Gibbs: I Was Instructed Not to Even Acknowledge the Drone Program to the Press

Posted: Feb 25, 2013 10:23 AM

President Barack Obama -- January 21, 2009:


The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable. The way to make government accountable is to make it transparent, so the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they're being well made, and whether their interests are being well served...For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city. The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over, starting today."  

Former Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, yesterday:


"One of the first things they told me was, you are not even to acknowledge the drone program, you are not even to discuss that it's what's so 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'... 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."

A few thoughts on this:

(1) Maybe Gibbs wasn't completely blowing smoke when he pledged that he wouldn't use his new platform as an NBC/MSNBC contributor to cheerlead for the administration for which he once spoke.  This is a genuinely interesting and newsworthy critique of a policy with which he was ordered to comply by his former boss.  That being said, Gibbs does frame his comments in a favorable light for Obama, who we're to believe has organically evolved in office to further embrace his supposed convictions.  Obama changed his mind for us -- isn't that wonderful?

(2) The administration was forced to be more transparent about the drone program because some of its details bled into the media.  The White House, meanwhile, still has not denied the substance of Washington Post and New York Times reports about the stunning expansion of "signature strikes," which vastly broadens the legality of selecting potential drone targets. The Post:

U.S. officials said that Obama approved the use of “signature” strikes this month and that the killing of an al-Qaeda operative near the border of Yemen’s Marib province this week was among the first attacks carried out under the new authority. The decision to give the CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) greater leeway is almost certain to escalate a drone campaign that has accelerated significantly this year, with at least nine strikes in under four months. The number is about equal to the sum of airstrikes all last year. The expanded authority will allow the CIA and JSOC to fire on targets based solely on their intelligence “signatures” — patterns of behavior that are detected through signals intercepts, human sources and aerial surveillance, and that indicate the presence of an important operative or a plot against U.S. interests. Until now, the administration had allowed strikes only against known terrorist leaders who appear on secret CIA and JSOC target lists and whose location can be confirmed.

The Times:

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

"What if Bush did it?" is an overused and often stale formulation, but its application here is too glaring to ignore.

(3) Let's be clear: The president is not a hypocrite on transparency because he's insisted on keeping certain highly sensitive programs and actions out of the public eye.  Like it or not, a functioning and secure nation requires secrets -- and the public at large, including our enemies, are not entitled to uninhibited access to America's state secrets.  Such an expansive definition of "transparency" is dangerous madness, which is why the forces behind Wikileaks and Anonymous shouldn't be celebrated as pro-accountability crusaders.  The president is a hypocrite on transparency due to behavior like this, this, and this.

(4) For all his apparent forthrightness on Sunday, Gibbs limited his commentary to a discussion of a secret administration policy that happens to be rather popular with the public.  After all, who wouldn't support the concept of relatively clean strikes that liquidate terrorists?  (Answer: First, our military and intelligence communities, which aren't universally thrilled with the president's kill-first policy because it preempts the possibility of helpful intelligence gathering.  Second, the "anti-war" Left, if this exact same program were being carried out by a Republican).  The citizenship/due process aspect of the recent revelations has some people on edge, but even a number of the president's harshest critics agree that he's well within his rights to order the executions of US citizen enemy combatants like Anwar al-Awlaki.  But now that our interest has been piqued, are there other questionable items on Obama's secret agenda that might not go over so well with John Q. Public?  What else was Gibbs ordered not to reveal or acknowledge?

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