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Rachel Maddow Fails to Question Guest Who Served as Top Pentagon Lawyer Under Obama About Drones

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MSNBC host Rachel Maddow had former Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson on her show Thursday night.

The previous night she hyped up the exclusive interview, as he had not been on television since leaving his position at the Pentagon:

…I am excited to tell you that tomorrow tonight on this show, we have a big deal exclusive interview.

Tomorrow night, we`ll be joined by this man, who until this week was the top lawyer at the Defense Department, Jeh Johnson. He is the one to ask about how the Pentagon repealed “don`t ask, don`t tell,” about the Obama administration`s justification for drone attacks for the military. He is the man to ask about all the controversial aspects of the war on terror, which he, in a closing speech, argued must be seen as having an end…

Yet, during the twenty or so minutes that Johnson was on her program, she did not ask a single specific question where he would have been forced to address President Barack Obama’s continued use of drones.

On December 16, 2009, after one of the first times he was asked to weigh in on whether certain terror suspects were targetable, he said, “If I were Catholic, I would have to go to confession.”

From Daniel Klaidman’s book, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency:

…Johnson was in his Pentagon office when a military aide brought him a set of baseball cards Although he had served as general counsel to the air force during the Clinton administration, he had never had to weigh in on a lethal operation until he joined the Obama team. Now he had forty-five minutes to prepare for a metting to approve the cards. The targets were Akron, Toledo and Cleveland. He sat down with the deck and started cramming…

…Johnson felt like there was a giant spotlight shining down on him. It was moments like these when he wished he could be just a policy adviser who could fudge his answers. Instead, his choice was binary: green light or red light, you take the shot or you can’t. Johnson gave a split verdict: two of the three were targetable. Akron was involved in an unfolding suicide plot; Toledo was a lawful target as well. But Johnson was uneasy about the other “objective,” Cleveland. The intelligence indicated that the terrorist suspect was likely surrounded by women and children. Johnson advised against the strike. There were no objections. When the meeting ended, Johnson returned to his office and processed the enormity of the advice he had just given. Like Harold Koh, he thought about how hard it would be to resist the momentum toward kinetic force—the heavy pressure exerted by the military to kill. It was easier to say yes than to say no, he realized. In his mind he used the same metaphor as Koh—it was like a one-hundred-car freight train hurtling down the tracks at eighty miles an hour. You would have to throw yourself on the tracks to try to stop it… [emphasis added]

Johnson was one of the few officials in the Obama administration who made public statements about drones last year. He gave a speech on February 22, 2012, that a federal judge recently reviewed in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and New York Times. The speech outlined basic legal principles that were the basis of the US military’s counterterrorism efforts. He also gave a speech on November 30 at Oxford Union in England where he spoke about the fight against Al Qaeda and how the US might be approaching a “tipping point” where the war could be close to an end.

On November 29, he appeared on BBC News’ “HARDtalk” and specifically addressed drone technology being used to target terrorists. Host Zeinab Badawi specifically asked about whether the program complies with international law and if it was “legally and morally indefensible.” He respectfully disagreed and responded, “I think we do a very good job of reaching those that we target with great precision as a result of the tools that we have today, which are far more precise than the nations of the world used as recently as the last two or three wars ago.”

In 2011, he advocated for a wide approach to determining which targets to strike with drones. He concluded, according to an unnamed official quoted in the New York Times, “If a group has aligned itself with Al Qaeda against Americans, the United States can take aim at any of its combatants, especially in a country that is unable or unwilling to suppress them.”

However, Maddow did not broach the topic of US drone policy, even though she was holding an interview the same day that a top Pakistan Taliban commander had been killed in a US drone strike.

The interview instead focused on whether “prisoners of war” in the War on Terror may some day be returned to their countries. Highlighting President Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which included restrictions on his ability to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, Maddow couched the interview in a discussion about when this all would end. She also placed it in the context of history and how America handled German POWs after World War II. It appropriately showed America cannot keep the men at Guantanamo (many whom are innocent) there indefinitely.

On the larger issue of the War on Terror, Maddow asked, “What do you think we are doing as a country now in national security terms that we will not be doing in a few years or whenever it is that we have reached that tipping point that you described in your speech, that the war as such, as it is, will have ended, the post-9/11 authorization for the use of military force [AUMF] will no longer apply? What are we doing now that we won`t still be able to do once that authorization doesn`t apply anymore?”

Johnson gave a general answer about the AUMF and said, when the AUMF no longer applies, America will have to “revert to the more traditional approaches to counterterrorism and law enforcement.” What those “traditional approaches” could be when Obama is escalating the use of covert or special operations and employing drones and cyber attacks was not specifically discussed.

In his introduction, Maddow said, “He is being discussed now as a possible second-term attorney general after Eric Holder leaves. He is even being possibly discussed as a Supreme Court appointment should there be a vacancy this term.” Perhaps, this had something to do with Maddow not asking about a topic she said the day before she would ask about.

Maddow looked forward to this interview for weeks, she said, so she had plenty of time to finesse a question that he could at least give a general answer to about the drone program. In the “wind-up” to the interview, she spoke as “a citizen who feels morally accountable for my country`s actions, if it does not have an end, this thing we`re doing now, then morally speaking it does not seem like it is a war.” Drones are currently responsible for prolonging the war. They are inspiring more and more people to turn to extremism and violence in countries like Yemen and Pakistan. Also, the US has asserted it is legal to target and kill US citizens who have become traitors or committed treason without bringing them before a court of law to determine if they, in fact, have betrayed their country by aiding the enemy. What about the moral questions here?

By not asking Johnson about the program, whether it was her intent or not, the effect is Obama administration officials are allowed to continue to use the US press to selectively address the legal and factual basis for launching drone strikes in ways they know will not be politically damaging. Secret interpretations of the law are developed and, under the guise of national security, they are kept concealed from the public. The administration is able to continue to object in court to the release of records on the targeted killing program to journalists and organizations that deal with civil liberties and human rights issues on a daily basis.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."