“Oddly Passive” in the World of Drone Killing

The WaPo has an important piece on the use of drones. One thing bmaz noted about it on Twitter, for example, is that CIA had Anwar al-Awlaki under such multi-drone surveillance before they killed him, it is not credible that they killed Samir Khan, also an American, out of ignorance of his presence. Particularly given their claim they had made sure no “civilians wandered in the cross hairs.”

Two Predators pointed lasers at Awlaki’s vehicle, and a third circled to make sure that no civilians wandered into the cross hairs.

So the article makes it clear that the Administration doesn’t consider non-operational American citizen propagandists “civilians.”

But I’m particularly interested in what a “former official who served in both [the Bush and Obama] administrations and was supportive of the [drone] program” had to say about who was promoting increased use of drones. The official starts by pointing to Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and John Brennan as the program’s champions.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former CIA director and current Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, and counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan seemed always ready to step on the accelerator, said a former official who served in both administrations and was supportive of the program. Current administration officials did not dispute the former official’s characterization of the internal dynamics.

And then calls the Commander-in-Chief “oddly passive” when it comes to drones.

Obama himself was “oddly passive in this world,” the former official said, tending to defer on drone policy to senior aides whose instincts often dovetailed with the institutional agendas of the CIA and JSOC.

The senior administration official [who also disputed that the drones were driving our counterterrorism policy and not vice versa] disputed that characterization, saying that Obama doesn’t weigh in on every operation but has been deeply involved in setting the criteria for strikes and emphasizing the need to minimize collateral damage.

“Everything about our counterterrorism operations is about carrying out the guidance that he’s given,” the official said. “I don’t think you could have the president any more involved.”

The description of a passive Obama accords with other descriptions of Obama’s role in the drone war. As I noted in October, even Obama’s “approval” of the Anwar al-Awlaki targeting, according to Mark Hosenball, consisted only of not rejecting the recommendations of the Principals Committee’s recommendation (and therefore people like Hillary, Brennan, and Panetta).

The role of the president in ordering or ratifying a decision to target a citizen is fuzzy. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to discuss anything about the process.


Other officials said the role of the president in the process was murkier than what Ruppersberger described.

They said targeting recommendations are drawn up by a committee of mid-level National Security Council and agency officials. Their recommendations are then sent to the panel of NSC “principals,” meaning Cabinet secretaries and intelligence unit chiefs, for approval. The panel of principals could have different memberships when considering different operational issues, they said.


Several officials said that when Awlaki became the first American put on the target list, Obama was not required personally to approve the targeting of a person. But one official said Obama would be notified of the principals’ decision. If he objected, the decision would be nullified, the official said.

A former official said one of the reasons for making senior officials principally responsible for nominating Americans for the target list was to “protect” the president.

In addition, Joby Warrick’s description of the targeting approval process used before we killed Baitullah Mehsud and his young wife shows just the Director of the CIA signing off on the killing.

So it’s not news, exactly, that Obama has been given plausible deniability about the out-of-control backlash-creating program. Nor that the Administration wants to sustain that plausible deniability while still pursuing political advantage from the drone strikes.

But I am interested in the implication Greg Miller leaves as a result. Obama is passive, and so his senior aides control the program (perhaps one of the aides denying that Obama is passive?), and they, in turn, basically support the “the institutional agendas of the CIA and JSOC.”

Here’s what that senior aide had to say to try to deny that we’re letting a fondness for drones drive our counterterrorism policy.

“People think we start with the drone and go from there, but that’s not it at all,” said a senior administration official involved with the program. “We’re not constructing a campaign around the drone. We’re not seeking to create some worldwide basing network so we have drone capabilities in every corner of the globe.”

It seems there’s a third option, an alternative to “we’re building so many drone bases because we like drones” and “we have so many drones because there are so many possible targets for them.”

That third option is that JSOC and CIA have certain “institutional agendas” that center on wielding the power of drones anywhere in the world to implement a policy they’ve dreamt up rather than their civilian Commander-in-Chief. There’s a hint, at least, that drones not only take the human out of the cockpit, but also take the Commander-in-Chief out of the cockpit as well.

30 replies
  1. Bill Michtom says:

    Deniabilty for Obama seems far fetched when he’s publicly taken responsibility for the drone attacks, including, of course, the disgusting drone “joke.”

  2. William Ockham says:

    A couple of years ago, my son and I went to hear Glenn Greenwald speak at the local community college. One of the things he said in response to a question from the audience struck me at the time as one of the insightful things I have ever heard about Barack Obama. He said that Obama had gotten to where he was by being very careful not to challenge any of the institutions he was a part of. Greenwald attributed that, in part, to Obama’s “otherness”.

    I think that goes a long way towards explaining Obama’s action with respect to torture, drone policy, the banking crisis, dealings with Congress and any number of other issues.

  3. jo6pac says:

    So ws, corp., and the cia run the nation not the potus that sounds about right. It goes back to a statement made by the transition team lawyer that they weren’t going to put anyone in jail for their crimes because there might be a coup. I don’t remember moving to a third world nation but I most have and just don’t remember when it happened. Welcome to the new Amerika

    WO that’s what Congressman Bobby Seale said about him also

  4. Benjamin Franklin says:

    To suggest ignorance of the presence of the teenager seems untenable. Shall an insider with good conscience, expect the military’s whistleblower program to both honor the WB while transparently evoking the truth? I don’t think so.

  5. bailey says:

    Gary Johnson just announced he’s seeking the Libertarian nomination for President. His Primary operation was inexcusably weak and mismanaged and he espouses policy I strongly disagree with, but I have decided to support his candidacy in every way I can. Bottom line, I think it’s time for voters to demand our two Party system be cleansed of blatant corruption that rules Washington, and I know of no better way to voice how strongly I believe this.
    I’d love to hear your thoughts on the twice elected Republican Governor of New Mexico, an overwhelmingly Democratic state. ps. Happy New Year!

  6. Benjamin Franklin says:


    I’ve thought long and hard about supporting a challenger. I didn’t support Nader in 2000. Johnson seems like a good guy, but I can’t live with Gnoot in the WH, and the country can’t survive another election like 2000.

  7. 1970cs says:

    Without it being stated as policy, drone flights might be seen the same as satellite or spy planes(U2, SR71) over sovereign borders. It was a murky area during the cold war, shooting one down wasn’t considered an act of war, but used as a PR instrument.

    With weapons and targeting of humans added, the view of what drones’ represent will likely evolve to the equivalent of a piloted warplane by other governments.

  8. Timbo says:

    Whether Obama is “passive” or not is not germane to the issue of assassination of American citizens with no due process by a court. This is a red herring planted by someone for political reason. What those political reasons are is not clear but, either way, just like George W Bush, the current President is responsible, morally, and legally, for the actions taken by his order.

    Frankly, it still amazes me that anyone would think this sort of shoddy behavior by our President somehow deserved a Nobel Peace prize… Oh, wait! The Nobel committee weighed in on that one BEFORE any facts were in. That shows how much power Obama had and still may have around the world…but it certainly has nothing to do with facts on the ground. Nor does the rumor about “passivity” I mentioned above. If you look back at the Obama, Bush, Reagan, there seems to be a lot of “gee, he wasn’t really paying that much attention” when the bombs began to fall and innocent bystanders were killed/murdered. So, who was at the helm? Well, anyone with half a brain should not buy any of the crap about “passivity”. This is about bad governance and the moral failings of American leaders and leadership. Claiming ignorance of bad policy and bad consequences for evil decisions, on the part of any of those presidents I just mentioned, are, frankly, a waste of time…justice and clear headed policy will not result from ruminating about this so-called “passivity”.

  9. Gitcheegumee says:

    @Timbo:Great commentary,Timbo!

    Well, anyone with half a brain should not buy any of the crap about “passivity”. This is about bad governance and the moral failings of American leaders and leadership….Timbo

    Shorter :

    “Doing a job ON us,INSTEAD of doing a job for us!!”

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The essence of “plausible deniability” is that it be plausible. At least since the days of Richard Nixon, that plausibility is in shreds. Mr. Obama is directly responsible for this policy and its execution. If the process is “fuzzy” or purports to exclude him – rather like a ship captain claiming to have no responsibility for what happens on her bridge – it is by design. Mr. Obama is responsible for fixing that process and what it accomplishes before and after he does so. He wanted the job; he’s got it, all of it.

  11. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @William Ockham: Go along, get along may work in the fraternity, and for faceless bureaucrats at General Motors, the Ford Foundation and the Post Office. It doesn’t work for the CEO, whether of a public or private company, a charity or a level of government. That it’s commonplace, that boards, shareholders, voters and other branches of government applaud it because it makes their own jobs less challenging, is part of the problem, not the solution. It is an example of failing upward.

    I agree with Mr. Greenwald’s analysis of Mr. Obama’s ambitions, his operating style, and his career progress. When used by a head of state, however, that attribute is a significant failing, rather like getting a Dean Rusk instead of Dean Acheson. For Mr. Obama, it is behavior so ingrained it is not subject to change. It is cause for his dismissal, not renewing his employment contract as a public employee.

  12. eCAHNomics says:

    @William Ockham: IOW, O’s a figurehead. He’s been given his orders and he’s just following them.

    His bosses could be CIA, could be Wall St., could be nuke ind, etc.

    Fits the image I’ve had of him for a long time.

  13. bailey says:

    zazor blade, I’m with you – Glenn Greenwald is a terrific thinker and wonderful writer. Not long ago I drove a 100 miles to listen to him, and this at a time I wouldn’t cross the street to meet personally with 99% of our elected representatives! Sorry I missed his brief get-together with Noam Chomsky not long ago.

  14. William Ockham says:

    @eCAHNomics: I wouldn’t say he is a figurehead. He’s driving policy in a lot of ways. It’s just that he tends to shy away from directly confronting powerful institutional opposition. Which in a certain way made him the worst choice to follow the Cheney/Bush regime. Well, the worst choice until you remember the alternative was John McCain.

  15. joberly says:

    @bmaz: Bmaz and also EW # 5. Yes, but why would Gates want to be a source for this article? Doesn’t make sense to me. The “former official” of two administrations could be any Bush dead-ender briefly held over and still in office on Jan. 20, 2009, and with a grudge against somebody. I also wonder why Clinton, as head of the State Dept, would have any interest in furthering the “institutional agendas of the CIA and JSOC”?

    To me, the Greg Miller article is interesting because 1) it emphasizes the different legal bases for launching drone strikes: JSOC depends on the AUMF from Sept. 2001; CIA depends on a presidential finding. And 2) it gives a precise number of (CIA) drone attacks: 239 on Pakistan and 15 on Yemen. Not given is the number of JSOC attacks, suggesting that reporter Miller did not have a source knowledgeable or willing to give out that information.

  16. bailey says:

    @William Ockham: Huh? What you see as Obama “tend(ing) to shy away from directly confronting” I see as REFUSING to confront authority figures in any way, shape or fashion. He’s been in office for three years and has failed the great majority of Americans who DESPERATELY NEEDED what he promised. He did worse than refuse to even discuss what he promised, he attacked and punished those who did! Shame on him, he’s the worst Democratic President we’ve had and possibly the WORST President, period. Timing is everything and he couldn’t have failed at a more pivotal time. The American people needed the leadership he promised, Instead, we got his DISDAIN. The 2012 election should be a referendum on his performance and the performance of EVERY Incumbent (both Parties) seeking reelection. I no longer care who the opposition is, in 2012 a vote for Obama is a vote against representative democracy.

  17. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: I’ll throw out my guess for the “former official who served in both [the Bush and Obama] administrations and was supportive of the [drone] program” as Michael Leiter, former Director of the United States National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) from 2007 to 2011.

    Leiter is a big drone supporter per his comments transcribed here:

    “[Drone] Air strikes have been the single most effective tool at protecting the American people from core al-Qaeda and other organizations.”

    Michael E. Leiter, former Director, National Counterterrorism Center, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, The National Conversation–9/11: The Next Ten Years, The Woodrow Wilson Center, September 12, 2011

  18. PeasantParty says:

    Kinda what I thought. Obama is passive because it serves him better that way. Also:

    But I am interested in the implication Greg Miller leaves as a result. Obama is passive, and so his senior aides control the program (perhaps one of the aides denying that Obama is passive?), and they, in turn, basically support the “the institutional agendas of the CIA and JSOC.”

    Like your last paragraph, I think their agenda is their own agenda and does not reflect a real foreign policy. It could be backlash on the militarization of the agency, or the coming closure of the agency as it is replaced with military control. Stinky, stinky, stinky. Not only does it not look right, it sounds bad and smells bad.

  19. JohnLopresti says:

    Obama as President was the strongest repartee the Democratic party could present after the Bush-II Cheney eight years. The best combination the Democratic convention in 2004 could devise advertised Lieberman as vice president candidate. This time, in 2008, we got fine Joe Biden; also an affirmative redirecting of Democratic party personna. Holder has admitted Obama likely is way too better at basketball to challenge in actuality, given the president is ten years Holder’s junior. I see these guys, the current leadership, as cagey. The passive concept is a bit of jargon allure for people immersed in some kind of political ennui. However, I am glad Glenn and Greg are making people think. Greg usually works to the center of issues, even if it takes a lot of protracted research; and, Glenn has done well, especially since the early healthcare squabbles and the Democratic party leadership’s dollop of ineptness when JGRobertsJr first was nominated to be Associate Justice at scotuS. I saw a photo of Abernathy and rev King with one other lawyer, marchin’, recently; cannot recall the third gent’s name. That image somehow came to mind while beginning to read about the ‘passive’ trope. Two freethrows, but this president ain’t that laidback, not in the video I am observing.

  20. DannyK says:

    If only the Czar knew what his flying robot Cossacks were doing! Honestly, why on earth would you think Obama is being pressurized by the military to do this? He’s made it clear countless times that he’s proud to be the Drone President.

  21. MadDog says:

    Did the US get duped by the Yemeni government in all one of its Yemen drone strikes? Sourced from the WSJ via Fox DC (ugh!):

    “US Doubts Intelligence That Led to Yemen Strike

    Top US military leaders who oversaw missile strikes last year against al-Qaida targets in Yemen suspect they were fed misleading intelligence by the country’s government and were duped into killing a local political leader whose relationship with the president’s family had soured.

    On May 25, 2010, a US missile attack killed at least six people including Jabir Shabwani, the 31-year-old deputy governor of Yemen’s central Mareb province. The Yemeni government provided intelligence used in the strike but did not say Shabwani would be among those there, say several current and former US military officials…


    …Since December 2009, the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, had launched a handful of attacks on suspected al-Qaida gatherings in Yemen. Intelligence for such strikes was largely provided by Saleh’s government, US officials say, which was consulted by the US military before each counterterrorism operation.”

  22. greg brown says:

    @bailey: “and possibly the WORST President, period”

    Nope, that’s the war criminal, Evil George and his Murderous Dick, but he’s certainly close, especially with his claim to have the authority to murder US citizens without benefit of a show trial.

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