One key reason President Obama had to undertake reform of NSA surveillance programs is that a left-right alliance of civil libertarian Democrats and limited government libertarian Republicans rose up in surprising numbers against the surveillance state, building momentum in Congress for change.
Could a similar alliance take shape to force more transparency around drone strikes?
In another effort to challenge the administration on the reach and conduct of the national security state, a bipartisan pair of Congressmen is set to introduce today a new bill that would require the administration to disclose key information about the drone program.
“Our bill would require that the president report each year the number of casualties as a result of UAVs — both combatants and civilians killed, ” Dem Rep. Adam Schiff of California, one of its co-sponsors, tells me, in a reference to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones. “It would require that data to be reported for the prior five years as well.”
Rep. Schiff and GOP Rep Walter Jones — the Republican co-sponsor — plan to circulate a “dear colleague” letter to House members to build support.
Obviously such an effort would appear to be far fetched. But it’s worth recalling that at first, efforts to curtail NSA surveillance consisted of little more than a handful of Congressional bills that looked pretty hopeless, too. Take the case of the amendment offered by GOP Rep. Justin Amash to defund NSA surveillance. At first its hopes were dismissed, but in the end, it was only defeated narrowly after a left-right alliance came together in a startling rebuke to Congressional leaders on both sides who were standing up for the surveillance/national security state status quo.
Since then, of course, Obama appointed a presidential panel that recommended a range of NSA reforms, and the President has announced that he will end NSA bulk data collection in its current form. True, a lot of that was the result of Edward Snowden’s revelations, and the drone program has not yet had its shroud of secrecy pierced to nearly the same degree. But Schiff — who has advocated for NSA and other civil liberties reform — hopes that his bill brings about a similar debate.
“It may be possible to build some of the same coalition,” Schiff said. “What unites [these lawmakers] is the civil libertarian idea that we should be circumspect about the use of lethal force and hold ourselves accountable for it, and the libertarian idea that there ought to be circumspection about foreign engagement and adequate due process. It’s a harder sell than on metadata, but I expect that some of the same sentiments will be at stake.”
If anyone objects on the grounds that the program should remain classified, Schiff says, there’s a ready answer. “It’s only classified if the administration decides to make it classified,” he said. “We’re just asking for raw numbers — not where the strikes took place or when. This would give very little to our adversaries. In fact, to the degree that it helps debunk their propaganda — every time there is a drone strike it’s at a wedding — it would be useful for us to be more public. This would allow us to hold ourselves accountable.”
In his speech last May, Obama vowed to curtail the use of drones as part of what he said would be a broader effort to narrow the scope of the global war on terrorism and to transition into a new post-war phase. But subsequent reporting on drone activity raised tough questions for the administration about whether officials were really responding to the President’s directive. Meanwhile, as the Washington Post reported recently, some members of Congress seem to be secretly working behind the scenes to stymie Obama’s efforts to reform the drone program by transitioning control of it away from the CIA to the Pentagon. In short, we don’t have any idea what the heck is really going on with it, and Congress is doing little or nothing to change that.
At a minimum, perhaps the introduction of this new measure could force more Members of Congress on to the record as to where they stand on drone transparency.