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"Just comprehend the magnitude of what is being said here." Obama misleads on targeted assassinations - HuffPost Live panel

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A couple of days ago Alyona Minkovski hosted a HuffPost Live panel on Jonathan Landay's news reports on Obama's targeted assassinations program. We've been lied to. We're not just targeting Al Qaida and associated forces ("definition set in stone" by Obama admin), we're doing quid pro quos, "we'll kill yours if you let us use your air space to kill ours."

I like Alyona: "How do we know they're bad people?"

And, "What kind of precedent is this setting? If we’re writing the so-called rules here, then what’s to stop other people from doing the exact same thing?"

And, "The United States is not supposed to be contract killing. That is not our business, at least I hope not."

And, "If Congress is getting their hands on this intelligence and on these kinds of reports and they are not accurate, then how are you supposed to accept any kind of accountability whatsoever?"

And, "We’re talking about the manipulation of language, once again, right? That is leading to a much broader abuse of this policy, essentially lying by manipulating the language. How could we, how have we not learned anything from the last 10, 12 years?"

And, "Just comprehend the magnitude of what is being said here."

Glad to be able to put this up here, because I think it's already disappeared from Huffington Post.

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APRIL 10, 2013

Length: 24:32

Alyona Minkovski, HuffPost Live moderator
Jonathan Landay, Senior National Security Correspondent, McClatchy Newspapers
Gregory S. McNeal, Professor, Pepperdine University
Marcy Wheeler, Investigative Journalist,
Steven Bucci, Senior Fellow for Defense and Homeland Security, Heritage Foundation


Alyona Minkovski: It took far too long for the media and the public to get serious about drones. But now we're beginning to get a glimpse of America’s drone secrets. Two huge stories out this week are changing the debate. First we learn that the Obama administration misled the American people about how broad and loosely targeted our drone war really is, and then we learned gory details about secret drone deals between Pakistan and the CIA.

So joining me now to discuss some of these revelations, from Malibu, California, we have Gregory S. McNeal, professor at Pepperdine University. From Washington, D.C., Jonathan Landay, senior national security correspondent at McClatchy Newspapers. From Grand Rapids, Michigan, Marcy Wheeler, investigative blogger and journalist at emptywheel. And also from Washington, Steven Bucci, senior fellow for defense and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation. So hello everyone, thanks for joining me today.

Everyone: Hi.

Alyona Minkovski: Jonathan, why don’t we start with you. Here’s your piece in McClatchy, says that “Obama’s drone war kills 'others,' not just Al Qaida leaders,” as we are often led to believe by this administration, by military officials as well. Maybe you can just start us off by, you know, giving a little bit more detail.

Jonathan Landay: Sure. I was able to review classified U.S. intelligence reports about who exactly was being targeted in different periods of time, but in particular during what I like to say is the surge in drone strikes that coincided with the surge to 30,000 U.S. troops into southern Afghanistan in 2010, 2011. And what this showed was that whereas in at least the limited discussions that the Obama administration has had about drones, you know, be they a handful of speeches by senior officials and some I think even on a Google chat by the president and some limited testimony, open testimony in Congress, the overwhelming emphasis by the administration has been that these strikes have been targeted on senior operational leaders. And they say specific, in other words they know who they’re going after, operational leaders of Al Qaida and associated forces involved or linked in some way to 9/11 who are plotting imminent violent attacks against America. Most of the time, I would say, you know 98% of the time, we are told the United States, well, or the U.S. homeland, and sometimes we have some kind of amorphous references to U.S. interests, U.S. bases, U.S. facilities, but for the most part the overwhelming impression is that we’re talking about attacks on the homeland. And what this material showed was quite clearly that that isn’t the whole truth, that in fact the administration, beginning actually under the Bush administration, towards the end of the Bush administration, and then very much under the Obama administration, has been targeting groups other than Al Qaida, groups that are very bad groups, groups that are linked to Al Qaida and cooperate with Al Qaida, go after Americans, but that are not, weren’t in existence at the time of 9/11, weren't on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations when the strikes were taking place, and have parochial goals, overthrowing the Pakistani government, killing minority Shia in Pakistan, and not attacking the United States of America. And so what I strived to do was that and not get into the disputes over the legality, the disputes over, or whether these groups are bad or not bad, but simply to say that the limited amount of information that’s out there, that’s been put out there by the administration, is not the entire truth.

And then the second story I did was on how the same thing is happening in Pakistan, where the government that was elected, the civilian government that was elected in February 2008, has said consistently that it opposes drone strikes and considers them illegal and considers them violations of its sovereignty, and yet the Pakistani military worked hand in glove for years with the CIA on joint drone strike operations.

Alyona Minkovski: Yeah, the kind of doublespeak, you know, that we’ve definitely seen a lot of within Pakistan and Afghanistan, some of the same stuff that you can say was really disclosed by WikiLeaks cables when it came to Yemen and some of the air strikes that took place there. But let me just ask, you know, Greg. Maybe you can answer this one, or really anybody take it, but how do we put this into perspective with what we know about policies like signature strikes, where you don’t have to know exactly who your target is, just that they’re exhibiting some type of suspicious behavior. I mean, this is something that is widely reported as being our policy in Pakistan, as being a policy that’s been extended out into Yemen as well. Obviously we know that there are civilian casualties too from the drone war. But when it comes to the signature strikes for going after Al Qaida and associated forces, as we’ve now seen the AUMF be expanded to include, how much of that is public, you know, statements that are officially made by the administration or officials versus just what’s reported and what we know because we cover this.

Gregory McNeal: Yes, I don’t think any officials have come out and said that signature strikes – or any named officials have come out and said that signature strikes are the policy of the U.S. government. However, the U.S. government has claimed the authority to target Al Qaida and associated forces, and in warfare you don’t have to actually know who it is you’re targeting, you just need to know that the person is engaged in hostilities. And the U.S. position, or the U.S. interpretation of international law is that if an individual is a member of an organized armed group, so a member of Al Qaida and associated forces, that’s considered participating in hostilities and that person could be targetable. So in some respects, if you’re looking carefully at the law on this, you’re not that surprised. If you’re aware of the fact that signature strikes, you can see that maybe the Obama administration wasn’t being completely truthful or wasn’t giving the full story in their statements, but I don’t think that necessarily leads to the conclusion that what they were doing was unlawful. The example here that we’re left with, or what it looks like is going on, is that the Obama administration is engaged in targeting people in what I would call side-payment targets, saying to the Pakistani government, “We would like the authority to operate in your air space,” and the Pakistani government is saying, “Well that’s fine so long as you attack these people that might not be a direct threat to the American homeland but are a threat to us, and so you need to help us out as our ally, scratch our back, and then we’ll let you operate and target the individuals that you want to target in our territory.”

Jonathan Landay: This is where the problem arises, because the Pakistani government claims publicly it’s never given that kind of permission, and that’s where the administration starts running into problems.

Marcy Wheeler: Well one of the – I mean, you know, I think the other place they run into problems is with the side-payment strikes and a lot of what Jonathan covered involved the Pakistani Taliban. We weren’t at war with them, and then I think it took us 16 drone strikes to get to Baitullah Mehsud, and we continued going after that to go after his brother. Over the course of that, something like 250 to 300 people were killed, and the Faisal Shahzad attack, the Times Square bombing attack in 2010 as well as the Khost bombing in 2009 that killed seven CIA people, those were direct retaliation for our strikes against the Pakistani Taliban. So here were people we weren’t at war with, and now we are. In fact, some of the most significant terrorist strikes in the last five years came as retaliation for these side-payment strikes as opposed to – I mean, it’s not clear they would have ever targeted us unless we had made war against them to go after –

Steven Bucci: I’ve got to disagree with that one.

Alyona Minkovski: Steven, I’d love for Steven to jump in here. I mean, Steven, I want you to, you know, to talk about what you think of the magnitude of all this is. Here I got a tweet from Micah Zenko, says “The most important story about CIA drone strikes ever, based on top-secret intelligence reports,” leading to Jonathan’s piece there in McClatchy. I mean, just comprehend the magnitude of what is being said here and how you see it.

Steven Bucci: Well, I applaud the story. It’s a great story. It goes into a lot of detail we did not have before, and I find myself in a very odd position as an analyst for the Heritage Foundation in defending the president, because we don’t do that that often. But in this case, you know, they’re going after people that are hostile to us. You know, the idea that the Pakistani Taliban is somehow a distinct, like a nation state, different than the Taliban in Afghanistan and the connection they have, that’s like saying the Haqqani network really wasn’t in the war until we started picking on them. You know, that’s a very naïve view of the conflict over there. These are bad people. They’re hostile to us. Now, to be honest with you, I understand that this administration has put a lot of emphasis on drone strikes, way too much in my opinion. They’re way too dependent on that particular use of force that they try and portray as very, very surgical and very precise, which frankly it isn’t. You know, it’s more precise than carpet bombing, it’s more precise than a gigantic JDAM hitting a target, but a Hellfire missile slamming into a vehicle or a building full of people is anything but surgical.

Alyona Minkovski: But Steven, aren’t you – let me just interrupt for one moment then. I mean, by saying “These are bad people,” the whole point is that we don’t necessarily know who some of these people are, we just have to take their word for it when they say that these are alleged militants, and so how do we know that they’re bad people?

Steven Bucci: Well, they’re not just helter skelter shooting buildings and anywhere that drones fly over. They’re based on intelligence, they have intelligence targeting packets put together on them, and they go after. Do they know exactly, you know, the guy’s Social Security number and blood type? No. In some cases they get pretty close, but in a lot of these, of course not. They’re using the signature strikes. They’re using local intelligence. You know, when you shoot artillery at an enemy force, you don’t know that there are commanders there. It could just be a bunch of privates, and we’d do it anyway. The difference here that I think is problematic is that the magnitude of this utilization of this particular methodology is just – and then trying to portray it as being so surgical, is just not being particularly truthful with what that means. Is there blowback to this kind of stuff? Yes, there is, potentially. When you whack some bad guys, their buddies are going to come back at you. But these are bad guys that have already declared that they’re hostile to us. I don’t think the Pakistani Taliban has ever said, “Well, we were neutral in this whole deal until you guys started shooting drones at us.” And, you know, to assume that kind of nation state like rational actor behavior is a bit of a stretch with these kind of organizations.

Gregory McNeal: I want to add one thing here, that the people that we’re targeting go beyond Al Qaida and associated forces, and I think that’s where the big controversy starts to come in. You might have groups that we would never think pose a threat to the United States and that are not Al Qaida and associated forces, but because of the fact that they pose a threat to the Pakistani government or the Yemeni government you might find us targeting those individuals, and that would be outside the bounds of the Authorization for Use of Military Force, and the only way it would be lawful is if it’s a covert action that – by law a covert action would have to be within the national security and foreign relations interests of the United States, a much broader category of potential targets for us to go after. You will have some strikes where people will say – this has happened in Yemen – where people will say, “What does that person have to do with the United States at all? Why does the U.S. care about that person as a target?” And it might not be that we actually care about that person at all but our ally, the Yemeni government, who's letting us operate in their air space and from their territory, cares about it, and that’s why we’re going after these people. But you can see the bounds of the, if you want to call it the War on Terrorism or the drone campaign, can start to get really broad based on broadly applied definitions, Al Qaida and associated forces, or even more broad definitions, like those targets are in the national security and foreign relations interests of the United States.

Alyona Minkovski: Not to mention, to me one of the questions that I think always arises too when you have an honest discussion about this is, what type of example is that setting for the rest of the world, what kind of a precedent is it setting, you know, once other countries, other actors out there start using drones as well. If we’re writing the so-called rules here, then what’s to stop other people from doing the exact same thing? And so now it becomes doing favors for other nation states and taking out there bad guys – does this just make it that much more dangerous and messy and unpredictable for the future?

Jonathan Landay: Look, I don’t think that this was about favors. This isn’t about favors. This was a quid pro quo arrangement.

Alyona Minkovski: Fair enough.

Jonathan Landay: You know, we’ll help you, we’ll help you get – that’s why I don’t like calling them side-payment killings. I mean, this was, “We’ll help you," on the side of the Pakistanis, "get Al Qaida, you help us get our bad guys.” That’s what it was all about. And it continued even after the Pakistanis had, after the ISI had its veto removed by the United States unilaterally in mid 2008, at least that’s my understanding.

But the other thing that we’re not talking about is the fact that at least, you have the president, you have the attorney general, you have John Brennan, who was, you know, the national security senior national director for counterterrorism and now the head of CIA, and Jeh Johnson and other people going out and saying, using specific language, the words specific “operational leaders of Al Qaida and associated forces.” They set this definition in stone. The most extensive speech that was given on all of this was by Mr. Brennan last year here in Washington, D.C., and I went through it and he made 73 references to Al Qaida, three to the Afghan Taliban, and none to any other group. And when you see material and we’re told, “We know specifically who we’re going after. We weigh the strategic interests of killing this person over not killing them. We’re not going willy-nilly” – that was the president’s term, “we’re not going after people willy-nilly, we know exactly who it is, we know exactly the specific costs,” and then you see material that categorizes targets as unidentified other militants, unidentified foreign fighters – I mean that’s why I wrote the piece. We’re forgetting what happened 10 years ago where the previous administration, it’s another investigative project that I pursued quite vigorously, used bogus and exaggerated intelligence to invade another country. You know. And in each case you have an Ameican government saying, “Trust us. We know what we’re doing. You just have to trust us that we’re telling you the truth.” And at some point, you know, I think it’s the job of investigative journalists not just to do this at the national level, but, you know, at the city level and the county level, and it’s getting harder and harder because of what’s going on with newspapers to say, “Wait a minute. Is what they’re telling us the truth?” And that’s what I set out to do here with this report.

Marcy Wheeler: And one other thing – [crosstalk]

Gregory McNeal: It's amazing that Congress hasn’t also been far more transparent about what their red lines are here with regard to the program. So you would think that Congress in exercising its checking function would want to say, “If you’re violating Pakistani sovereignty or using loose definitions or engaged in signature strikes, where your public speeches say that you’re going after specific named individuals, but actually you’re going after members and associated forces and unnamed individuals or people who we might characterize as side-payment targets, you would think it would be in the interests of Congress to go on record and say, “If you cross those lines, we’ll hold you accountable.” Because the last time they were silent on a secret program, the coercive interrogation/torture program, the CIA covered themselves by saying, “Hold on, you know, Miss Pelosi. We briefed you on this. You were aware of this, and you were pretty silent then. Why are you so outraged now that the program has gone sideways?” And you would really think that Congress should be far more public in how they’re exercising their checking function. They’re almost complicit in allowing the administration to make these speeches that are, that sound a lot – the speeches sound technically correct with regard to how the program is conducted against American citizens, but it’s certainly not the definitions they're applying against unnamed individuals in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Alyona Minkovski: Well, well, it certainly seems like they’re not using their checking function then. You know, oversight is entirely lacking, and that’s something that Congress really should be doing. Marcy, you got cut off before. What were you going to say?

Gregory McNeal: Sorry, Marcy.

Marcy Wheeler: No, on the oversight question, I mean I think there are three ways that it’s now clear, and has been clear, that Congress has been shut out of that. I mean, one is, Ron Wyden has been asking for a year and months now for a list of all the countries where the government is using targeted killings, which could be drone strikes, could be paramilitary. He’s been refused, outright. So an intelligence committee member has been refused a list of the countries we’re actually doing this.

The memos covering the kinds of strikes that Jonathan reported on, both Pakistan and Yemen, have been refused to be handed over to Congress. And that’s public – again, Wyden and some others made a big deal of making that public – but they haven’t seen at least the legal rationale and the details attached to that.

And then the third thing, and this is I think really important from Jonathan’s piece, is that he gives you numbers. He gives you the numbers that Congress has been told, and we know, I’ve been writing about a strike in Datta Khel, the strike that was actually of a Loya Jirga, of a bunch of men sitting down and trying to argue about land. And we know that 40-some people died. A goodly number of them were citizens. According to Mark Mazzetti’s recent reporting, people within the administration believe that dozens were killed who shouldn’t have been, and in spite of those dozens, again, that people within the administration were upset about, what came out in the reports that Jonathan read said none of those people were civilians. So we know that there were somewhere from 50 to 200 civilians that died in the period that Jonathan reviewed, and yet Congress is being told there was one. And we know from John Brennan’s confirmation hearing, for example, Dianne Feinstein was like, “Well, I’ve never heard of this military-age male standard,” which is what the administration is using, which is counting anybody who could be a militant as a militant and therefore you know really driving down the civilian counts that way. And so, you know, one of the things that I think Jonathan’s reporting does is really build on the many ways in which Congress has been refused to give insights into this program, or has been given the same kind of false information that happened in the interrogation program.

Alyona Minkovski: And which is a scandal in and of itself. That even if, you know, if Congress is getting their hands on this intelligence and on these kinds of reports and they are not accurate, then how are you supposed to accept any kind of accountability whatsoever? I mean, Steven, doesn’t that outrage you just a little bit? I know you said that you think the administration has weighed a little too heavily on drone strikes and the reliance on them, but if we’re talking about the manipulation of language, once again, right? That is leading to a much broader abuse of this policy, essentially lying by manipulating the language. How could we, how have we not learned anything from the last 10, 12 years, that this is something that’s been taking us down a dangerous path.

Steven Bucci: No, I think Jonathan’s true home run in this report is the finding this quid pro quo attacks, you know, doing contract killing for other people is really not what America is supposed to be about. You know, even if we get something in return for doing it, that’s just inappropriate. And then the manipulation of language – I mean this, I’m not condoning it, trust me, but it happens so often where, you know, you twist this stuff and say it and make it sound like it’s all clean hands and very, very easy to take, and then you find out there’s hundreds of people who have been killed around – even if it’s a legitimate target, but you take out, you know, of dozens of innocent civilians around them, it tells you you’re probably either doing the program incorrectly or you’re doing the program way too widely for the quality of the intelligence that you’re gathering. So I think Jonathan’s report really digs into those specific details and gets those out, and they haven’t gotten out before, that I would hope that this will stir up some congressional outrage and some demands for more accountability. Because if you’re going to take actions like this, whether they be covert actions or these quasi-coverts – it’s a little hard to be convert about drones flying over and hitting people with missiles – you need to be ready to explain it, why you do it, how you do it, and who you do it too. And you can’t just give that a hand wave, you know, and say it’s national security. You need to be able to justify it.

Alyona Minkovski: Yeah, well, let's definitely –

Jonathan Landay: Let’s see what happens on the 14th, because the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dick Durbin of Illinois is going to hold a hearing on, in theory, all of this, but I suspect what we’ll actually see come out is some kind of rewriting of the AUMF resolution that would give retroactive cover to everything we’ve uncovered, to everything that’s happened over the last couple of years. And I’m not cynical, of course.

Alyona Minkovski: Well, I mean, this is – no, but this is why, you know, reporting like this is so important, and let’s hope that that doesn’t happen, but the more that you put this kind of stuff out there, you know, the less cover that the administration, the military officials, the members of Congress have for trying to ignore it and not have to answer some tough questions. And I hear you, Steven, no, the United States is not supposed to be contract killing. That is not our business, at least I hope not.

So I want to thank you all so much for joining us. Gregory, Jonathan, Marcy and Steven, and you know, and Jonathan, amazing reporting on that stuff there too.

Jonathan Landay: Thanks a lot.

Marcy Wheeler: Thanks.

Steven Bucci: Thank you.

Alyona Minkovski: All right, stick around. More HuffPost Live in a moment.

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