen knows that the CIA is running a drone war on Yemeni soil. The real party behind the Obama Administration’s dodge is the CIA, which can only maintain its control of the drone program if it is classified as covert action, and which is prepared to engage in bizarre, sustained contortions to do so. The Obama White House needs to end this farce and publish the OLC Memo.

Scott Horton

Scott Horton is a Contributing Editor of Harper's Magazine and lectures at Columbia Law School.  He is also a member of the board of the National Institute of Military Justice, the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, the EurasiaGroup and the American Branch of the International Law Association.

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