Gibbs to Maddow: Drone secrecy was ‘unsustainable’

February 26, 2013
Obama, Gibbs
President Obama with former press secretary Robert Gibbs.

MSNBC delivers another rebuke to the gray-bearded journo-ethicists who harrumphed over the signing of former Obama White House press secretary Robert Gibbs: On Monday night, “The Rachel Maddow Show” welcomed Gibbs to address the news-making interview he’d given a day earlier, when he said he was instructed “not even to acknowledge the drone program.”

Such admission clearly enticed Maddow, who last year published “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power,” a book that examines how America enters willy-nilly into armed conflicts. So drones—or the Obama administration’s “targeted killing” program—are a must-address topic for the hyphen-loving MSNBC host.

Maddow and Gibbs together plumbed the fine points of the Obama administration’s creepy approach to the public on drones. When Maddow asked why the intense secrecy, Gibbs replied kind of like a press secretary. “Highly classified,” he explained. “Highly top secret.”

Further: The program had existed for years and “very few, if any” officials had acknowledged it out in the open. John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism boss, began changing things back in April 2012, noted Gibbs:

He understood there was that inherent unsustainable tension, and that some transparency absolutely had to take place. That’s why I think if you — and if your viewers go back and look at that speech that John gives in April of 2012, it`s an extraordinary speech. It took a long time to get that speech through the bureaucracy and through the government so that somebody could finally on camera begin to speak about what this program entails.

Breakthrough conceded. Yet no one would argue that the April 2012 speech by Brennan brought the level of disclosure to a satisfactory level. Not even the president would argue such a thing—he just promised in his State of the Union address to furnish more transparency on the program.

And it’s on this point that Maddow and Gibbs eke out a bit more news. The reason we know so little about the drone campaign—including about the legal justification for its existence—is that its operational guts reside at the Central Intelligence Agency. Were it lodged at the Pentagon, a far less secretive and more accountable place, we’d have a bit more information. Maddow and Gibbs:

MADDOW: OK. So two questions come from that for me. Number is, we have seen John Brennan explicitly, Geoff Morrell sort of to the press, excuse me, Mike Morell, the acting director to the CEO, to the press — foreign policy heads like John McCain in the Senate making the argument that it should be military instead of CIA.

Should we see the president’s nomination of John Brennan to run the CIA as a sign that the president agrees with that, and that that change is going to happen?

GIBBS: I believe so. And I think –

MADDOW: Yes.

GIBBS: — I think, you know, John has been at the forefront of this. It was John’s idea to give that speech in April. It’s John’s idea to understand that again, we had this — something just simply unsustainable. You cannot continue with this program in the society and the democracy and the values that we have in it by continuing to hide something and keep it under such depths of secrecy, and also as you said, not to have some real genuine oversight.

The segment showcases the struggles of Gibbs in his role as MSNBC contributor, trying to balance his ties to the Obama people with the imperative to deliver worthwhile analysis to viewers. It’s clear that the former press secretary still trusts his former boss, at least on drone transparency: “I think you will see the beginnings in walking people through the legal justifications for a whole host of these operations. And I think again, that is what I think the president believes, and John believes, so are so important to make more public and to have more people understand.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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Erik Wemple | February 25, 2013