US Media Shocked–Shocked!!–by Press Secretary’s Glomar on Drones

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Kudos to Chris Hayes for getting his now MSNBC colleague Robert Gibbs to admit that he was instructed, effectively, to give a Glomar — neither confirm nor deny — about the drone program.

“When I went through the process of becoming press secretary, one of the first things they told me was, ‘You’re not even to acknowledge the drone program. You’re not even to discuss that it exists,” said Gibbs, now an MSNBC contributor. That policy of secrecy, Gibbs said, made it difficult to deal with reporters asking about the program. Describing one such notable exchange in 2009 with Major Garrett, then of Fox News, Gibbs said, “I would get a question like that and literally I couldn’t tell you what Major asked, because once I figured out it was about the drone program, I realize I’m not supposed to talk about it.”

Gibbs added: “Here’s what’s inherently crazy about that proposition: you’re being asked a question based on reporting of a program that exists. So you’re the official government spokesperson acting as if the entire program…pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

[snip]

“I think you’ve seen recently the president discuss the need and desire to be more forthcoming,” Gibbs said. “I have not talked to him about this, so I want to be careful, this is my opinion, but I think what the president has seen is, our denial of the existence of the program when it’s obviously happening undermines people’s confidence overall in the decisions that their government makes.” [my emphasis]

The press seems shocked by this. But the instruction to Gibbs to neither confirm nor deny is precisely parallel to the response the national security establishment has given to NYT and ACLU under FOIA: based on its claim that the program itself has never been officially confirmed (Gibbs, conveniently, is no longer on the payroll, so this exchange will be added to the long list of confirmations the program exists that get discounted as confirmation by judges), the government also refuses to confirm or deny that they have documents explaining things like how an American can be killed under the program.

Of course Gibbs has to neither confirm nor deny, because if he didn’t the government would have to share information about the program with mere citizens.

But the requirement that Gibbs issue the public equivalent of a Glomar — along with the press’ seeming surprise about this — is a testament that the government puts more stock in maintaining legal deniability in the face of crumbling actual deniability than in maintaining its democratic legitimacy.

That is, for whatever reason (and I suspect it’s a combination of legal concern about the actions actually committed and an unwillingness to reveal the real state of our relationships with the Pakistanis, Saudis, and Yemenis), the Administration is willing to have even its former press secretary suggest this treatment of widely acknowledged covert operations undermines the faith in government more generally.

Gibbs, for his part, seems to think the Administration is moving to make these things more transparent. Meanwhile, someone who looks suspiciously like Gibbs’ former colleague at the National Security Council, Tommy Vietor, is bitching at the Intelligence Committees because they insist on being briefed on the drone program they’re supposed to be overseeing.

“These guys don’t even know what the hell they’re asking for,” the official said. “They think they can ‘reverse-engineer’ the [drone] program by asking for more memos, but these are not necessarily things that exist or are relevant…. What they’re asking for is to get more people read into very sensitive programs. That’s not a small decision.”

I’d say this Tommy Vietor lookalike probably has a better read on the Administration’s interest in transparency than Gibbs at this point.

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.

11 replies
  1. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    In late 2011, I was at a conference at Harvard Law School (http://www.cctvcambridge.org/LawSecurityandLiberty) which featured any number of lawyers who had bee read-in to the drone program. The one thing I will never forget is former CIA lawyer Johhny Rizzo getting tied up in rhetorical knots in trying to advocate for greater transparency in the drone program, a program he couldn’t acknowledge even existed. And everyone in the room who knew anything official couldn’t contribute to the debate because, well, the first rule of drone club is you don’t talk about drone club.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @Saul Tannenbaum: Remember that Rizzo got investigated for talking openly about the drone program. Dunno what happened to that. But he also talked openly about the underlying Memorandum of Notification.

  3. Ben Franklin says:

    Their ‘surprise’ is the core issue. A press secretary is not a journalist. They may have BEEN a journalist, and they may go back to reporting, but they (PressSec) are bulwarks to restrain and control the Media. A presser exists to give the illusion of providing information. Any journalist who is surprised at the obfuscation and evasive nature of that job description, should immediately apply for a job with the FBI.

    http://www.alternet.org/world/top-us-terrorist-group-fbi

  4. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    @emptywheel: This conference was shortly after that investigaton became known and there were allusions to Rizzo getting his hand slapped.

    I was a bit naive going into the conference and underestimated how much background I needed to make sense of some of what I was hearing. Rizzo getting his hand slapped was one of those. Oh, and the irony is not that Rizzo was a whistleblower, what he thought was the drone program was so good and was executed with such care and precision by the CIA, that they should be allowed to take full credit for this success.

    The really disturbing thing is really how clubby this all was. The alignment wasn’t, say, Bush administration lawyers vs. Obama administration lawyers, it was drone club vs. outsiders. If you hadn’t been in the Situation Room, you just didn’t know what they knew, so you really couldn’t pass judgement.

    And, in retrospect, the biggest tell, again one that I missed, was the Obama administration lawyers insistence that because they were codifying process (the oft mentioned rulebook is the outcome of that, I imagine) it made it all legal. But, since all this had to be couched in vagueness and hypotheticals – how can you talk about process for something that officially isn’t happening? – it was hard to get to the core of the matter.

    That, in the end, was the most outrageous piece. How do you have a debate over a policy when the policy’s authors can admit that the policy, or the program it governs, even exists? So much for democracy.

  5. Frank33 says:

    We should also mention that the US Government Assassins, and Phoenix 2.0 has been a smashing success. We have won the wars and we will continue to win the wars with our Killer Drones. The world trembles in fear of our almighty power.

    MOAR DRONZ FOREVER!

  6. greengiant says:

    They are nut jobs. There is a court in the Hague that will be ready to take them out if they ever step foot out of the country.

  7. Jessica says:

    Vietor says “but these are not necessarily things that exist or are relevant”

    Not necessarily things that exist? I’d love to know what things don’t exist that others think should exist. And are these things stored – or not stored – in the same place as Rumsfeld’s unknown knowns?

  8. emptywheel says:

    @Jessica: Been thinking of posting on that.

    In the FOIA case the govt said something similar (or rather, the judge did, in her opinion).

    I sort of wonder whether they maintain that they’ve never RELIED on an OLC memo, but have instead only relied on the finding. Which would mean there is no real memo, because they’ve maintained they’ve never used it.

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