Obama's I'm-No-Dick-Cheney Standard for Government Secrecy

Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, upset about not being provided with memos containing the legal justification for targeted killing operations, such as drone strikes, was apparently told by President Barack Obama not to worry because he is not Vice President Dick Cheney.


...[N]ear the outset of his closed-door session with the Senate Democratic conference on Tuesday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) confronted the president over the administration's refusal for two years to show congressional intelligence committees Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel memos justifying the use of lethal force against American terror suspects abroad...

Obama apparently responded, "This is not Dick Cheney we're talking about here." He argued his administration was "more open to oversight than that of President George W. Bush, whom many Democratic senators attacked for secrecy and for expanding executive power in the national security realm." He also said, as if it was some kind of valid justification for secrecy, he was "not involved in drafting such memos."

This is the "Trust Us" defense for secrecy. It is in line with what Attorney General Eric Holder said to Republican Representative Ted Cruz when he was asked about whether it would be legal to target American citizens on United States soil. Holder said it would be inappropriate. But, the trustworthiness of an administration should never justify keeping official interpretations of the law secret.

Who is deciding whether the administration is trustworthy? In this case, it is Obama, a key beneficiary of keeping the legal basis for targeted killing secret. Secrecy ensures there is no scandal or controversy he has to confront as president.

Incidentally, Cheney has praised Obama's use of drones. "I think it's a good program and I don't disagree with the basic policy that the Obama administration is pursuing," he said in an interview on CBS' "This Morning" in February. He also "endorsed the drone strike against Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen living in Yemen, saying 'he was clearly part of al-Qaeda.'"

Cheney also said in a January 2011 interview on NBC, "In terms of a lot of the terrorism policies -- the early talk, for example, about prosecuting people in the CIA who've been carrying out our policies -- all of that's fallen by the wayside. I think he's learned that what we did was far more appropriate than he ever gave us credit for while he was a candidate."

Natasha Lennard of Salon appropriately characterized this reported remark from Obama:

It's the sort of defense Dick Cheney would probably use, were he not already Dick Cheney.

Aside from the fact that the Obama administration's shadow drone wars are comparable to Bush-era programs of rendition and wiretapping in terms of secrecy and extrajudicial executive action, the president's reference to the former V.P. is in itself troubling. It invokes the same race-to-the-bottom, "at least the other guy is worse" logic that saw many dejected liberals trudge reluctantly to the voting booths for Obama last November. What a sad political epoque -- when not being literally the worst, not being Dick Cheney -- is a defense. [emphasis added]

Aren't drones a part of a race-to-the-bottom for American empire? It is politically untenable and increasingly difficult on a practical level to occupy countries and wage open-ended conflicts. Within the framework of the Global War on Terrorism, drone warfare has been adopted as the alternative. And officials, including Obama, have said we can either have large-scale occupations or we can use flying killer robots to target and kill people in any country where we deem it necessary to launch such strikes.

Drone Wars are better than Wars for Occupation, where nation-building is likely to falter as it did in Iraq. Obama is better because he is not Dick Cheney.

This is the false choice. There is no other option framed in the debate. The American people--and more importantly, the citizens of countries being bombed by drones--can either have an openly proud tyrant who dictates national security policy or a cold, calculating pragmatist who is perceived to have a better moral center than Dick Cheney.

And, what is worse? A powerful person telling citizens they have no right to know because they fervently believe that all hell will break loose if they allow any transparency or a powerful person who purports to favor transparency and openness telling citizens they do not have a right to know because he or she is not that powerful person who has contempt for open government?

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