Journalism in the Public Interest

How the Gov’t Talks About a Drone Program it Won’t Acknowledge Exists

The Obama administration still doesn’t officially acknowledge the CIA’s drone program, a stance that helps shield it from discussing the program’s most controversial elements.

An armed MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft sits in a shelter Oct. 15 at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, before a mission. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson)

Related Interactive: Stacking Up the Administration's Drone Claims

Drones have become the go-to weapon of the U.S.’s counter-terrorism strategy, with strikes in Yemen in particular increasing steadily. U.S. drones reportedly killed twenty-nine people in Yemen recently, including perhaps ten civilians.

Administration officials regularly celebrate the drone war’s apparent successes— often avoiding details or staying anonymous, but claiming tacit credit for the U.S.  

In June, a day after Abu Yahya Al-Libi was killed in Pakistan, White House spokesman Jay Carney trumpeted the death of “Al Qaeda’s Number-Two.”  Unnamed officials confirmed the strike in at least ten media outlets. Similarly, the killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki by a CIA drone last September was confirmed in many news outlets by anonymous officials. President Obama called Awlaki’s death “a tribute to our intelligence community."  

Just last week President Obama spoke about drone warfare on CNN, saying the decision to target individuals for killing rather than capture involves “an extensive process with a lot of checks.”  

But when it comes to details of that process, the administration clams up.

The government refuses to formally acknowledge that the CIA even has a drone program, let alone discuss its thornier elements, like how many civilians have been killed, or how the CIA chooses targets.

Officials have given speeches on the legal rationale for targeted killing and the use of drones in broad terms. The administration has also acknowledged “military operations” outside the “hot” battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, but again, details have remained under wraps.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times have both filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for documents relating to the CIA’s drones. The agency has responded by saying that it can “neither confirm nor deny the existence of records.”

As part of a lawsuit challenging the CIA’s response, the ACLU collected nearly two hundred on- and off-the-record statements to the media by current and former U.S. officials about the CIA’s use of drones for targeted killing. In a graphic accompanying this story, we’ve laid out many of the statements, alongside the CIA’s legal stances refusing to confirm or deny the program.  The statements cover most of Obama’s first term in office. Taken together, they show the extent to which the government keeps disclosures about the CIA’s drone war mostly on its own terms.  

In court briefs, Justice Department lawyers argue that widespread “unofficial” discussion notwithstanding, revealing the existence of any number of documents relating to the drone program or targeted killing would convey sensitive information about the nature and scope of such a program. They add that quotes from unnamed sources or former CIA officers don’t constitute official acknowledgment. As for public remarks about drones by President Obama and other officials—the government argues that they never explicitly mention the CIA and could be referring to military operations.

A federal judge in D.C. already ruled in favor of the CIA in one suit last September, a decision the ACLU is appealing.  A hearing is scheduled for next week.

A White House spokesman declined to comment to ProPublica on the FOIA suit or on the CIA’s drone program. The CIA did not respond to our requests for comment.

Some top administration officials have become well-practiced at coy references to the classified program.  

In October 2011, Defense Secretary—and former CIA director—Leon Panetta said, “I have a hell of a lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had at the CIA, although the Predators aren't bad.” In the ACLU suit, the government argues that Panetta’s comments were too vague to constitute an acknowledgement that the CIA actually had drones, or whether it used them for targeted killing, “as opposed to surveillance and intelligence-gathering.”

A year earlier, Panetta said that Al Qaeda in Pakistan had been beaten back in part to due “the most aggressive operation the CIA has been involved in in our history.” The government notes that he never said the word “drone.”

Semantics aside, details on the most controversial aspects of the program have been revealed through a patchwork of these unofficial comments. For example, in May the New York Times reported that the CIA counts any military-aged male killed in a drone strike as a “militant,” even if his identity isn’t known. Many outlets had previously reported that the CIA conducted “signature strikes” in Pakistan, and now in Yemen, which target men believed to be militants whose identities aren’t known. But neither the Times story nor subsequent reporting by ProPublica garnered much detail on how the CIA actually assesses casualties after a strike. As usual, neither the White House nor the CIA would comment on the record.

It has also been widely reported that mainly the CIA conducts strikes in Pakistan, because the U.S.’s tense diplomatic relationship with the country requires the patina of deniability provided by a covert program. When Obama referred to drone strikes in a public video chat this January, saying that that “obviously a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA,” the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, many assumed he had to be talking about the CIA.

The government insists the president’s comments didn’t count as disclosure of anything, saying he could have been talking not about CIA strikes but military (though, as a government brief in the ACLU suit points out, those haven’t been acknowledged in Pakistan either). As the government argues, “It is precisely this sort of unbridled speculation that is insufficient to support a claim of official disclosure.”

The same brief framed it another way: “Even if there is speculation about a fact, unless an agency officially confirms that fact, the public does not know whether it is so.”

It’s a depressing situation without apparent end. It seems quite clear that since 9/11/2001, in a blind burst of patriotism and fear we allowed the people in charge of protecting the country to normalize criminality. We’re finished with the rule of law, accountability, transparency etc., although we’re still required to pay for all of it. The trial of Bradley Manning and the entire Wikileaks issue is really about secrecy and how we can not reasonably manage our own lives or our government without information, accurate and timely information, especially about war and killing and assassination.

“They add that quotes from unnamed sources or former CIA officers don’t constitute official acknowledgment.”

The take-home point of this, to journalists, should be that you need to stop coddling your “sources.”  If they can’t speak on the record, drop them, because they’re not giving you actual information.  (That should have been learned with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, but hopefully everybody’ll get the point eventually, regardless.)

Otherwise, the entire concept should be fairly offensive to every American.  While we’ve rightly bashed terrorists for turning kids into metaphorical mindless drones to blow people up, our tax dollars now go to literal mindless drones to blow people up.

And don’t forget, to make the bookkeeping easier, if you were killed by a drone, then you’re a “militant” until you can prove otherwise.  Totally different than suicide bombers declaring every non-Muslim an infidel.

And do not think for a moment that it won’t happen on our soil before the end of the decade.  Either an enemy will realize that they can have a city in flames for about a thousand bucks or the cops will start using them to take out anybody they think doesn’t deserve due process.  And, y’know, anybody who happens to get in the way, more “militants.”

Walter D. Shutter, Jr.

Sep. 13, 2012, 2:52 p.m.

How can this be happening during “the most transparent administration, ever”?  Inquiring minds want to know.
But why are you complaining?  After all, you voted for the sucker.
Next time, vote for the Libertarian Candidate.

Politics of killers is a matter of past now. The hideouts of nasty faceless perpitrators are no longer protectorate by our regional Supreme Courts.

We need to find new politicking ways and new political parties for new world of 21st century where global wars are to be fought non-violently by money, not guns. NO more wastage of Tax payers and hard laborers’ $ contributions to North-American economy. No more US aid of billions of US$ for weapons of wars to Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Pakistan etc. etc.

So they won’t talk about a program that everyone knows exists?  How absurd!  It’s like some sort of twisted Monty Python sketch where you’re being robbed and killed by a highwayman who won’t admit to doing it in front of a thousand witnesses!

As mentioned earlier you can be certain that these devices will be deployed on the home front now that they’ve been “field tested” abroad.  They’re being punted about as a means to “track down drugs” and other rot gut excuses but who is to say they aren’t there to not keep drugs from getting IN but in the future to keep you from getting OUT?

Then, this is also getting clear and proven that the suppression of Unofficial speculation of facts is one of the main objectives of the faceless guys in highest power in our North-American upper Courts such as Supreme Courts that are supposed to react on the truth only and rely on nothing but the truth only for truly administering justice.
When it becomes doubtful whether above-they are operating in otherwise manner with facts of lies; then, how any wise, inquisitive mind can ignore the claims of locals abroad that the combined ‘drug and drone’-business is a billion dollar industry of which the operations on supply route of drug smugling are in control of limited numbered a few faceless pakistanis and never to be found strangers (such as sabotage causing secret Semitic organizers behind recent and past killings of US envoys or personnel) that are in the hidden wealth making trade and that is happening in total knowledge of actual operators of satelite-guided drones etc. etc.
In these kinds of situations of half open secrets, who can be a better leading Judge with morality than financially very less greedy’ -current President of USA?

Earl Granderson

Sep. 15, 2012, 10:48 a.m.

Drone strike are an extensive of the thinking behind the free-fire zones of Vietnam.  Besides changes in technology that make drones possible, the experience with Guantanomo shows the problem with just rounding up suspects, many of whom are innocent but who are asserted to be “the worst of the worst” (thanks, Rumsfeld). 

Better to have no prisoners in this mind set.  This is adoption of the old saying, “kill them all, let God sort them out.”  And these strikes are being conducted by many who think of themselves as good Christians!

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
The Drone War

The Drone War

ProPublica is covering the U.S.' expanding – and often secret – targeted killing program.

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