Excuses for Assassination Secrecy

A high-level defender of Obama's drone secrecy says "it's not to cover up wrongdoing." Let's see if that's credible

In response to his widely discussed Esquire article entitled "The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama," Tom Junod received a telephone call from someone he describes as "a person with intimate knowledge of the executive counter-terrorism policies of the Obama administration." This unnamed person called Junod specifically to defend the administration's refusal to provide any minimal transparency or even acknowledgment about these policies, even when drone attacks ordered by the President kill innocent American teenagers such as 16-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki. Junod summarizes the defense he was given by this source as follows:

"You seem to think that more transparency would help rectify some of the moral problems," he said, and then told me that "the political people in the administration, including the president himself," would probably agree with me.

And then he proceeded to explain why transparency was a goal difficult , if not impossible, to achieve, even when a simple acknowledgment would go a long way toward expiating the sin of killing an innocent American teenager in the course of a counterterrorism strike.

State secrecy, the man on the phone said, exists for a reason, and it's generally not the reason that the Glenn Greenwalds of the world think it is -- it's not to cover up wrongdoing. It's to protect two essential things: the sources and methods of the intelligence community, and something called "the requirement of non-acknowledgement". . . .

Secrecy isn't always the main driver here. Sometimes diplomacy is. "The requirement of non-acknowledgement" is. It's very common for cooperation and consent to be drawn from other countries only if you don't acknowledge something. They say, You can do this, but you can never acknowledge that you're involved.

So there are deals -- deals that have already been made. And part of the deal is that you don't acknowledge the deal. If you do, then the country you made the deal with is obligated to do react [sic], because now there's been a violation of sovereignty. The problem is that there are a lot of these kinds of deals, because they are so easy to make. They're a little like allowing a source to go off the record in journalism. If the source asks, Can I go off the record?, you'll say, Of course you can, because you want the source to talk. It's the same in statecraft. You make the deal because you want there to be a deal.

It might sound trivial, he said. It might sound as though large principles are being sacrificed to the sensitivities of small nations. But everyone in the political branches considers non-acknowledgement to be the lifeblood of diplomacy.

The source's first justification for total secrecy even when it involves extrajudicial killing of citizens -- we need to protect sources and methods - is easily dispensed with, and Junod does so easily:

But nobody's asking the Administration to reveal sources and methods here, I said. Nobody's asking for anything but the ability to hold the administration accountable when it kills an American citizen, in a manner that is absent of due process, especially when the killing is apparently a mistake, as it was in the case of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. Surely, there's a way to challenge the inevitable sense of license that attends an administration carrying out killings in secret without revealing intelligence sources and methods.

Of course, the right way to provide "accountability" when the President wants to execute a citizen is for him to have to show evidence to a court that the execution is warranted -- at the very least, to obtain an indictment -- and have a court provide oversight (exactly the way progressives spent the entire Bush years vehemently demanding be done for mere eavesdropping and detention, let alone assassinations). But the Obama administration vehemently resists any such due process, so at the very least, some sort of post-assassination accountability (did you mean to kill this person? why? what's the evidence that it was justified?) is vital, for obvious reasons. But, as the defender's justifications make clear, the administration just as vehemently resists even this woefully inadequate post hoc form of accountability.

The other proffered justification -- non-acknowledgment is necessary to preserve our diplomatic deals that let us bomb people in other countries - is a bit more subtle, but even more pernicious. Junod makes the crucial point in response:

The issues we are facing when we consider the implications of the Lethal Presidency have always seemed to me the largest possible. The power that the administration has claimed and strenuously defended -- the power to identify and kill the nation's enemies, from a remove of secrecy -- is the power of kings, and it's one of the powers the elemental principle of due process exists to address.

And so, yes, I have to admit that this one man's informed explanation sounded trivial. I have to admit that it sounded as if large principles are being sacrificed not only to small nations but also to smaller principles. I have to admit that it sounded antique and arcane, as though the administration had decided to put aside the Constitution because France had decided to revoke the Edict of Nantes.

That point is, by itself, dispositive of the source's proferred justifications, in my view. But several others are worth making:

First, this defense of total secrecy is intellectually corrupted because it only counts one side of the equation. Specifically, this "non-acknowledgment" argument recognizes the ostensible value that comes from executing the policy in question (namely, executing people whom President Obama decides should be dead), while completely ignoring the costs of the policy. The costs should be clear to any rational person.

Those costs come from vesting in the President what is literally the most extremist power a political ruler can seize, the true hallmark of authortarianism: namely, the power to order even his own citizens executed without a whiff of due process or accountability and in total secrecy -- far from any battlefield. One would have to view the threat of Terrorism as some sort of truly existential menace on par with, say, the Civil War -- which was the standard neocon myth to justify whatever Bush/Cheney did -- in order to view the risks of vesting this secret, unaccountable assassination power in one political official as worthwhile.

When Al Gore delivered his major speech on the Washington Mall in 2006 denouncing the unrestrained Bush/Cheney assault on core American values, he asked: "If the president has the inherent authority to eavesdrop on American citizens without a warrant, imprison American citizens on his own declaration, kidnap and torture, then what can't he do?" That's exactly my question here for the far more extreme power claimed by Obama: if you believe the President should have the power to order people, including U.S. citizens, executed with no due process and not even any checks or transparency, what power do you believe he shouldn't have? It's impossible to see what answer someone could offer after defending this level of secret power.

Second, this "no-acknowledgment" excuse is tantamount to a license to lie to the citizenry about the most vital of all matters: war. When WikiLeaks released the diplomatic cables relating to Yemen, those cables revealed that Yemen's then-President, the U.S.-supported Ali Abdullah Saleh, boasted to American diplomats that he would continue to lie publicly about who was perpetrating U.S. air attacks on Yemeni soil ("'We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,' Saleh said, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke that he had just 'lied' by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the [Yemini military]").

By refusing to inform the nation that it was the U.S. which was actually launching these attacks ("no-acknowledgment"), the Obama administration was enabling these lies to mislead not only Yemenis but also the American citizenry. For instance, as we now know, on December 17, 2009, President Obama ordered an air attack -- using Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs -- on the village of al Majala in Yemen's southern Abyan province; the strike ended the lives of 14 women and 21 children.

At the time, the Yemeni government outright lied about the attack, falsely claiming that it was Yemen's air force which was responsible. The Pentagon helped bolster this misleading claim of responsibility by issuing a statement that "Yemen should be congratulated for actions against al-Qaeda." Meanwhile, leading American media outlets, such as The New York Times, reported -- falsely -- that "Yemeni security forces carried out airstrikes and ground raids against suspected Qaeda hide-outs last week with what American officials described as 'intelligence and firepower' supplied by the United States."

Anyone who defends this "no acknowledgment" justification is defending the right of the President to order military action in foreign countries without the knowledge of the American people, or worse, by allowing them to be actively misled about who is doing the bombing. If one finds that justifiable, then what was wrong with Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos, once so objectionable to American liberals that it formed the basis for the impeachment argument against him?

There are few things more dangerous in a democracy than allowing a President to wage secret wars without the knowledge of the country. I'll permit Abraham Lincoln -- not exactly a pacifistic worshiper of legalisms and restraints on Executive power -- to explain why this is so, in an 1848 letter to a proponent of unrestrained presidential warmaking powers:

Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you have given him so much as you propose.

If, to-day, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, I see no probability of the British invading us but he will say to you be silent; I see it, if you dont.

The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons. Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This, our Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.

Third, this "no-acknowledgment" claim cannot be sustained factually in the case of Obama's assassination of the American teenager in Yemen, or the killing of numerous Pakistani teenagers. After substantial pressure, Attorney General Eric Holder issued a public defense of the Awlaki assassination in Yemen, and John Brennan did the same for strikes in Pakistan. Obama officials, and the President himself, have repeatedly boasted about them. So the U.S. has already acknowledged launching these attacks. Moreover, everyone now knows -- in Yemen and elsewhere -- that it's the U.S. who is killing people en masse by drones, which would trigger the same "sovereignty" demands which this anonymous defender cites as what must be avoided.

So even if you agree with the "no-acknowledgment" rationale in general as an excuse to justify secrecy, it's inapplicable here. When it comes to presidential assassinations, the only thing this secrecy achieves is to prevent discovery of bad acts and "mistakes," and more important, to bar accountability for them on the part of Obama officials (we can't and won't answer for what we've done because it's all too secret even to acknowledge that we did it). That, manifestly, is the purpose of this secrecy (see Wired, June 15, 2012: "CIA Refuses to Confirm or Deny Drone Attacks Obama Brags About").

Fourth, this anonymous Obama defender claims that "State secrecy . . . . exists for a reason, and it's generally not the reason that the Glenn Greenwalds of the world think it is -- it's not to cover up wrongdoing." This I find astounding: that someone would actually claim that rampant government secrecy is not designed to conceal wrongdoing.

The most basic truth of political power -- and (therefore) the core precept of the American founding -- is that power exercised in secret, without checks and accountability, will be inevitably abused: not sometimes or maybe abused, but inevitably, and not only when Bad People are in power, but always, even when it involves someone so deeply and profoundly magnanimous as Barack Obama ("There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty" - John Adams,Journal, 1772; "In questions of power...let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution" - Thomas Jefferson: Kentucky Resolutions, 1798).

We know with certainty that top Obama officials such as John Brennan have blatantly lied about killing civilians with drones (along with other key national security matters). We know with certainty that the Obama administration has re-defined "militants" to include any military-age males they kill regardless of whether they were actually doing anything wrong. We know with certainty that the U.S. Government has detained and publicly branded as Terrorists people they knew at the time were innocent. We know with certainty that Pakistani teenagers have been killed by U.S. drones shortly after attending meetings to protest civilian drone deaths. We know with certainty (despite rampant secrecy) that the Obama administration is targeting rescuers of drone victims and funeral attendees who are grieving drone victims with follow-up drone attacks: clear war crimes. And we know with certainty that -- despite being hailed for stopping torture and CIA black sites -- the Obama administration continues, in secret, to maintain secret black sites, indefinite detention, rendition and even torture by proxy.

Given that record, only a religious-type faith in the Goodness of Barack Obama and his officials, or willful ignorance, or both, would permit someone to believe that this rampant secrecy has nothing to do with an attempt to conceal wrongdoing, ineptitude and even corruption. Even more so, this claim ignores a basic precept: secrecy is and always has been the linchpin of abuse of power. The more extreme the power is (ordering people assassinated), the more likely it is to be abused when exercised in secrecy and with no accountability. That's precisely the situation that we have allowed the U.S. Government under President Obama to bring about. The two lame, factually challenged excuses offered for this secrecy regime by this unnamed defender actually do more to highlight its dangers than justify it.

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