President Obama’s speech at the National Defense University in May marked a turning point in national security policy. He defined a new counterterrorism strategy and announced limitations on the policy of drone strikes. The speech signified the beginning of the end for the counterterrorist excesses that had defined the previous decade.
A few weeks later, Edward Snowden leaked the revelations about NSA surveillance programs. These leaks have dominated headlines ever since and have spurred significant, necessary debate about the limits of oversight and transparency concerning national security policies.
In his rhetoric, Obama emphasized that he welcomes this debate, and announced his plan to increase transparency of government surveillance programs at a press conference last week. It is crucial, however, that Obama's vision does not become a list of empty promises. He must continue to shape a government founded on transparency even as national security concerns continue to grow.
Drone strikes have taken the back seat to the national focus on government surveillance programs. However, transparency has always been integral to the debate over drone strikes. The critical questions concerning the oversight and transparency of NSA surveillance programs apply to CIA drone strikes.
In 2010, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the CIA to release information about its drone program under the Freedom of Information Act. The CIA argued that it could neither confirm nor deny the drone strike program. In March, a federal appeals court ruled that the public acknowledgement of the program by government officials required the CIA to admit whether or not it had supporting documents.
On Wednesday, the CIA announced it has the documents, but cannot release information about them because disclosing it “would reveal national security information concerning intelligence activities, intelligence sources and methods, and the foreign activities of the United States.”
While the CIA had not officially confirmed the drone strike program until Wednesday, it is a gross exaggeration to consider this a victory for government transparency. It reveals nothing that we already knew and it wastes an opportunity to create the legitimate debate that Obama has supposedly welcomed. In this way, it simply provides another example of the government’s false rhetoric and reveals its true perspective on transparency.
In the past two weeks, drone strikes in Yemen have intensified, killing at least 37 people. In only four days, the proposed reforms on government surveillance have already fallen short. In a brief that echoes the government's denials in the wake of the PRISM revelations, the CIA can cite national security as a rationale for withholding the papers.
The administration’s change in rhetoric does not indicate any change in substance. Rather, it serves as a hollow cloak to further legitimate and justify government practices.
Of course, there are serious aspects to any of these operations that could potentially harm national security. The CIA should not have to report any of the details relevant to ongoing operations or anything that could actually harm “intelligence activities, intelligence sources and methods, and the foreign activities of the United States.”
Yet, the “threat to national security” excuse rings hollow. It draws such an indistinct line about what constitutes national security as to render itself meaningless. It obscures the debate between civil liberties and national security by distracting from the crucial questions about government oversight and transparency.
An informed citizenry remains central to the effective functioning of democracy. Without the availability of necessary information, the quality of that democracy inevitably erodes. The United States needs to debate the relationship between civil liberties and national security and formulate a balanced approach to maintaining both principles.
The government’s rhetoric appears to agree with that statement. If only they actually believed it.