The Word That Cannot Be Uttered (It’s Drones)

If they cannot even say the word, how can they even begin to tell the truth?

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 23:  US President Barack Obama makes a statement on the Brady Briefing room at the White House April 23, 2015 in Washington, DC.  President Obama talked about a US drone strike that targeted a suspected al Qaeda compound in Pakistan but inadvertently killed an American and Italian being held hostage by the group.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

(This post is from our new blog: Unofficial Sources.)

This is what happens when there is no accountability.

President Obama has chosen to operate his drone war in such unprecedented, absurd and arguably illegal secrecy that even in a rare burst of compelled transparency yesterday, neither he nor his press secretary could actually bring themselves to say the word “drone.”

Over and over again, Obama called the drone strike that killed two al Qaeda hostages a “counterterrorism operation.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest at the press briefing:

Q: How will this incident affect specifically the U.S. policy, government policy on usage of drones?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, there are certain aspects of this specific operation that I’m not going to be able to discuss, including how this specific operation was carried out …

Q: Can you address the issue of drones, though, in any way? I take it you don’t want to confirm that that’s what used in this particular strike.

MR. EARNEST: I’m not in the position to talk specifically about how the operation was carried out.

Q: Can you talk, though, about a future review of drone strategy more generally?

MR. EARNEST: What I can say is that these counterterrorism operations that are critical to the national security of the United States and critical to the safety of the American people continue …

If they cannot even say the word, how can they even begin to tell the truth?

Accountability serves a primary and essential purpose in a democracy. Not to embarrass people who make bad decisions. Not to expose incompetence. (Although those are both common consequences.) It’s so that we don’t make bad decisions in the first place.

When you know your decisions are going to be examined, you make better ones. When your previous bad decisions are exposed, dissected and diagnosed, you make better ones.

When you know the world is looking over your shoulder, you think things through more.

On the third day of his presidency, Obama launched his very first drone strike, in Pakistan, which claimed not a terrorist, but a prominent pro-government tribal elder and four members of his family (including two children).

Theoretically, he imposed new rules after that, calling for higher levels of certainty and requiring his own sign-off. But the January drone strike that killed two al Qaeda hostages evidently did not require or get his approval, and was aimed at a suspicious building whose occupants were not actually known.

Imagine if we’d known about that first strike soon after, rather than learning about it deep inside a book published in 2012?

Maybe none of this would have happened.

Instead, Obama and the political operatives running the White House continue to make life-or-death decisions in a bubble, surrounded by overconfident and overly bellicose men who are so in denial about the fact that they routinely kill civilians that they have created their own reality in which everyone who dies deserved it, and every death helps.

It’s simply unacceptable. At the risk of stressing the obvious:

1) The drone program should no longer be a secret.
2) The rules for engagement should be made public, so there can be a public discussion about them, and how they should be changed.
3) Every bit of information the government has about every past drone strike should be made public, and subject to scrutiny.

The use of drones and cyberattacks mean you can have secret wars now. But secret wars and democracy don’t go together. One has to go.


Articles worth reading if you haven’t already:

Also on The Intercept:

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Join The Conversation