For human targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan and wherever else America wages its war on terror, the drone is an invisible predator of the sky. Generally, the first indication of a drone’s presence is the explosion of a missile obliterating its target.
This system of unmanned surveillance and execution aircraft has largely flown under the radar of much of the American public—including that portion of the American public that reports in the country’s free press and serves in the United States Congress.
But the veil of secrecy cloaking America’s drone program was lifted slightly this past week with the appearance of memos and the testimony of President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor on Capitol Hill.
In the same week that documents related to the Obama administration’s drone program were made public, John Brennan, a White House deputy national security advisor, went to the hill for his confirmation as the new CIA director. And on Wednesday, the New York Times and Washington Post revealed they’d engaged in self-censorship over the drone program, even as the details they submerged were being published abroad.
“I think there’s a lot more there than we’re seeing,” says Daniel Schuman, who leads the Wasington, D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation’s transparency effort. “That’s the problem.”
Balancing the public’s right to know what its government is doing with the secrecy needs of national security is apparently juggling act that lawmakers and journalists are taking on in tandem. As Gawker noted, the New York Times and Washington Post accepted a CIA request not to reveal the location of a drone base in Saudi Arabia that was being used for missions in Yemen. The two American papers withheld the information for more than a year, even though the The Times of London had broken the news in 2011.
Schuman’s Sunlight Foundation, which tracks government activity through public documents, found that the Obama Administration has only published 61 percent of its Office of Legal Counsel memos, some of which authorize drone strikes, including the one against New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric with U.S. citizenship who was killed in Yemen by an American drone strike in 2011.
On Wednesday, the White House sent two Congressional Intelligence Committees some of the OLC memos relating to the drone program. The next day, the Senate would be hearing from Brennan.
“These memos should be available to the public with rare exceptions,” Schuman tells TakePart. “There seems to be two Obamas. One is focused on openness and transparency, and then there’s the national security Obama. There isn’t a lot of room between him and his predecessor” George W. Bush.
Much of the interest in the Office of Legal Counsel drone memos centers on the “legal basis” for targeted killings of American citizens, but at least one senator is equally disturbed by global implications of the unmanned predators.
During the Brennan confirmation hearing in the Senate, Republican Senator Susan Collins (Maine) raised the issue of whether drone warfare was counterproductive to America’s fight against terrorism.
Critics fault drone strikes for causing collateral damage in the form of civilian casualties among foreign nationals. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a U.K.-based nonprofit, 2,629 people have been killed to date by CIA drone strikes in Pakistan—475 of them were likely civilians.
The drone strikes, said Senator Collins, “are hated on a visceral level even by people who have never seen one [and] add to the perception of an American arrogance that ‘we can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want.’ ”
Brennan countered that people in Yemen and elsewhere support the strikes. “The people are being held hostage to al-Qaida in these areas... and have welcomed the work ... to rid them of the al-Qaida cancer in their midst,” he said, according to a transcript of his testimony.
At the opening of the Brennan hearing, California Senator Dianne Feinstein (D), who chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence, asked for the gallery to keep order. "We have come here to listen," she said.
But before Brennan could finish his opening statement, female protesters from Code Pink repeatedly shouted out forcing Feinstein to call a recess and have the room cleared. The disruption of such a high-profile hearing showcased for a brief moment the domestic opposition to America’s military engagement abroad.
That opposition might be more widespread and urgent except for the idea that the human cost—to American lives at least—of drone warfare is minimal. After all, when the drones get shot down or crash, there’s no pilot on board to be captured by the enemy and paraded in front of television cameras. It’s simply a piece of equipment.
Without a human cost to war for the majority of citizens, there is a limited urgency to questioning Washington’s rationale for continued conflict, which is one reason New York Congressman Charles Rangel (D) and others have given for supporting a draft.
“Since we replaced the compulsory military draft with an all-volunteer force in 1973, our nation has been making decisions about wars without worry over who fights them,” Rangel wrote in a recent op-ed.
The war on terror has changed names and locations, but—after the flurry of confirmation hearing attention—it will continue for the foreseeable future, without the scrutiny and debate that should be associated with decisions of life and death.
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Sean J. Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.