The Drone Program Officially Exists as Confirmed By Counter-terrorism Chief John Brennan, But How Classified is the Program?


After years of pretending the program wasn't real, it was sort of nice last month when White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan confirmed that drone strikes are indeed happening. But that's based on the low, low standards with which we are dealing. Years of denials, even after Obama admitting to and occasionally joking about the methods of delivering Hellfire missiles to alleged terrorist throughout Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan, means that admitting the program actually exists is progress.

But what does Brennan (and the president) admitting the program's existence at last actually mean for the release of more details about the picking and choosing process, and for general transparency?

Queries CNN's security blog:

So the question is, by publicly acknowledging the use of drones, even going into detail about why the United States uses them, was Brennan also delivering a message from the president that the program had been declassified?

After all, here was the president's top counterterrorism adviser saying, in effect, "Yeah, we do that."

The question is whether such a public acknowledgment about a program that was classified thereby makes the program "declassified."

There is a formal, technical process for declassifying information, but the president isn't obligated to follow a paper trail, according to Washington lawyer Jeffrey Smith, who currently sits on the external advisory board for the director of Central Intelligence, and is former general counsel for the CIA.

According to Smith, the president can simply declare that something is declassified and, poof, it is declassified. The hard part is understanding whether there has been a "poof."

"The classification system is based entirely on an executive order from the president; there is no statutory authority for this. The president sets the criteria for classification and for declassification," says Smith.

As previously reported, there were two different lists. One list was picked by the CIA, who even targeted unnamed subject in so-called "surgical strikes," the other was full of targets chosen by the White House/Pentagon — and there only so-so interaction and overlap between the lists; though the White House has on occasion tried to step on the CIA's toes about their strikes. The latter generally has more rules in place for who they may target.

Now the White House is making the Pentagon less important,  says the Associated Press:

The effort concentrates power over the use of lethal U.S. force outside war zones within one small team at the White House.

The process, which is about a month old, means Brennan's staff consults with the State Department and other agencies as to who should go on the target list, making the Pentagon's role less relevant, according to two current and three former U.S. officials aware of the evolution in how the government goes after terrorists.

In describing Brennan's arrangement to The Associated Press, the officials provided the first detailed description of the military's previous review process that set a schedule for killing or capturing terror leaders around the Arab world and beyond. They spoke on condition of anonymity because U.S. officials are not allowed to publicly describe the classified targeting program.

One senior administration official argues that Brennan's move adds another layer of review that augments rather than detracts from the Pentagon's role. The Pentagon can still carry out its own internal procedures to make recommendations to the secretary of defense, the official said.

The CIA keeps its own list of targets, though it overlaps with the Pentagon's. It never included the large number of interagency players the Pentagon brought to the table for its debates

Brennan's effort gives him greater input earlier in the process, before making final recommendation to President Barack Obama. Officials outside the White House expressed concern that drawing more of the decision-making process to Brennan's office could turn it into a pseudo military headquarters, entrusting the fate of al-Qaida targets to a small number of senior officials.

Under the new plan, Brennan's staff compiles the potential target list and runs the names past agencies such as the State Department at a weekly White House meeting, the officials said.

Previously, targets were first discussed in meetings run by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen at the time, with Brennan being just one of the voices in the debate. Brennan ultimately would make the case to the president, but a larger number of officials would end up drawn into the discussion.

The new Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has been more focused on shrinking the U.S. military as the Afghan war winds down and less on the covert wars overseas.

With Dempsey less involved, there is an even greater need to draw together different agencies' viewpoints, some in the administration believe, showing the American public that al-Qaida targets are chosen only after painstaking and exhaustive debate. This could be especially true in an election year, when drone strikes can be politically sensitive.

Some of the officials carrying out the policy are equally leery of "how easy it has become to kill someone," one said. The U.S. is targeting al-Qaida operatives for reasons such as being heard in an intercepted conversation plotting to attack a U.S. ambassador overseas, the official said. Stateside, that conversation could trigger an investigation by the Secret Service or FBI.

But Brennan, notes Glenn Greenwald, was a CIA official who withdrew his name for nomination for the position of director after some of his pro "enhanced interrogation" and pro rendition beliefs proved controversial in the early, hopeful and Bush-hating days of the Obama administration (insert joke about damaging the good name of the CIA here). Worse still, writes Greenwald:

Undeterred by any of that unpleasantness, President Obama instead named Brennan to be his chief counter-Terrorism adviser, a position with arguably more influence that he would have had as CIA chief. Since then, Brennan has been caught peddling serious falsehoods in highly consequential cases, including falsely telling the world that Osama bin Laden "engaged in a firefight" with U.S. forces entering his house and "used his wife as a human shield," and then outright lying when he claimed about the prior year of drone attacks in Pakistan: "there hasn't been a single collateral death." Given his history, it is unsurprising that Brennan has been at the heart of many of the administration's most radical acts, including claiming the power to target American citizens for assassination-by-CIA without due process and the more general policy of secretly targeting people for death by drone.

Meanwhile, as Reason and a whole lot of other outlets have reported, domestic drone use is drawing closer and closer. CBS reported today that the Montgomery Country, Texas police department is considering equipping drones with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Reason on drones.