A surveillance drone takes off from the German base in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Several lawmakers have called for new legislation to increase oversight of executive power to choose target lists and launch drone strikes. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP)

Drone use remains cloaked despite Obama’s pledge for more transparency

The Obama administration is still struggling with how to make good on the president’s promise to ensure that its counterterrorism programs, including drone strikes, are “even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”

After President Obama’s pledge in his State of the Union address in mid-February, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told a Senate hearing in early March that the president would publicly address the issue “in a relatively short period of time.”

In the ensuing silence, only one U.S. drone attack has been reported, in Pakistan nearly a month ago.

Explore documented drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia

What is unclear, among the many murky aspects of the secret program, is whether the slowdown in strikes is part of a policy decision affecting targeted killings in Yemen and Pakistan, or simply a temporary lack of targets.

The use of armed drones to kill terrorism suspects began during the George W. Bush administration, and nearly 400 strikes have occurred since Obama took office in January 2009. Outside of anti-war, civil liberties and international law groups, Congress and the public have largely supported the program and asked few questions until early this year.

Interest was sparked by the nomination as CIA director of John Brennan, who oversaw the program as Obama’s first-term counterterrorism adviser. Suddenly, issues such as the September 2011 drone strike that killed U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen moved publicly to the political front burner.

Although Brennan was confirmed after lengthy debates and a Senate filibuster, bipartisan requests for more information have remained only partially filled by the White House, according to senior Senate aides.

Several lawmakers have called for new legislation to increase oversight of executive power to choose target lists and launch strikes, including a new secret court similar to the one that approves surveillance warrants against suspected spies.

The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), has said he will introduce new legislation to update the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the administration’s main domestic legal justification for the drone program.

At the same time, Brennan and others within the administration have expressed a preference for placing the bulk of the drone program, now operated by both the CIA and the military, more firmly under the armed forces.

But there is no indication that moves have been made in that direction, and the White House has not taken a public position on any legislative initiatives. The administration has continued to contest legal challenges to the program’s secrecy. It has argued that national security concerns and the sensitivity of foreign partners who allow strikes on their territory preclude public explanations of how targets are selected and follow-up reports on who is killed.

Brennan and others have repeatedly disputed outside charges that more civilians than terrorists have been killed by drones.

Remarks by Obama and Holder led many to think that the president was preparing to make a major speech on counterterrorism and drones. The president himself, senior administration officials have said, ordered a series of public speeches by Brennan and others in recent years outlining the drone program’s legal framework and the care with which targets are chosen.

The question now is how much more the administration can say without violating secrecy restrictions on its own covert actions.

“Our government finds itself in a lose-lose proposition,” former Defense Department legal counsel Jeh Johnson said last month. “It fails to officially confirm many of its counterterrorism successes, and it fails to officially confirm, deny or clarify unsubstantiated reports of civilian casualties. Our government’s good efforts for the safety of the people risks an erosion of support by the people.”

Johnson, one of several former senior officials who now feel more free to express themselves on the subject, said that “there are some decision-makers within the executive branch who actually wouldn’t mind the added comfort of a judicial imprimatur on their decisions,” although he was personally skeptical such a court would work.

“The administration is hurting itself by a lack of transparency,” Harold Hongju Koh, who served as Johnson’s State Department counterpart, said Thursday at a meeting of the American Society of International Law. “I’m not sure why a speech would not be given by the secretary of state on this subject, or by the president himself.”

Others have been even less restrained.

“The idea that this president would leave office having dramatically expanded the use of drones — including [against] American citizens — without any public standards and no checks and balances . . . that there are no checks, and there is no international agreement; I would find that to be both terrible and ultimately will undermine a great deal of what this president will have done for good,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, director of policy planning under former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, said at the same event.

“I cannot believe this is what he wants to be his legacy,” Slaughter said.