It’s a sad commentary on our media that the President had to answer questions yesterday about drones for the first time, and the questions didn’t come at a White House press briefing or major print interview, but in a virtual YouTube town hall with members of the public. FDL’s Kevin Gosztola covered this at The Dissenter last night, but there’s more to say about the disconnect between the concerns of the media and the concerns of ordinary Americans in that.
But let’s actually move on to the substance, which occurred at around 26:00 of the Q&A. Obama was asked about drone strikes in Pakistan, and per the LA Times, he had this to say:
President Obama offered a vigorous defense of using unmanned aircraft to kill Al Qaeda operatives and other militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas and, in the process, officially acknowledged the highly classified CIA drone program that U.S. officials had refused to discuss in public until now.
“I think that we have to be judicious in how we use drones,” Obama said Monday, adding that they have been used for “very precise, precision strikes against Al Qaeda and their affiliates.”
Obama went on to say that “obviously a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA,” the acronym for Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas, and for “going after Al Qaeda suspects who are in very tough terrain along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
“This thing is kept on a very tight leash,” Obama said. The U.S. does not use drones “willy-nilly” but in a way that avoids more intrusive military actions.
The truth is that we don’t have much to go on here; it’s very much a “trust me” answer. If we tried to get more specific information about that tight leash and how drone strikes are authorized, we’d hear that the executive branch must keep its state secrets and not reveal sources and methods.
In fact, just a day before this answer, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta revealed new information about assassinations of American citizens using the drone program, stating that the President personally signs off on the attacks after receiving recommendations from national security officials. Previous statements declared that the President didn’t have specific final say over the strikes. He’s been in office three years and we’re just learning some of the details.
Panetta’s justification, by the way, was a mess:
PANETTA: Without getting into the specifics of the operation, if someone is a citizen of the United States, and is a terrorist, who wants to attack our people and kill Americans, in my book that person is a terrorist. And the reality is that under our laws, that person is a terrorist [...]
PELLEY: They’re not entitled to due process of law under the Constitution of the United States? They lose their citizenship if this administration decides they’re a terrorist?
PANETTA: If this person wanted to suddenly raise questions about whether or not they’re a terrorist, and they were to return to the United States of course they would be entitled to due process. that’s something we provide any US citizen. And for that matter frankly any terrorist who is arrested, we provide due process to that individual as well. But if a terrorist is out there on the battlefield, and the terrorist is threatening this country, that person is an enemy combatant, and when an enemy combatant holds a gun at your head, you fire back.
The “battlefield,” of course, is defined as the entire world, including Yemen, the site of a drone strike just yesterday. And Panetta’s legal argument for targeting US citizens amounts to “if they’re a terrorist, then they’re a terrorist.”
The use of drones for surveillance has also become an issue violating the sovereignty of foreign nations. We see this being used now in Iraq, to the dismay of the ruling government. Obama said that their drone surveillance planes couldn’t even get fitted for weapons, so there’s nothing to worry about, as if panopticon-like spying on a sovereign nation is a non-issue.
Thirteen people died in that Yemeni drone strike, by the way, and “at least four” were considered Al Qaeda. Up to nine of the others were just collateral damage, despite the precise, judicious, careful targeting asserted by the President. And we in fact know that hundreds of civilians have died at the hands of drones over the past few years, regardless of whether our government will admit to it. This violates international law, I thought I’d poke my head up to say.
Clearly the policy dynamic has moved toward wider use of drones, a more antiseptic policy that doesn’t involve providing ground troops or having to go through that messy Congressional oversight. Obama fully acknowledged this yesterday. “For us to be able to get them in another way would involve probably a lot more intrusive military action than the ones we’re already engaging in,” he said. In other words, this is the new American way of war, the covert over the overt. And considering that core Al Qaeda is already decimated, I guess we won’t know who the drone strikes target next. That’s on a need-to-know basis. Maybe for the next virtual town hall.