There are 15,000 media personnel in Charlotte at the Democratic National Convention. Some of that includes photographers, but any way you slice it, you have a substantial number of journalists. Not one of them has the fortitude to pull off what Ben Swann of Fox 19 Cincinnati did in an interview with President Obama.
Swann not only asked the question about the President’s kill list and the assassination of American citizens from flying robots, he provided the necessary context. The President’s answer was one of casual evasion: “You’re basing this on reports in the news that have never been confirmed by me, and I don’t talk about national security decisions in that way.” Swann didn’t let it end there but explained precisely why this is a silly evasion. We have on-the-record accounts of virtually every major national security player in the White House – including the Chief of Staff, the former Director of National Intelligence, the former CIA Director and current Defense Secretary, and yes, President Obama himself – acknowledging the use of drones in assassination of suspected terrorists abroad. Common sense dictates that the targets for drones aren’t picked through use of a dartboard, but a deliberative process. In fact, the kill list article came out of direct quotes from White House officials to the New York Times. It was held up as an example of the President’s ruthlessness in dealing with national security threats. But when anyone questions it, he retreats to the cloak of secrecy. This mirrors how the Administration deals with these things in court. It’s OK to leak to the media to boost a President’s credentials during a re-election campaign, but if you actually raise the question yourself, it’s a secret. This guarantees a one-sided view of the matter.
And Ben Swann said all of that, on a local news station! “The President acted like this was something secretive, that he’s never commented on,” Swann said, “But it is clear that members of his Administration have no problem talking about the program to reporters. Maybe because those reporters have framed the President as tough on terror.”
Later, Obama said that the non-existent program that he can’t confirm was narrowly targeted against Al Qaeda, has been successful in “taking them off the field,” and that this has allowed us to “transition out of Afghanistan.” And Swann called B.S. on that too. First of all, the targeted drone strikes have gone far, far afield of Afghanistan. Second, this alleged narrow targeting goes all the way to Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, the 16 year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, and like his father, an American citizen. Amazingly, Swann mentions Abdulrahman, probably for the first time on Fox 19 Cincinnati. “To say that killing those two American citizens in Yemen can bring an end to the Afghanistan war? That’s simply disingenuous.”
Somehow I think that Ben Swann won’t be getting another exclusive interview with the President. But so what. He performed the actual function of journalism in society. Great work.
UPDATE: Obama did not try to bully CNN’s Jessica Yellin with obfuscation about secrecy, and instead talked fairly openly about the program:
It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States. And this is an example of where I think there has been some misreporting. Our preference has always been to capture when we can because we can gather intelligence. But a lot of terrorist networks that target the United States, the most dangerous ones operate in very remote regions and it’s very difficult to capture them. And we’ve got to make sure that in whatever operations we conduct, we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties, and in fact there are a whole bunch of situations where we will not engage in operations if we think there’s going to be civilian casualties involved.
So we have an extensive process with a lot of checks, a lot of eyes looking at it. Obviously as president I’m ultimately responsible for decisions that are made by the administration. But I think what the American people need to know is the seriousness with which we take both the responsibility to keep them safe, but also the seriousness with which we take the need for us to abide by our traditions of rule of law and due process.
Obama also addressed al-Awlaki and said that American citizens are entitled to “the protections of the constitution and due process,” but of course by that, Obama does not mean judicial process, as his Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech this year.
Adam Serwer has some good thoughts. The secrecy of the actual process behind this template turns this whole thing into a “just trust me” situation. And in matters this grave, I simply don’t think that flies.