Tensions rising over drone secrecy
Daily Times Monitor
LAHORE: Tensions are quietly increasing between the White House and some congressional leaders over access to sensitive information about the government’s use of drones in Pakistan and Yemen, write Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman in Wall Street Journal, quoting officials.
The White House has brushed aside requests for information from lawmakers, who argue that the strikes, carried out secretly by the Central Intelligence Agency and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, have broad implications for US policy but don’t receive adequate oversight.
Some current and former administration, military and congressional officials point to what they see as significant oversight gaps, in part because few lawmakers have full access to information about the drone strikes. Lawmakers on Congress’s intelligence committees are privy to information about all CIA and military intelligence operations, but members of at least two other panels want insight on the drone programme.
Lawmakers who are briefed on classified information are legally constrained from raising their concerns publicly. Current and former officials say the White House wants to keep a tight hold on classified information to avoid unauthorised disclosures. The demand for lawmakers outside the intelligence committees to have access to details on the covert drone programme, said one US official, “just doesn’t hold water.”
Officials with the House and Senate Intelligence committees say they provide rigorous oversight of the CIA’s covert-action programmes. Other lawmakers can make requests to the committees for information on classified programmes, these officials add.
Concerns about oversight prompted Democratic and Republican leaders earlier this month to slip language into newly approved defence legislation requiring the Pentagon to provide the armed services committees with quarterly updates on “counter terrorism operations and related activities involving special operations forces,” officials said. The tensions come as groups such as Human Rights Watch step up pressure on the White House to explain its legal justification for killing suspected militants, including American citizens, without due process. The disputes over the programme have grown as improved technology has made drone operations easier to conduct—and thus more frequent.
CIA drones have killed more than 1,500 suspected militants in Pakistan since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, becoming the most lethal programme in the spy agency’s history.
In Yemen, the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command run parallel targeted-killing programmes using drones and manned aircraft.
A drone strike in September killed American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an outspoken proponent of attacks on the US. Awlaki’s son, also an American, was accidentally killed in a second drone strike in Yemen in October, officials say.
While few US lawmakers question the effectiveness of the targeted killing campaigns, some top lawmakers complain about what they see as excessive White House secrecy about how targets are chosen and how the administration justified the killings, particularly of American citizens.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, has been publicly and privately pressing the Justice Department to let his committee review the secret memorandum prepared by Justice Department lawyers that endorsed the legality of killing US citizens abroad. Similar qualms have come from members of the House and Senate armed services committees, who have also sought more information in particular about the CIA’s drone programme (they have some oversight over the drones run by the Defence Department).
After the CIA launches a drone strike, the intelligence committees receive a notification telephone call almost immediately, which is followed by a secure fax with the details of the strike, according to government officials.