On Monday, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan publicly addressed the U.S. use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists in countries with which the United States is not at war, like Yemen and Pakistan. The fact that Brennan publicly addressed the drone strikes is a significant improvement, long overdue. We can't say we have meaningful democratic oversight over government policy if government officials refuse to talk about government policy in public -- enabling us to challenge what they say -- and it's preposterous to claim that the drone strikes are "secret" when they are openly reported in the media.
But John Brennan didn't tell the whole truth about the drone strikes. Brennan claimed that "the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al Qaeda terrorists," but Brennan didn't admit that the U.S. has launched drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen against people who are not known to be on any list of "suspected terrorists," without knowing who would be killed.
Brennan's statement that "the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al Qaeda terrorists" gives the impression that the U.S. only conducts drone strikes against people "on a list," as President Obama claimed in January. As the New York Times and the Washington Post have reported, this is not true: in Pakistan and now in Yemen, the president has authorized "signature strikes" against people who are not on a list, but fit a "profile" of "suspicious activity." Senior U.S. officials have warned that these "profiling strikes" raise the risk of killing civilians and the risk of killing people who had no relationship to attacks on the United States, which in the case of Yemen, could increase the perception that the U.S. is taking sides in Yemen's internal conflict with people in the south who feel disenfranchised by the central government.
Not only do "signature strikes" increase the risk of killing civilians and people who have no dispute with the U.S.; their existence is crucial to the question of whether the drone strikes are legal. John Brennan claimed that the drone strikes are legal under the 2001 authorization of military force, but as law scholar Bruce Ackerman has noted, that Congressional resolution authorized force against those responsible for the September 11 attacks and those who harbored them, not against unknown people in Yemen whose reported behavior fits a "profile" of suspected terrorist activity.
On Monday, Brennan acknowledged that U.S. drone strikes have killed innocent civilians. But Brennan claimed civilian deaths have been "exceedingly rare." This raises the question of what Brennan's notion of "exceedingly rare" is. The New America Foundation has estimated that the "non-military fatality rate" of drone strikes is 13 percent. Is something that happens 13 percent of the time "exceedingly rare"? About 14 percent of days are Sundays. Are Sundays "exceedingly rare"?
Congress could do something about this. The National Defense Authorization Act is coming up for consideration. Members of Congress could move to amend the NDAA to prohibit "signature" drone strikes.
On May 19, John Brennan is scheduled to give the commencement address at Fordham University. This is a very appropriate occasion to challenge John Brennan to tell the whole truth about drone strikes. A commencement speaker is supposed to be an exemplary person who inspires new graduates to do good. One thing the Wall Street meltdown showed was the need to inspire young people to tell the whole truth. George Washington was not reported to have said, "I cannot tell a lie: I didn't do everything I could to stop the cherry tree from being chopped down." Let John Brennan set a good example for our youth. Urge John Brennan to tell the American people the whole truth about the drone strikes.