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It’s official: the U.S. drone war over Pakistan, Yemen and beyond really does exist. John Brennan, President Obama’s principal counterterrorism adviser, disclosed the government’s worst kept secret in a Washington speech last week. So now the Pentagon has to talk about it. Kind of.
A memorandum for the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s public-affairs shop provides talking points for military mouthpieces to discuss the secretive war in public. Its bottom line: yes, you can say there is a drone war — but don’t say much more about it.
“We are not in a position to comment on specific classified operations or specific areas of the world in which we engage in such operations,” the talking-points memo instructs public-affairs officers to say.
Much of the rest of the memo instructs those officers to recapitulate Brennan’s few disclosures: “the United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific Al-Qaeda terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.” That line is a quote from Brennan’s speech.
There is no advice given to officers who receive questions about precisely what laws govern the undeclared drone war. Nor is there instruction about discussing the standards by which they can target American citizens, like the al-Qaida propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, killed by a drone strike in Yemen in September, or Awlaki’s 16-year old American-born son, killed in another strike shortly thereafter.
Pose those questions, or similar ones, to the Pentagon, and this is what you’re supposed to hear in response: ” Mr. Brennan discussed why targeted strikes against Al-Qaeda terrorists using remotely piloted aircraft are legal, ethical and wise.” He actually didn’t, though. Brennan simply asserted that the strikes are legal, ethical and wise.
Ask about civilian casualties caused by the drones — something Brennan has denied and/or minimized — and the response will be: “These technologies conform to the laws of war by precisely targeting a military objective while minimizing collateral damage, including the loss of innocent life.” (Source? John Brennan.)
Bizarrely, the public-affairs memo undermines the very purpose of Brennan’s April 30 speech: the disclosure of the drone program. “There is nothing new here,” the memo instructs officers to say. “Attorney General Holder, State Department Legal Advisor Koh and DOD General Counsel Johnson have already described the legal authorities which allow the U.S. to use lethal force against Al-Qaeda.”
Again: sort of. All those officials have indeed asserted that those authorities exist, usually pegged to the September 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force that Congress quickly approved after the 9/11 attacks. But congressional Republicans have (correctly) pointed out that the vague Authorization was written before the targets of many drone strikes even existed, like al-Qaida’s Yemeni offshoot. When they suggested passing a new congressional authorization to update the law, the administration resisted it. And it’s also resisted releasing a key Justice Department document explaining the Obama administration’s legal reasoning behind killing Awlaki.
But get used to the non-explanations embedded in that memo. Even with al-Qaida in rough shape around the world, the U.S.’ global counterterrorism campaign — reliant on drone strikes and commando raids — shows no sign of relenting. “As long as [al-Qaeda] franchises threaten the United States,” Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, told Danger Room on Friday, “we’re going to stay on the offense.”