Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently lambasted legislation that may prevent the White House from transferring the lethal drone program from the CIA to the Defense Department. The provision is in a classified part of the bill, so the public may never know what it says.
This culture of secrecy underscores the reality that real drone reform is on the verge of conclusively failing to launch. Despite months of political fury and negative press, the drone program and its worst impulse — to kill without accountability for who is killed and why — are poised to become a permanent part of the way the United States conducts counterterrorism.
If there is to be any real reform on drone strikes, it must come this year — while the revelations over National Security Agency surveillance are keeping heat on the White House. Secrecy is the common denominator of the criticism the White House faces on both issues. President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on transparency and reform will always trigger cynicism so long as his administration’s practices of official secrecy continue.
In May 2013, the White House responded to criticism about secrecy — including a filibuster by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — by releasing a “fact sheet” on its “policy standards” for drone strikes. It detailed the administration’s aspirations for a contained drone program. But the document does nothing to allay concerns that when push comes to shove, the United States will bend the legal rules: using elastic and unconventional legal definitions to permit expansive and potentially unlawful killings.
It has been a year since a leaked Justice Department memo on the killing of U.S. citizens sparked a political firestorm. The public reaction to that was as fierce as the fury over NSA surveillance is now. Yet the drone reform scorecard remains dismal. Most members of Congress have never seen the government memos describing the legal justifications for killings. We do not know how many memos exist and which issues they cover. Relatively few Congress members have even seen the memos that specifically authorize the killing of U.S. citizens.