Thursday, February 02, 2012

Obama Administration: Leaks Are OK When It's Obama Defending Controversial Drone Program

Wed Feb 01, 2012    by Jesselyn Radack     Daily Kos

The Obama administration recently continued its campaign against so-called "leakers," who are more often than not whistleblowers, with the indictment of a record-breaking sixth person under the Espionage Act for alleged mishandling of classified information.

Obama's abhorrence for "leaks" apparently only applies to disclosures that expose embarrassing or negative aspects of the administration. At an online town hall - sponsored by adjust-your-privacy-expectations-downward Google - Obama defended the CIA's supposedly covert drone program:

“I want to make sure that people understand that drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” Obama replied. “For the most part, they have been very precise, precision strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates.”

The perception that “we’re just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly,” Obama said, is incorrect. “This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists, who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases and so on.”

“I think that we have to be judicious in how we use drones,” Obama added.

Obama has no qualms with speaking publicly about the drone program to assure us that not too many innocent people get killed. (I doubt civilians in northern Pakistan would agree nor would the family of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki - an innocent 16-year-old American killed by a drone as collateral damage and son of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, also targeted and killed in a separate drone strike.)

Despite Obama's candid defense of the glories of modern drone warfare, the Obama administration enthusiastically raises the curtain of secrecy whenever the public seeks information that will paint Obama's precious drones in anything but a heroic, American-life-saving light.

The Justice Department repeatedly claims that it can "neither confirm nor deny" the existence of the program in response to the public's requests for information. WaPo reports:

In a lawsuit last year, the American Civil Liberties Union said that the CIA’s refusal to release information about drone killings was illegal. When the CIA argued that even the “fact of the existence or non-existence” of such a program was classified, the ACLU responded that then-CIA Director Leon E. Panetta had spoken openly of U.S. “hits” and “strikes” against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan.

My organization, the Government Accountability Project, got the same response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the secret Justice Department memo rationalizing the assassination of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki with a drone strike, despite the fact that the New York Times described the memo in detail on the front page. 

Dealing with Obama's acknowledgment of a program the Obama administration has tried to avoid "confirming or denying," the Washington Post reports that White House spokesman Jay Carney, 

suggested that nothing Obama had said could be a security violation: “He’s the commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States. He’s the president of the United States.”

In other words, if whistleblowers disclose waste, fraud, abuse, illegality or just plain embarrassing information, they can expect to be labeled an enemy of the state and criminally prosecuted under the Espionage Act, but, if the President does it, it's not illegal.

UPDATE: According to CNN, an anonymous administration official is now backing Carney's statements that Obama did not "make a mistake" when discussing the drone program.

A senior administration official is denying to CNN that President Obama made a mistake in publicly revealing what had been classified information about U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.

The official downplayed the significance of what happened, pointing out that what the president said was widely known. The president, the official said was making the point that the drone missions are “precise” and “targeted to avoid casualties.”

To summarize, we have an anonymous senior administration official reinforcing what a White House Spokesperson said Obama meant when Obama publicly discussed a secret program that the Justice Department "can neither confirm nor deny." Am I the only one confused?

The problem of such absurd secrecy is not lost on anyone writing about the drone program. The New York Times reported:

The secrecy has prevented an open debate on legal and ethical questions surrounding the strikes, since neither intelligence officials nor members of Congress can speak openly about them.

The ACLU had another take on the purpose of the ridiculous secrecy - to avoid Court oversight:

In the wake of Obama’s comments, “it becomes more and more absurd to say that this is a covert program, a secret program,” said ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer. “There is nobody left in the United States or in Pakistan or in Yemen,” where drone strikes have also been conducted, “who doesn’t know about this.”

“At this point,” Jaffer said, “the only consequence of pretending that it’s a secret program is that the courts don’t play a role in overseeing it.”

A functioning democracy requires an informed public, not one that relies on Executive branch talking points, selective authorized leaks from "anonymous administration officials," and the occasional presidential off-the-cuff remark.