Monday, May 07, 2012

Without Questions There Are No Answers

Doyle McManus, of the Los Angeles Times Washington DC Bureau, has a pretty decent column up on the use of drones for targeted assassinations. He's a bit more cautious than I would like, but at least he's talking about the issue.

In recent weeks, a parade of top officials has given sober, underpublicized speeches explaining why President Obama not only considers "targeted killing" drone strikes against terrorists legal but has massively expanded their use, even approving a strike against a U.S. citizen, the New Mexico-born Al Qaeda preacher Anwar Awlaki, in Yemen last year.

Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. gave a lecture arguing that the government has a right to kill U.S. citizens who practice terrorism as long as it observes some form of "due process" in its secret decision-making. The chief lawyers of the State Department and Defense Department weighed in as well. ...

The administration should be applauded for lifting the veil of secrecy even slightly on the drone attacks, which for years weren't even officially acknowledged. (Most of them are still officially covert.) Americans have a right to know how their government makes these decisions. The people living in countries that are being bombed are entitled to an explanation too; we're unlikely to win many hearts and minds solely by buzzing them with drones.

But there is still too much that Brennan and his colleagues aren't divulging. The administration hasn't spelled out who makes the decision to approve a drone strike, or how many levels of review such a decision gets. Brennan said Congress exercises oversight of the operations, but there has been no clear explanation of that process either. And the administration hasn't publicly addressed the practice of "signature strikes" — drone attacks against targets whose identities aren't known but who fit the profile of enemy combatants — except to say they are considered "with similar rigor."
[Emphasis added]

OK, Mr. McManus did at least drop a hint (perhaps unintentionally) as to one of the problems I see. We don't know very much about the program because clearly the administration wants it kept from the public and the press has not seen to push the issue. I will admit that the Los Angeles Times has done some decent reporting recently on the issue of drones (e.g., on the their use domestically, see my post here), but as far as I can tell no mainstream media outlet has seen fit to push back after such outrageous comments as Attorney General Holder's comment that such targeted assassinations are "legal" as long as some form of "due process" is used. And in the administration's lexicon, that "due process" involves several layers of government bureaucracy signing off on the attack. No judge, no congressional hearing, just some members of the administration saying, "Yeah, OK, let's get this SOB."

McManus duly notes that most Americans seem to be overwhelmingly in favor of the program. However, since most Americans don't know just what is involved, this is no surprise. Most Americans were in favor of the way we treated detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay until word leaked out on how we, WE AMERICANS, were torturing the crap out of people, many of whom were mistakenly detained. Most Americans didn't see any problem with "water boarding" until it was described in detail. It wasn't until the press did its job that Americans began having second thoughts about the process. Their response was sufficient to cause Candidate Obama to make some promises about torture and Gitmo. Unfortunately, President Obama has forgotten those promises.

Until the press does its job in educating the American public about the program (which this column just barely begins), this administration and the next will feel free to continue it, perhaps even expand it, much as it has expanded the secrecy surrounding so much of "national security."

Doyle McManus's call for more transparency is the right call, but it will only be heard when journalists push hard for that transparency so that the public can also push hard for it once they realize how important that is.

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