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A Touch More on Drone Strikes…

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So I’m having trouble reconciling this Ben Wittes:

Finally, Spencer might be suggesting that the government should at least be accountable to the public for such a targeting–that is, that these operations will not have legitimacy to the extent that the President keeps secret the program, its legal rationale and standards, and the evidence underlying targeting decisions. If this is his point, I am in full agreement. The secrecy associated with the drones program is understandable historically, but it has grown absurd as the program has ballooned in size and importance in U.S. counterterrorism policy. Today, everyone in the world knows that the United States kills Al Qaeda people with drones in Pakistan and (sometimes) Yemen. Each strike is a news story, and everyone knows who’s flying the drones. The government talks liberally about the strikes to a great many reporters–though never, of course, on the record. It boasts of its triumphs. The program has become the central element of the nation’s war against its enemy. And yet all of it is notionally a covert action; its legal rationales are classified and described only in the most general terms; the substantive standards for targeting are kept from public scrutiny; and the government feels no need–as Spencer describes–to share its evidence that a target was actually a legitimate target under the standard that it also won’t articulate.

Some of this secrecy is necessary; these operations necessarily involve a great deal of legitimately classified intelligence, and the need to protect sources and methods is real.

But some of the secrecy is not necessary. And the farcical situation in which we conduct our covert operations in public but won’t justify them publicly because they are covert, is not sustainable. It’s not sustainable precisely because people like Spencer Ackerman will not have faith in a program conducted under these circumstances. Indeed, why exactly should they?

With this Ben Wittes:

Remember, this is a person who:

  1. is believed to be “part of” enemy forces within the meaning of the AUMF;
  2. has been on notice for a lengthy period of time that he is regarded as such, is clearly aware of that, and has not only not denied it but actively taunted U.S. forces about their inability to get him;
  3. has not made any attempt to surrender;
  4. is believed to be playing an active, operational role in attacks against the United States; and
  5. is camped out in a country that is unable to exercise civilian authority in the region in which he is located.

Emphasis mine. Seems to me that the person who believes that the process through which we conduct our covert operations is “farcical” and “not sustainable”, and who finds it completely understandable why someone would “not have faith” in such operations should have some degree of skepticism regarding the “is believed” elements of the above argument. If it’s entirely reasonable for Spencer Ackerman to have doubts, then why should Ben Wittes (or Glenn Greenwald, the target of the second linked post) have such confidence about the charges against al-Awlaki?

I should also note that Wittes has been far too dismissive on point number 5, in this post and others.  If the United States can launch drone strikes in Yemen, and SOF raids in Pakistan, then it potentially could have launched an SOF raid in Yemen to grab/kill al-Awlaki.  The US launched such a raid against bin Laden because of what amounted to political reasons; the need to determine with a high degree of certainty than bin Laden was dead.  I would imagine that the Obama administration judged that the political cost-benefit analysis of a similar mission to grab al-Awkali was negative, and decided to blow him up instead.  We need to appreciate, however, that this is effectively a political judgement; not something that was demanded by military or legal necessity.  On this point, it is entirely reasonable to criticize the political priorities of the Obama administration.

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