Our “Public Debate” about Drones Is a State Secret

While I often disagree with Benjamin Wittes, I rarely think the stuff he writes is sheer nonsense.

This post, which attempts to rebut Eugene Robinson’s column on Assassination by Robot, is an exception.

I disagree, respectfully, with most of his post. But this bit I find just mindboggling.

My former colleague Eugene Robinson has a column in the Washington post entitled “Assassination by Robot,” which seems to me to warrant a brief response. Robinson begins by saying that, “The skies over at least six countries are patrolled by robotic aircraft, operated by the U.S. military or the CIA, that fire missiles to carry out targeted assassinations. I am convinced that this method of waging war is cost-effective but not that it is moral.” And he complains that “There has been virtually no public debate about the expanding use of unmanned drone aircraft as killing machines — not domestically, at least.”

Robinson’s complaint about debate is false, at least in my view. There has been a significant public debate on the subject.

In half the countries in which we are known to be using drones–Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia–these drone strikes are still highly, highly classified. (The acknowledged countries are Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.)

When Anwar al-Awlaki’s family sued for due process, the government invoked state secrets, even as Crazy Pete Hoekstra and a stream of anonymous sources have leaked details of the drone targeting of him for over a year. One of the things Robert Gates specifically invoked state secrets over is whether or not we’re engaged in military operations in Yemen. Another is details of our counterterrorism work with Yemen.

B. Information concerning possibly military operations in Yemen, if any, and including criteria or procedures DoD may utilize in connection with such military operations; and

C. Information concerning relations between the United States and the Government of Yemen, including with respect to security, military, or intelligence cooperation, and that government’s counterterrorism efforts.

So in the most controversial case out there, our targeting of an American citizen with no due process, the government has said no one can know any details of it. No one.

The secrecy of the drone strikes is a point that Robinson makes, albeit somewhat obliquely.

Since the program is supposed to be secret, officials use euphemisms when speaking about it publicly. John Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, said in a recent speech that “our best offense won’t always be deploying large armies abroad but delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us.”

But the point needs to be made much more strongly.

If the government says we can’t know about the drone strikes–if the government says we can’t even know that many of the drone strikes are going on–then what kind of “public debate” are we having? For the drone strikes that are a state secret, Congress can’t even engage in a “public debate.”

Yeah, I understand that a very limited set of elites argue about drones anyway. But it takes a really twisted understanding of democracy and public debate to claim that drone strikes the government won’t even acknowledge are the subject of a real debate.

37 replies
  1. radiofreewill says:

    One of the things that Drones do from a psychological point of view is create the impression on the home front that there is actually a war going on against an identifiable enemy with offensive operations producing a body count.

    Without the Drones, Iraq and Afghanistan would seem more like $3.7 Trillion worth of police action conducted amongst hostile populations who treat us like illegitimate foreign invaders.

    So, one of the reasons, possibly, to avoid having a discussion about Drones is that they are clearly feared to be a slippery slope down to the larger question of the legitimacy of the wars themselves.

    • emptywheel says:

      Great insight.

      I’d just add though that w/o the drones, Iraq and Afghanistan would seem like $3.7T of funneling money to corrupt people in both those countries and our own.

      • radiofreewill says:

        I agree.

        The whole sordid thing feels oily – and when I think about it, it could be no other way: we shouldn’t be surprised in the least, imvho, that the immoral sponsorship of aggressive war tainted everything it touched.

    • PJEvans says:

      Reading the comments today on the LA Times article about McGrumpy and Miss Lindsey wanting to continue the war in Afghanistan, it appears that even without a public debate on drones, the support isn’t there any more.

      • radiofreewill says:

        Those two, in particular, get grape stains on their Garanimals every day…

        I’ve been around a lot of goopers lately, and with the exception of the baby-bonneted Tea Party crowd, they all want Afghanistan to go away. They’ll even give back the money to the budget, uncontested.

  2. Jeff Kaye says:

    Slightly O/T, but Al-Awlaki is discussed at some length in an new article at Vanity Fair by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan. Spelled “Anwar Aulaqi” in the article, among other things, the article looks at Aulaqi’s contacts with the Saudis Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two of the suicide bombers on 9/11. The article is interesting on a number of points.

    I’m not the biggest fan of Summers, so take the article with a grain of salt. But interesting nevertheless.

    • bmaz says:

      Well, there are still fewer spellings of Awlaki than many of the terrorists’ names. And it is easier than Abdulmutallab!

  3. tjbs says:

    Don’t you wonder if some of the “insurgents” just refuse to do business at the offered price.

    Before domestic drone use look for downsizing to the size of being able to fly through an open window , conduct facial recognition and off you in a matter of minutes.

    Sow the wind reap the whirlwind it’s coming home w/ no regrets towards the guilty or innocent victims .

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    “Drones” carry a clean, high-tech aura that snipers in muddy, bloody, cordite smelling ghillie suits can’t quite muster. They represent marvelously expensive, witnessless death, available by cell phone and pushbutton.

    Start debating their use, and model airplanes too big to fit into the back of a pickup truck become hundred million dollar sniper rifles, body parts and dead men, women and children. Open governments have a hard time debating why those consequences are worth incurring.

    • pdaly says:

      Thanks for the post, John.

      Here’s a youtube of the song Aspettami (recording by Pink Martini, lyrics and music by China Forbes and Thomas Lauderdale) which seems appropriate for the state of the country at the moment. Listen to the lyrics and imagine Lady Liberty is the one singing to her current and future citizens:

      Wait for me
      I’ve been lost
      Adrift at sea
      In your dreams
      Dream my way
      Someday I’ll find my heart
      And come back to stay

      Do you miss me
      My darling
      As I miss you
      Take my hand
      And pull me near
      And never let me go again my dear

      There was a time
      I was safe in your arms
      And the stars fell away like diamonds
      Then we were young
      And our love was younger still
      Was it just an illusion

      Wait for me
      Close your eyes
      And you will see
      I’m coming home
      Every sky in my heart will be blue
      On the day I come back to you

      BTW, the music group Pink Martini performs concerts around the world but also for social functions for the Democrat Party. Wouldn’t it be great if Pink Martini performed Aspettami as a protest song to the destructive policies of the Obama administration that degrade American freedoms? (Well, in any case, Happy Fourth Second!)

  5. Jeff Kaye says:

    They’ve been married to terror from the skies ever since the British taught them the wonders of firebombing cities, and then, of course, there was “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, with a total death yield of 150,000-200,000 from just two bombs.

    The drones are baby cousins to the ICBM. Wait until they start putting tactical nukes on the “Reaper”!

  6. jo6pac says:

    Yeah, I understand that a very limited set of elites argue about drones anyway. But it takes a really twisted understanding of democracy and public debate to claim that drone strikes the government won’t even acknowledge are the subject of a real debate.

    Yep, this covers it and if you do say something about having a debate you’re shouted down as unAmerikan. I see no difference between g the lesser and 0

    Good Post, thanks

  7. RevBev says:

    Do drones rise to the level of “hostilities”? It’s now a language war, but extremely deadly at that.

  8. bobschacht says:

    Well, Wittes obviously believes that the “very limited set of elites” include some of his friends, so there must be a conversation going on! And don’t worry, he and his elite friends will work it out for us, so that we don’t have to bother our little heads about it.

    Bob in AZ

    • bmaz says:

      Oh, I can vouch for the fact that Ben has been talking about it, and has engaged probably quite a few people. To give Wittes his due, he is very willing to constructively engage people in serious discussion. He may be dead wrong here to say there has been some grand public discussion, but he has certainly talked about it (not that I necessarily agree with his positions on the drone program entirely). It is not just his friends Wittes will engage with either; he commonly does so with the likes of Greenwald, Daphne Eviatar, and every now and then, even me.

  9. wagthedog says:

    If a foreign nation’s military were conducting targeted assassination with drone against the US, we’d call it terrorism. It is terrorizing to think at any time a mistake could be made and you or your children are dead.

    Predatory drones should be classified as crimes against humanity and war crimes. The same for land mines because these end up murdering and/or maiming innocent people.

  10. Dearie says:

    Time for my monthly email to O: I am NOT complicit. I will never be your ‘good German.’ YOU do NOT represent me.

    Of course it does not make a damned bit of difference to the O-cabal, but at least my children will know that I did not support these killers.

  11. hackworth1 says:

    Dick Cheney and his cousin Obama won the Public Debate. The Public Debate is over. If anyone should have any questions, go to Helen Burn.

  12. greenharper says:

    Thanks, EW, for keeping the drone issue front and center.

    It still boggles me that Obama wants to assassinate a U.S. citizen, and that U.S. courts simply do not care.

    These things have a way of coming back to haunt.

  13. orionATL says:


    “There has been a significant public debate on the issue”

    has the strong odor of intended deception/propaganda/sophistry about it; the clear implication (thru use of the past tense) is that this is a settled issue.

    Of course, it is not even remotely “settled” as witte-less doubtless

    The only question in my mind is”who put witte up to this, and what might be his reward?”

    The entire witte commentary is oblivious of reality but saturated with lawyerly sophistry- not that I’m accusing brother witte-less of being a lawyer.

    What WAS the motive for witte to write his exculpation?

  14. bluewombat says:

    One of the things Robert Gates specifically invoked state secrets over is whether or not we’re engaged in military operations in Yemen. Another is details of our counterterrorism work with Yemen

    On behalf of a government agency which is so classified that I am not allowed to reveal its name lest I be tickled to death by a squadron of Albanian Ninjas, I am required to inform the OP that Yemen itself is now a state secret. Please do not use the word “Yemen” in any of your future posts. You are now required to refer to it as “that funny little country on the Arabian Peninsula where they don’t even make good shishkebab.” Failure to strictly conform to the terms of this injunction will be dealt with as harshly and strictly as only Albanian Ninjas are capable of doing.

  15. orionATL says:

    Ackerman writes:

    “…there’s a difference between media coverage of the drone war … and a ‘significant debate’…”

    Indeed there is – a very obvious difference.

    So how is it that a wise analysts overlooks this difference?

    If witte means to convey that drones are a fact of life so, “get over them”, then he should say so directly.

    There’s certainly been no “significant debate” way down here at my level, that of ordinary citizen.

  16. fatster says:

    Ah, allies! From Reuters:

    Pakistan’s Shamsi base : a mystery wrapped in a riddle

    “Washington’s dismissal of the Pakistan government’s stand is quite extraordinary. Can a country, even if it is the world’s strongest power, continue to use an air base despite the refusal of the host country ?”


    • bobschacht says:

      Can a country, even if it is the world’s strongest power, continue to use an air base despite the refusal of the host country ?

      It can, but only at the price of being understood by the citizens of that country and the rest of the world as an imperialist power, with countries such as Pakistan serving as a colony of the U.S.

      Among today’s disturbing news, this is near the top.

      Thanks fatster,
      Bob in AZ

  17. TheMaven says:

    What else should we have expected from the “most transparent administration in American history”? Somewhere, David Addington is smiling.

    It just needed to be said.

  18. jaango says:

    Great post, and that’s just for starter’s, Marcy.

    One facet of this non-existing debate among the general public, is our southern border.

    Take, for example, the feds are utilizing drones flying above the Arizona/New Mexico border, and on the premise that our pesky brown brothers are ‘inflltrating’ into the USA through our border with Mexico. Albeit, today, the drones are unarmed, but if given the chance, the authoritarians in government would prefer to see the drones armed full-tilt. And of course, the “problem” isn’t the drones, per se, or even the “build the danged fence” but continues unabated with the ports of entry. Furthermore, a TransNational Technology Center at the border, would be a boon to commercial activities, immigration, and our investment in the nations south of the Rio Grande.

    And my apologies to all for going off on this tangent that is our southern border, but my America “lost it!” when we went off and started “torturing” the brown people and in contrast to engaging in international law enforcement.


    • emptywheel says:

      It’s not a tangent. I thought seriously about including Mexico in both this and the next post. I didn’t do so in the end bc they’re not yet armed. But I agree they shortly will be.

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