No Comment — March 13, 2012, 9:48 am

The Drone Secrecy Farce

Following Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech at Northwestern, publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times responded with renewed demands for the release of the Department of Justice memorandum (or “OLC Memo”), written by Martin Lederman and David Barron, that provides the legal framework for targeted killings. The Obama Administration came to power promising to end secret Justice Department memos like the ones that approved torture and warrantless surveillance. It also published most of the controversial Bush-era memos, which makes it look particularly disingenuous when withholding its own controversial legal opinions.

Why is it doing so? When pressed, government figures cite the same reason, always off-the-record: drone operations on and over Yemeni territory depend to some degree on the approval of Yemen’s dictator, who has insisted that they be kept secret. Indeed, according to an understanding the United States has reached with Yemen, the latter’s government will generally claim internally that U.S. drone strikes were carried out by Yemen’s own air force.

This past week, however, Reuters and the Associated Press reported on a series of strikes in Yemen that killed at least thirty persons allegedly linked to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The stories included both claims from Yemeni officials of air-force involvement and acknowledgements from other Yemeni officials that the attack was really conducted by the United States, as “the Yemeni military does not have the capacity to carry out nighttime air strikes and had no orders to do so.” The charade has gotten so tiresome that Sanaa isn’t even bothering to keep it up.

Former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Al Jazeera on Friday that the Obama Administration’s cover has long been blown on the “secret” arrangement with Yemen. A classified WikiLeaks cable from the American Embassy in Sanaa spelled out the situation in some detail. In the communication, the American ambassador, Stephen Seche, reported on a conversation he had with Yemeni deputy prime minister Rashad al-Alimi, in which the two rehearsed the false statements they would make in an effort to camouflage U.S. operations:

[The Yemeni regime] “must maintain the status quo” with regard to the official denial of U.S. involvement in order to ensure additional “positive operations” against AQAP. Alimi seemed more concerned with the political opposition and Southern Movement’s use of the Abyan operation as an example of the government’s heavy-handed response to groups the [Yemeni regime] deems a threat. The Ambassador cautioned Alimi that the [Yemeni regime] may need to nuance its position regarding U.S. involvement in the event more evidence surfaces, complicating its ability to adhere to the official line that [Yemeni] forces conducted the operations independently. Alimi appeared confident that any evidence of greater U.S. involvement—such as U.S. munitions found at the sites—could be explained away as equipment purchased from the U.S. However, Alimi informed the Ambassador that senior [Yemeni] officials continue to the discuss media strategy and the public posture of the [Yemeni regime].

The cable goes on to question whether the tactic of claiming that drone strikes are in fact Yemeni air-force attacks would hold up under the scrutiny of international press observation. Indeed, it hasn’t. Not only has the deal with Yemen become the subject of broad commentary, a detailed discussion of the agreement between the Yemeni dictator and General David Petraeus has been published. The agreement has also been routinely confirmed by Yemeni officials, who are increasingly stressed at having to spin unconvincing lies to cover the CIA’s tracks, and who cannot be bothered to keep up the facade.

This brings us to a fundamental question: Why would the domestic political concerns of a malicious dictator be allowed to chill America’s internal democratic process? I don’t for a second believe that the memo is being kept secret in order to maintain the stability of the regime in Sanaa. The Yemeni government is unstable for many reasons, and would not be affected by the disclosure of an American legal memo. Besides, everyone in Yemen knows that the CIA is running a drone war on Yemeni soil. The real party behind the Obama Administration’s dodge is the CIA, which can only maintain its control of the drone program if it is classified as covert action, and which is prepared to engage in bizarre, sustained contortions to do so. The Obama White House needs to end this farce and publish the OLC Memo.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2015

Dressed to Kill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Wrong Prescription?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Travel Day

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Fugue State

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

One Day Less

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Speakeasy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In order to understand how Marty’s could survive as an institution, I returned a year after my first visit to spend a week at what was sure to be the world’s bleakest comedy club.”
Photograph by Mike Slack
Post
The Lost Land·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I had first encountered some of these volumes—A Swiftly Tilting Planet, The Giver—as a child, and during adolescence, they registered as postcards from a homeland recently abandoned.”
Photograph by the author
Article
Wrong Prescription?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whatever the slogans suggested, the A.C.A. was never meant to include everyone.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery
Post
Introducing the July Issue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trudy Lieberman reports on the failed promise of the Affordable Care Act, Sarah A. Topol explores Ukraine’s struggle for a national identity, Dave Madden spends a week in Hollywood’s toughest comedy club, and more

Photograph by Stanley Greene/NOOR Images

Number of insect fragments allowed by the FDA in a standard jar of peanut butter:

153

It emerged that, in trying to count her rings, marine geologists had accidentally killed a 507-year-old clam named Ming.

A resident of Chalk Level Township in Missouri discovered the bodies of three dogs packed inside dog-food bags.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today