White House spokesman Jay Carney rebuffed questions Tuesday about whether President Obama had violated intelligence restrictions on the secret U.S. drone program in Pakistan when he openly discussed the subject the day before.
Obama, speaking Monday at an online town hall sponsored by Google, twice uttered the word “drones” as he explained their precise and “judicious” use against al-Qaeda targets. Asked if the president had made a mistake, Carney said he was “not going to discuss . . . supposedly covert programs.”
He suggested that nothing Obama had said could be a security violation: “He’s the commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States. He’s the president of the United States.”
On Monday, Obama was responding to “Evan in Brooklyn,” who said that the president had “ordered more drone attacks in your first year than your predecessor did in his entire term.”
Noting persistent reports of civilian casualties, Evan said he was “curious to know how you feel they help the nation and whether you think they’re worth it.”
“I want to make sure that people understand that drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” Obama replied. “For the most part, they have been very precise, precision strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates.”
The perception that “we’re just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly,” Obama said, is incorrect. “This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists, who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases and so on.”
“I think that we have to be judicious in how we use drones,” Obama added.
His remarks went beyond careful references to what State Department legal adviser Harold H. Koh once called “lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.” In a speech last summer, White House counterterrorism chief John O. Brennan spoke euphemistically of U.S. “removal” of al-Qaeda leaders.
In a lawsuit last year, the American Civil Liberties Union said that the CIA’s refusal to release information about drone killings was illegal. When the CIA argued that even the “fact of the existence or non-existence” of such a program was classified, the ACLU responded that then-CIA Director Leon E. Panetta had spoken openly of U.S. “hits” and “strikes” against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan.
But a federal judge found in favor of the CIA, ruling that Panetta had never spoken specifically about drones or “acknowledged the CIA’s involvement in such [a] program.”
In the wake of Obama’s comments, “it becomes more and more absurd to say that this is a covert program, a secret program,” said ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer. “There is nobody left in the United States or in Pakistan or in Yemen,” where drone strikes have also been conducted, “who doesn’t know about this.”
“At this point,” Jaffer said, “the only consequence of pretending that it’s a secret program is that the courts don’t play a role in overseeing it.”