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The Veil of Secrecy is Lifting on Drones. Here's What You Need to Know.

For over a year, The New York Times and several other media outlets honored a CIA news embargo on the existence of a secret U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia. This base was revealed by the Times this week in advance of the Senate confirmation hearing for John O. Brennan, who has been nominated to be the director of the CIA.

Brennan's confirmation hearing, scheduled for today, has served as a catalyst for further disclosures, including the release of a Department of Justice white paper that summarizes the Obama administration's legal justification for the targeted killing of U.S. citizens. The government can use lethal force, the document argues, if three conditions are satisfied: a citizen poses "an imminent threat of violent attack" against America, capture is not feasible and "law of war principles" are followed. 

Why are we witnessing these cracks in the administration's vaunted armor of secrecy on counterterrorism right now? The immediate answer is Brennan. His confirmation happens to be a rare opportunity for critics to question the man who served as the president's top counterterrorism advisor, overseeing the infamous "kill list," a targeted killing program that operates without any oversight outside of the executive branch.  

Brennan has exercised "more power and influence than anyone in a comparable position in the last 20 years," former State Department official Daniel Benjamin told the Times. And yet, we know very little about how Brennan has advised our commander-in-chief. As the ACLU Blog of Rights puts it, we don't know by what "secret determination, based on secret evidence, a person meets a secret definition of the enemy."

The 16-page Justice Department document is only a summary of a longer, 50-page memo prepared in 2010 by the Justice Department to justify the targeted killing of U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki, who administration officials claimed was the commander of an Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.

The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking the government to release the full-form memo. As Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a statement:

When the executive branch seeks to give itself the unilateral authority to kill its own citizens, a summary of its argument is no substitute for the argument itself. Among other things, we need to know if the limits the executive purports to impose on its killing authority are as loosely defined as in this summary, because if they are, they ultimately mean little.

UPDATE: Obama has directed the justice Department to release the secret legal memo to two intelligence committees.  

What's the Big Idea?

While some say the Obama administration is taking liberties with the way it interprets the Patriot Act, it is nonetheless true that shortly after September 11, 2001, Congress gave extraordinary powers to the executive branch to combat terrorism. Is the pendulum finally swinging back?

The Bush administration was accused of using executive privilege to justify illegal wiretapping, indefinite detention, kidnapping, abuse and torture. (The Obama administration did the right thing when it released the Bush administration's "torture," or, to put it more lightly, "war policy memos," but it has done the utterly hypocritical thing in going "Jedi mind trick on us," as Jon Stewart recently put it, when it comes to the administration's own secretive memos. These are not the drones you're looking for.)

Under Obama, the principle of executive priviledge has become somewhat synonymous with drone warfare. While we are very much still in the dark about many of the details of U.S. attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries, Princeton scholar Gregory Johnsen has witnessed the effects of these attacks over the last three years in Yemen and reported it in real time on his Big Think blog Waq-al-Waq

As soon as he learned in 2009 the government was looking for Al-Awlaki (or, Alwaqi, as Johnsen points out is the correct Arabic spelling), Johnsen made the case that the New Mexico-born Al-Awlaqi was "hardly significant in terms of American security." Johnsen made this argument again after Al-Awlaqi 's death here as well as in a New York Times op-ed in 2010. 

What's the Significance?

If you are interested in learning more about the three-year drone campaign the U.S. has been carrying out in Yemen, Waq-al-Waq is a first-rate resource. And while the narrow focus of Johnsen's blog is the country of Yemen, the issues it tackles are of global significance. 

Johnsen observes in this post that "in many ways since the US started bombing there in December 2009, Yemen has been a laboratory for the US to try out different approaches in its war against al-Qaeda." 

We learn, for instance, that drones are not the precision weapons they are often made out to be. In fact, it doesn't matter if we use a drone or a manned aircraft. All the technology in the world can't make up for faulty intelligence.  

"If I were Catholic, I'd have to go to confession." That's what a Pentagon lawyer said after Cruise missiles killed 55 people, including 35 women and children, in a 2009 strike on a suspected terrorist training camp in southern Yemen that turned out to be bedouin encampment

Instead of weakening the militant Islamist group AQAP, Johnsen says this massacre of the innocents had the effect of galvanizing support for al-Qaeda. 

Johnsen's critique of U.S. counterterrorism in general and Yemen in particular is not unique among his colleagues, who are a rare breed to be sure. As Johnsen, who spent a significant amount of time in the country as a Fulbright Fellow, points out, academics like him "have been drawn into studying al-Qaeda in Yemen out of frustration with what we perceived to be ill-informed commentary about a country we loved and mistakes of US policy. And as engaged citizens with a particular set of skills we felt we had the duty to speak out."

In the video below, Johnsen delivers a succinct three-minute primer on the ongoing crisis, or "permanent war," as some have dubbed it, in Yemen. 

Watch here:

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

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