New York Times
June 7, 2012
WASHINGTON — In recent years, the United States has pioneered the use of two innovative weapons, drones and cyberattacks, that by many accounts have devastated Al Qaeda and set back Iran’s nuclear effort.
Now those programs are at the heart of a bipartisan dispute over secrecy, with Congressional Republicans accusing the Obama administration of leaking classified information for political advantage and Democrats lodging their own protests about high-level disclosures.
Prompted in part by recent articles in The New York Times on the use of drones to carry out targeted killings and the deployment of the Stuxnet computer worm against the Iranian nuclear program, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees issued a joint statement on Wednesday urging the administration “to fully, fairly and impartially investigate” the recent disclosures and vowing new legislation to crack down on leaks.
“Each disclosure puts American lives at risk, makes it more difficult to recruit assets, strains the trust of our partners and threatens imminent and irreparable damage to our national security,” said the statement, a rare show of unity.
The protest focused on the dangers of leaks that the Congressional leaders said would alert adversaries to American military and intelligence tactics. But secrecy, too, has a cost — one that is particularly striking in the case of drones and cyberattacks. Both weapons raise pressing legal, moral and strategic questions of the kind that, in a democracy, appear to deserve serious public scrutiny. Because of classification rules, however, neither has been the subject of open debate in Congress, even as the Obama administration has moved aggressively ahead with both programs.
“The U.S. is embarked on ambitious and consequential moves that will shape the security environment for years to come, whether they succeed or fail,” said Steven Aftergood, who studies government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “Secrecy cloaks not only the operations, but their justification and rationale, which are legitimate subjects of public interest.”
Mr. Aftergood said drones and cyberattacks were “extreme examples of programs that are widely known and yet officially classified.” That, he said, has prevented informed public discussion of some critical questions. Should the United States be inaugurating a new era of cyberattacks? What are the actual levels of civilian casualties caused by the drone attacks, and what are the implications for national sovereignty?
“Keeping these programs secret may have a value,” said Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor and Bush administration Justice Department official who writes about national security and the press. “But there’s another value that has to be considered, too — the benefit of transparency, accountability and public discussion.”
Leaks, and the policy dilemmas and political squabbles they inspire, are as old as the country. In 1778, a disclosure by Thomas Paine that the French were secretly supporting the American revolutionaries became the subject of an investigation led by the future first chief justice, John Jay.
Nor has any party held a monopoly on the complications of managing secrecy. During the Bush administration, a leak investigation led to a perjury conviction for a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, an outspoken defender of government secrets.
Even so, contradictory behavior on the secrecy front has been especially striking under the Obama administration.
Mr. Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008 by denouncing his predecessor’s secret prisons and brutal interrogations, which were public knowledge only because of leaks of classified information to the news media. He began his term by pledging the most transparent administration in history.
In office, however, he has outdone all previous presidents in mounting criminal prosecutions over such leaks, overseeing six such cases to date, compared with three under all previous administrations combined.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, Mr. Obama’s opponent in 2008, told reporters on Tuesday that administration officials were “intentionally leaking information to enhance President Obama’s image as a tough guy for the elections” — while at the same time prosecuting low-level officials for disclosures. On Wednesday, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, called that charge “grossly irresponsible.”
The administration’s inconsistency, however, has been particularly evident on the drone program. Officials routinely give reporters limited information on strikes, usually on the condition of anonymity. Mr. Obama spoke explicitly about the strikes in Pakistan in an online appearance in January, arguing that they were precisely aimed at Al Qaeda.
Yet the drone attacks in Pakistan are part of a C.I.A. covert action program designed to be “deniable” by American leaders; by law they are in the most carefully protected category of secrets that the government keeps. In court, the administration has taken the position that it can neither confirm nor deny the existence of such operations.
“There’s something wrong with aggressive leaking and winking and nodding about the drone program, but saying in response to Freedom of Information requests that they can’t comment because the program is covert,” Mr. Goldsmith said.
Recently, responding to Freedom of Information Act lawsuits filed by The Times and the American Civil Liberties Union, Justice Department lawyers sought a delay, saying that secrecy rules about targeted killings were under discussion “at the highest level” of government. The government must say by June 20 what it will make public.
Behind closed doors, administration officials have long discussed the disadvantages of official secrecy for a program that by definition is no secret from its Al Qaeda targets. Colleagues say that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has often complained that secrecy rules make it hard to rebut exaggerated claims of civilian casualties from drone attacks in Pakistan. Mr. Obama has authorized a series of speeches by his counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan; the attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr.; and other officials, offering a limited account of the legal justification and goals of the strikes.
In a speech on April 30, Mr. Brennan kept the intelligence striptease going, acknowledging that “the United States is the first nation to regularly conduct strikes using remotely piloted aircraft in an armed conflict.”
More significantly, Mr. Brennan elaborated on the administration’s argument that it was using the new weapon with extraordinary care, and mentioned a particular reason: with drones, as with cyberattacks, which he did not discuss, the United States is setting an example for the rest of the world.
“President Obama and those of us on his national security team are very mindful that as our nation uses this technology, we are establishing precedents that other nations may follow,” he said.
The same might be said of the administration’s decisions about what to reveal about its pathbreaking programs and what to keep secret.