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Secrecy Games: Obama Had Official Policy to Not Acknowledge Drone Program Existed

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Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs appeared in his new role as MSNBC contributor on Sunday and acknowledged it was official policy within the administration of President Barack Obama to not acknowledge the existence of a drone program.

On “Up w/ Chris” hosted by Chris Hayes, clips were played of Gibbs, when he was press secretary, doing everything possible to not answer or pretend he had no idea reporters were asking him about drones.

Hayes and Gibbs then had this exchange:

HAYES: Yeah, let me — you know, we got the guy. I guess, you know, I should say in defense of White House press secretaries, they do not make the decision. They’re the person who has to get sent out to make — to say what we can and can`t talk about. My sense is that they don`t make the decision about whether or not you`re going to or not going to talk about the drone program. But do you think that the White House has been forthcoming, sufficiently forthcoming? We have these seven memos right now, we haven`t seen any of those.

GIBBS: Right.

HAYES: The white paper got released right before Brennan, not by the White House, but leaked apparently. Do you think that you`ve been sufficiently forthcoming and the White House has been sufficiently forthcoming on this stuff?

GIBBS: Well, I think you`ve seen recently the president discuss the need and desire to be more forthcoming. I certainly think there are aspects of that program that are and will remain highly sensitive and very secret, but let me give you an example here, Chris. When I went through the process of becoming press secretary, one of the first things — one of the first thing they told me was you`re not even to acknowledge the drone program. You`re not even to discuss that it exists. [emphasis added]

When nominee for CIA chief, John Brennan, delivered a speech on April 30, 2012, that was an official acknowledgment by the White House that a drone program existed. White House press secretary Jay Carney consistently references Brennan’s speech when asked questions about drones. Gibbs, in his remarks, is not disclosing that a drone program exists, but he is suggesting administration officials conspired with one another to ensure the program was remained secret, even though there was information about the program available in public.

Gibbs added, “You`re being asked a question based on reporting of a program that exists, right? So you`re the official government spokesperson acting as if the entire program — pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Then he said he had not talked to President Obama about this, which suggests no one knew he was going to be revealing this official policy on MSNBC. (It would seem one could make the case that Gibbs “leaked” information on MSNBC when he made these statements.)

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has pursued a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the CIA to force the release of records  on the “legal basis for carrying out targeted killings; any restrictions on those who may be targeted; any civilian casualties; any geographic limits on the program; the number of targeted killings that the agency has carried out; and the training, supervision, oversight, or discipline of drone operators.”

The linchpin for not releasing documents or records has been the CIA’s claim there has been no official acknowledgment that the CIA drone program exists. In this statement, Gibbs does not say “CIA drone program” so, unfortunately, the Obama administration will be able to keep their secrecy game going in court.

Nonetheless, this further undermines the Obama administration’s claim that it is the “most transparent and ethical administration in the history of the United States.” It may be labeled a covert operation and be considered classified, but militants, military age-males who are not actually part of any militant group and civilians in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen are all well aware that the CIA program exists. A collection of statements made by named and unnamed US and/or administration officials leaves no doubt the CIA is operating a drone program. However, a secrecy game continues to play out in court to prevent the American people from knowing the legal basis and protocols for targeting and executing people in foreign countries where the country is not at war.

The ACLU has diligently submitted FRAP 28(j) filings when public statements are made by officials on drones. Under Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure (FRAP), the ACLU may advise a circuit clerk by a letter of any “supplemental citations” or statements, which were not in filed briefs or argued orally but would further bolster an argument. The organization submitted a letter on statements from administration officials and Congress members in a Los Angeles Times story published on June 25, 2012 and a video at the Democratic National Convention that highlighted the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. Another letter was submitted when Brennan appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for his confirmation hearing and spoke about the role of the CIA director in approving targeted killings. The same letter also noted Rep. Mike Rogers had gone on “Face the Nation” and described how he participates in monthly oversight of the CIA program.

The ACLU could submit a letter on Gibbs’ remarks, but the CIA will respond that this does not prove it has a program. So, more than anything, the remarks further infuriate those who believe there is no legitimate argument for keeping the legal basis and procedures for assassinating people without charge or trial secret.

As for Gibbs, who has claimed he will not be a “cheerleader for the president or a spokesman for the administration’s point of view” in his job as MSNBC contributor, it is almost as if he said something about being instructed not to say anything about drones to the press in order to tamp down criticism.

Viewers of MSNBC considered former Bush administration senior advisor and deputy chief of staff Karl Rove to be a “propagandist” on Fox News. What will Gibbs (or former Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod)  be in their new roles as MSNBC contributors if not individuals who feel obligated to downplay critiques of the administration because they have a history with the administration?

It would have been worthwhile to ask Gibbs about his vile statement on the killing of 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki by a drone strike. He essentially suggested Abdulrahman should not have had a father that was a terrorist if he had wanted to live. Hearing what pressure he was under to not say anything about Abdulrahman’s killing and hearing him address the disgustingness of what he said would have been valuable during his Sunday appearance.

In conclusion, the new game is to refuse to acknowledge the existence of a CIA program. Fortunately for the White House, a review of press briefings from December 2008 to now suggests no reporter has ever bothered to pointedly ask the White House press secretary a question about whether the CIA has a drone program.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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