to Inform You that You Inform Us We Killed Another Drone Target'>We Request to Inform You that You Inform Us We Killed Another Drone Target

I want to follow-up on Jim’s latest drone post–and go back to Greg Miller’s article on drones–to look at the the approval process. A lot of readers of Miller’s article noted this passage, revealing that JSOC continues to avoid the kind of (minimal) oversight that CIA gets.

There is no comparable requirement in Title 10, and the Senate Armed Services Committee can go days before learning the details of JSOC strikes.

But read the whole passage in context.

Within 24 hours of every CIA drone strike, a classified fax machine lights up in the secure spaces of the Senate Intelligence Committee, spitting out a report on the location, target and result.

The outdated procedure reflects the agency’s effort to comply with Title 50 requirements that Congress be provided with timely, written notification of covert action overseas. There is no comparable requirement in Title 10, and the Senate Armed Services Committee can go days before learning the details of JSOC strikes.

Neither panel is in position to compare the CIA and JSOC kill lists or even arrive at a comprehensive understanding of the rules by which each is assembled.

The senior administration official said the gap is inadvertent. “It’s certainly not something where the goal is to evade oversight,” the official said. A senior Senate aide involved in reviewing military drone strikes said that the blind spot reflects a failure by Congress to adapt but that “we will eventually catch up.”

The disclosure of these operations is generally limited to relevant committees in the House and Senate and sometimes only to their leaders. Those briefed must abide by restrictions that prevent them from discussing what they have learned with those who lack the requisite security clearances. The vast majority of lawmakers receives scant information about the administration’s drone program.

In addition to the long-standing problem of JSOC avoiding oversight (and, implicitly, that this notice apparently comes after the fact, when CIA sends a fax over, which is a little late for the Intelligence Committees to weigh in, IMO), Miller lays out the following:

  • No one–not the intelligence committees or even the Gang of Four–gets enough insight into the drone programs to understand how JSOC’s practices differ from CIA’s (this is consistent with what the Gang of Four said about Anwar al-Awlaki’s killing, given that they said they never saw the kill lists)
  • As is typical, the intelligence committee overseers can’t share information from briefings with their colleagues not read into the program (this is how the Bush Administration gutted intelligence committee oversight of the torture and illegal wiretap programs)

But don’t worry, a senior Administration official says, this time, this secrecy is not designed specifically to avoid oversight.

Apparently, this SAO’s interlocutors don’t agree, because the WSJ’s Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman have a similar story out today, just three days after Miller’s, quoting “current and former administration, military and congressional officials” complaining about oversight gaps.

While few U.S. lawmakers question the effectiveness of the targeted killing campaigns, some top lawmakers complain about what they see as excessive White House secrecy about how targets are chosen and how the administration justified the killings, particularly of American citizens.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, has been publicly and privately pressing the Justice Department to let his committee review the secret memorandum prepared by Justice Department lawyers that endorsed the legality of killing U.S. citizens abroad.

Similar qualms have come from members of the House and Senate armed services committees, who have also sought more information in particular about the CIA’s drone program (they have some oversight over the drones run by the Defense Department).

We’ve seen this movie already. The refusal to release OLC opinions to DOJ’s oversight committee(s); the use of committee jurisdictional oddities to avoid oversight; the appeal to secrecy. All of this comes directly from the Bush script on hiding illegal programs from Congress.

And yet all of the people presumably bitching–folks like Pat Leahy, Carl Levin, John McCain, Buck McKeon, and Adam Smith presumably–just passed language leaving the Administration’s authority to use deadly force while pretending to try to detain American citizens with a drone intact.

Hey Congress! With Bush you were usually most successful forcing more transparency by refusing to pass legislation until you got that transparency. Maybe you should have tried that here?

In any case, Obama’s anonymous leakers poo poo the entire notion of functional Congressional oversight.

Current and former officials say the White House wants to keep a tight hold on classified information to avoid unauthorized disclosures.

The demand for lawmakers outside the intelligence committees to have access to details on the covert drone program, said one U.S. official, “just doesn’t hold water.”


Administration officials say the drone programs run by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command are carefully monitored by top officials at both agencies and by the White House National Security Council.

Hey Congress! John Brennan (or some information hypocrite like him) just suggested that demands for functional Congressional oversight, “just [don’t] hold water.” And yet the same Administration that is refusing to pay you due respect out of feigned secrecy concern is, at the same time, selectively leaking about their drone strikes, going so far as to boast about the one that is supposedly covered by state secrets. Not to mention the fact that the contractors presumably know what you don’t (though that, too, is like the illegal programs of the Bush Administration).

At one level, this story is about how yet another Congress is allowing themselves to be treated with disdain by the President, refusing to do the things to coerce the information they need to do their jobs out of the Administration.

At another, though, there’s the unanswered question about the underlying dispute. While “officials from” (not members of) the intelligence committees claim, in the WSJ piece, they do adequate oversight, someone, somewhere, is running around begging for the ability to tell his or her Congressional colleagues details about the drone program they’re not currently privy to.

And given what we do know–the contractors’ involvement that makes the strikes illegal and inaccurate, the way our “allies” game the system to eliminate rivals, the unacceptable numbers of dead civilians–what we don’t know may well be horrible indeed.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

21 replies
  1. Bob Schacht says:

    From the second quote block:

    The senior administration official said the gap is inadvertent. “It’s certainly not something where the goal is to evade oversight,” the official said.

    He said this with a straight face?

    Obama’s anonymous leakers also saith:

    Administration officials say the drone programs run by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command are carefully monitored by top officials at both agencies and by the White House National Security Council.

    “Carefully monitored”? Do they take us for idiots? The only way you get careful monitoring is if there is adequate oversight. And we’re plainly not getting that here.

    Is Dick Cheney still pulling all the strings???

    Bob in AZ

  2. Jim White says:

    @emptywheel: Somewhat, but for me the lasting damage from Cheney and Rumsfeld comes in part from those they seeded within DoD and “left behind”. Using the rules to help JSOC avoid oversight is one of their signature moves, and they have pretty much enshrined it at this point.

  3. gregorylent says:

    the world sees drones as signs of cowardliness … given the psychology/secrecy within the us government around the subject, the world appears to be correct in its assessment

  4. GKJames says:

    Without disagreeing in the least with the thrust of this, or with principle that there should be oversight, isn’t the bottom line that none of it makes a difference? First, Congressional oversight over covert action has never been more than a fig-leaf, a cat/mouse game that matters only in Washington halls of power. There’s never been a substantive limitation on Executive Branch freedom of action. Second, given the bipartisan consensus in Congress, and between Congress and the White House, as to the assassination enterprise, what “oversight” worth its name would we get even if the White House checked with Congress before carrying out a hit?

    In fact, I’d argue that both Congress and the White House are content with the opaque state of affairs on oversight. Congress can disclaim liability on grounds that the White House didn’t provide adequate and timely information. And the White House can claim democratic legitimacy by virtue of having apprised Congress.

  5. rugger9 says:

    This will continue until the WH targets someone like the late Mother Teresa. As long as the WH can claim these are enemies of the state, no one will look too closely, it is what concerns Leahy the most.

  6. thatvisionthing says:

    So, who does know and decide drone strikes and ponder wisdom? Does Obama?

    Anecdote from Errol Morris’s Fog of War — Guns of August in the bonus features:

    ROBERT McNAMARA: President Kennedy in I think it was the first month of his administration asked all of the members of the National Security Council to read Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August. Because in that book she recounts a story of two German chancellors at the end of World War I. I’ve forgotten how many millions and millions of Germans were killed. One says to the other, “How did it happen?” And the other says, “I wish I knew.” And Kennedy said, “That’s not going to happen to us!”

  7. Bob Schacht says:

    @emptywheel: Yeah, but Brennan has a history with Cheney, does he not? Notwithstanding Brennan’s blast at Cheney 2 years ago, in one of your diaries you made note of the relationship between Brennan and Cheney, and in 2009, Scott Horton wrote an article in Harpers, In Brennan, Cheney has a Friend. Brennan was a protege of George Tenet, but we know how Cheney could twist Tenet like a pretzel.

    So, can Cheney still pull Brennan’s strings?

    Bob in AZ

  8. Jason Leopold says:

    Also, an interesting story McClatchy published today as well regarding the role contractors play in drone missions and the death of civilians.

    After a U.S. airstrike mistakenly killed at least 15 Afghans in 2010, the Army officer investigating the accident was surprised to discover that an American civilian had played a central role: analyzing video feeds from a Predator drone keeping watch from above.

    The contractor had overseen other analysts at Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field in Florida as the drone tracked suspected insurgents near a small unit of U.S. soldiers in rugged hills in central Afghanistan. Based partly on her analysis, an Army captain ordered an airstrike on a convoy that turned out to be carrying innocent men, women and children.

    “What company do you work for?” Maj. Gen. Timothy McHale demanded of the contractor after he learned that she was not in the military, according to a transcript obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    As is true of Mr. Obama, if Congress wanted more oversight of public or privatized drone missions, it could demand it and make life miserable for others until it got it. Congress failure to do that amounts to it claiming, like Mr. Obama, that drone sorties and their consequences for human and property targets are things that happen in the ether, out of their own will. They are ephemera of unnatural law, like Friedmanite economics in Chile (achievable only at the point of a gun). They are not actions over which Congress, the president or the American people have any control.

    To test that theory, let’s stop all payments under every contract providing for the purchase, arming, fuleing, navigation and support of drone flights. Let’s see how long it takes for them to be grounded, to fly on empty, to fly without access to gps or control surface guidance from human actors. About a New York minute.

    Having proven that drone flights are creatures of human will, not an expression of immutable law, perhaps then we can have a dialogue about whether, for what purposes and at what costs we want them. Because like Mr. Bush’s budgets, what he and Mr. Obama and Congress break is left for the American people to pay for.

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The claim that drone flights lack oversight owing to accidental gaps in processes or Congressional attention is about as credible as the lone gunman theory, the assertion that ‘Fredo or Scooter did not lie to Congress or the DOJ, or the denial that the CIA spent two decades and more trying to assassinate Fidel.

  11. thatvisionthing says:

    @Jason Leopold:

    Based partly on her [a contractor’s] analysis, an Army captain ordered an airstrike on a convoy that turned out to be carrying innocent men, women and children.

    Again, where’s Obama? Remember his helicopter speech from 2007?

    BARACK OBAMA: When you travel to the world’s trouble spots as a United States Senator, much of what you see is from a helicopter. So you look out, with the buzz of the rotor in your ear, maybe a door gunner nearby, and you see the refugee camp in Darfur, the flood near Djibouti, the bombed out block in Baghdad. You see thousands of desperate faces. … And it makes you stop and wonder: when those faces look up at an American helicopter, do they feel hope, or do they feel hate?

    …And we know what the extremists say about us. America is just an occupying Army in Muslim lands, the shadow of a shrouded figure standing on a box at Abu Ghraib, the power behind the throne of a repressive leader. They say we are at war with Islam. That is the whispered line of the extremist who has nothing to offer in this battle of ideas but blame – blame America, blame progress, blame Jews…

    We know we are not who they say we are. … But too often since 9/11, the extremists have defined us, not the other way around.

    When I am President, that will change. We will author our own story.

    We do need to stand for democracy. And I will. But democracy is about more than a ballot box. America must show – through deeds as well as words – that we stand with those who seek a better life. That child looking up at the helicopter must see America and feel hope.

    Some associated thoughts:

    – Those who see America overhead: Nine Afghan Boys Collecting Firewood Killed by NATO Helicopters, NYT March 2, 2011:

    “We were almost done collecting the wood when suddenly we saw the helicopters come,” said Hemad, who, like many Afghans, has only one name. “There were two of them. The helicopters hovered over us, scanned us and we saw a green flash from the helicopters. Then they flew back high up, and in a second round they hovered over us and started shooting. They fired a rocket which landed on a tree. The tree branches fell over me and shrapnel hit my right hand and my side.”

    The tree, Hemad said, saved his life by covering him so that he could not be seen by the helicopters, which, he said, “shot the boys one after another.”

    – Those who don’t: Collateral Murder, July 2007 — now President Obama prosecutes whistleblower, not perpetrators:

    The onboard camera of this attack helicopter is targeting a group of people in a neighborhood in Baghdad. Among them are two journalists from a news agency, Reuters, the photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and his assistant Saeed Chmagh. The men can neither see nor hear the helicopter that is stalking them. It is too far away.

    – And those who watch the video afterwards: In Baghdad, 2010, men gather around laptop and watch Collateral Murder — Democracy Now, 8/3/10 @23:30.

  12. emptywheel says:

    @thatvisionthing: Yes, Dick Cheney knew precisely how to manipulate the giant bureaucracy of the federal govt to achieve what he desired, w/almost no checks until 2006. I don’t admire what he did. Though I do wish those who’d like to undo his work knew half what he knew about how to manipulate a bureaucracy.

  13. thatvisionthing says:

    @emptywheel: The way I see it, rot is its own end. Everything it touches collapses sooner or later of its own weight. The heavier it gets, the sooner it goes. It is what it is, it can’t help itself, and the law of gravity can’t be pixied. It seems to me that the bureaucatic “genius” of Cheney is to disable accountability via compartmentalization and secrecy. The buck stops nowhere and in the end all is nonsense. The great delusion is thinking that what goes around won’t come around, or that if you are successful at stopping flow, you win … something.

    Vaclav Havel, Julian Assange and Daniel Ellsberg each said something like that:

    — Havel (you quote):

    In a feuilleton called “The Trial” Havel described how the event exposed the illegitimacy of the authorities and their ideology. Yet even as that became clear–even as it became clear that this rather ordinary event was going to take on much deeper significance–the government continued to play its part, thereby delegitimizing itself. Havel used the language of theater to describe what happened.

    What is even stranger, nothing could be done about it: the play, once it started, had to be played through to the end, thus finally showing how terribly its initiators had entangled themselves in the net of their own prestige. They did not dare to halt the whole thing and admit their error, but rather went through with the embarrassing spectacle to the very end. At the same time the actors in this spectacle found themselves in a paradoxical situation: the more honestly they played their parts, the more obviously they uncovered their unforeseen meaning, thus becoming the co-creators of an entirely different performance than they had thought they were playing, or had wanted to play.

    Assange, on efforts to quell whistleblowers:

    So we can see already that the new Obama administration’s attempts to expand the 1917 Espionage Act into territory where it has normally never been permitted has had an effect on journalism.

    If that continues, and as Daniel Ellsberg suggested, if it continues and we see a
    conviction related to Bradley Manning or to one of our people in the United States or to myself or to James Risen or other media sources, it will put a chill across all investigative journalism if it’s in the U.S. The result of that is that whistle blowers will be unwilling to step forward to the mainstream press and inform the public about abuses that are occurring behind closed doors.

    Now, from our perspective, from WikiLeaks’ perspective, actually either of these outcomes works. Either the mainstream press in the United States collapses as an effective investigative organ holding the government to account and all sources then are forced to only deal with WikiLeaks, or the administration finds that it has to conform to the U.S. First Amendment and other parts of the Constitution and then the United States is a free society that upholds our values.

    — Ellsberg, to Henry Kissinger in 1968, as he was briefing Kissinger specifically on the topic at hand of secret clearances he was about to get:

    Most Dangerous Man in America: I took that opportunity to tell him something that I’d long thought of telling somebody who was about to enter the world of really high secrecy. And I said, “Henry, you’re about to get a lot of clearances higher than Top Secret that you did not know existed. That’s going to have a sequence of effects on you. First, a great exhilaration, that you’re getting all this amazing information that you didn’t know even existed. And the next phase is, you’ll feel like a fool for not having known of any of this. But that won’t last long. Very soon you’ll come to think that everyone else is foolish. What would this expert be telling me if he knew what I knew? So in the end you stop listening to them.”

    continuing on in Secrets, p. 238-9: “You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular area that may be much greater than yours.”

    It was a speech I had thought through before, one I’d wished someone had once given me, and I’d long hoped to be able to give to someone who was just about to enter the world of “real” executive secrecy. I ended by saying that I’d long thought of this kind of secret information as something like the potion Circe gave to the wanderers and shipwrecked men who happened on her island, which turned them into swine. They became incapable of human speech and couldn’t help one another to find their way home.

    Or, as I was fond of quoting Wendell Berry over at FDL: “Long live gravity!” and “The world is babbled to pieces / after the divorce of things from their names.”

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