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Rand Paul drones and drones and drones...

March 6, 2013, at 5:32 PM

President Obama is partly to blame for Rand Paul's filibuster of CIA director-to-be John O. Brennan.

Here is why: Obama inherited a difficult and complex counter-terrorism strike policy from President Bush and amped it up by a factor of about four. He promised more transparency, and not just to the intelligence committees, but to the public. And had he not promised transparency, the urgent global reach of lethal U.S. counter-terrorism assets requires it as a matter of legitimacy. 

But absent an opaque speech from the attorney general, a cautious memorandum that left more questions than it answered (a memo that was strategically leaked way too late for it to mollify critics), and another Obama promise of more transparency, the national security establishment has wrapped itself in the familiar and comforting cloak of secrecy. 

What's the price of having a policy that is, as one CIA official put it to me, "clandestine but not covert," a policy that is openly acknowledged TO everyone EXCEPT the American people, an extension of American power that is easily demagogued in part because it has ever been explained sufficiently?

That price is legitimacy. It took the NSA's RAGTIME surveillance program eight years to become codified in law. The level of oversight the program receives from Congress and the courts is deeper than any comparable program in the history of the intelligence community. And today it is much more effective than it was when only a few members of Congress knew about its broad scope. There's still a healthy debate about the nature of the data the NSA collects, as there should be. (I'd like to see more focus on the FBI and less on NSA; the NSA "gets it," and the FBI and agencies collecting domestically are all over the map.) 

The administration will say that the program is a legitimate secret and so it is by necessity limited in what it can share.

But that's a dodge.

Congress knows about the operational secrets. They know that other countries often actually conduct the strikes that are credited to or blamed on America. They know that the "drone" program is actually no such thing: it is a counter-terrorism policy overseen by a combatant commander running a Joint Task Force, with components parts that include surveillance of targets (with drones), intelligence and synthesis, military deception, civil affairs, and direct action. Direct action includes the use of UAVs equipped with missiles, AC-130 gunships, missiles launched from submarines, and plain ol' ordinance dropped from fighter jets.

The CIA has its own thing with Pakistan; the Armed Services Committees and Intelligence Committees in Congress knows how all of it works. They don't know the rationale behind the policy because the administration does not believe it has to justify it. (There is evidence that Obama wants to end the CIA's paramilitary strike capabilities and transfer them BACK to the Joint Special Operations Command and the military. It would be nice to know why.) 

What's objectionable is what the administration won't say. They won't provide a sustainable defense of who gets targeted and how. They say that they need to keep THIS secret because (a) the bad guys would know if they're a target and (b) the executive branch gets to keep its legal opinions secret because of separation of powers and all that. 

(a) is non-responsive. The bad guys know they're targets. And there are ways to disclose the criteria without going through the specific steps and analytical process that is brought to bear for each. I want to know what a "signature strike" is but I know I'll never be privy to the computer algorithms that determine such things. Just tell me, and us, for the sake of legitimacy, for the future of this type of policy, what safeguards are in place to ensure that the bad guys and only the bad guys get targeted, and who deems they're bad guys, and how accountability is enforced. 

(b) is what it is. I think if the executive branch wants legitimacy, it needs to relax its close hold on its own opinions.

Then the White House will say: the public doesn't care. Only elites do. And besides, they get it all wrong, the White House says. They exaggerate. 

True, but irrelevant. The policy seems so extraordinary as to warrant a dialog and discourse.  

When an administration official claims that there are no viable reports of civilian casualties, belief is beggared. That's either a lie or hopeful blindness. So many people read into the strategy have admitted casualties. And a growing number of officials, including the former Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, think parts of it are counter-productive. The former commanding general of the Joint Special Operations Command, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is another critic. Neither opposes "targeted killing" of confirmed terrorists. Both find fault with the political-military policy that institutionalizes it.   

What is that policy? No one knows. Really. We don't. No one can explain it beyond a vague mumble about al Qaeda. 

But the president is busy with other things.

He ought to change his priorities. 

And if the public is getting the details wrong, and doing so in a way that inflames global opinion, that's on the administration. They don't like the obsessive focus on drones, and I'm with them. But they're not correcting the record. So when the Department of Homeland Security goes forward aggressively with a technological modernization, and the merging of UAV with surveillance technology suddenly becomes a hot button issue, it's on the administration to explain why and how Americans ought not fear intrusive monitoring. 

Obama needs to get this right. It can't be done entirely in secret.

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