Andrew Rosenthal writes: Governments have good reasons for keeping secrets – to protect soldiers in battle, or nuclear launch codes, or the identities of intelligence sources, undercover agents and witnesses against the mob. (Naturally that’s not an exhaustive list.) Governments also have bad reasons for keeping secrets – to avoid embarrassment, evade oversight or escape legal accountability.
The Bush administration kept secrets largely for bad reasons: It covered up its torture memos, the kidnapping of innocent foreign citizens, illegal wiretapping and other misdeeds. Barack Obama promised to bring more transparency to Washington in the 2008 campaign, but he has failed to do that. In some ways, his administration is even worse than the Bush team when it comes to abusing the privilege of secrecy.
One example of this abuse is the government’s effort to block public scrutiny of its “targeted killing” policy – the use of drone aircraft to kill specific people identified as threats to the United States. The most notorious case is the Sept. 30, 2011, drone strike in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, who United States officials say was part of Al Qaeda’s command structure. Another American was killed in the strike, and Mr. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, also an American citizen, was killed in an attack two weeks later.
The Obama administration has refused to make public the legal documents underpinning the president’s decision to order the killing of an American citizen without any judicial review before or after the attack. So far, it has not even made those documents available to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Accordingly, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed two lawsuits aimed at forcing disclosure. One predates the Awlaki killing, the other followed the attack. The New York Times is party to the latter: Our paper wants the government to release the legal reasoning behind the attack. The ACLU is asking for more: It also wants to see the factual information that led to the decision to kill Mr. Awlaki.
But the government is blocking any consideration of these petitions with one of the oldest, and most pathetic, dodges in the secrecy game. It says it cannot confirm or deny the existence of any drone strike policy or program.
That would be unacceptable under any condition, but it’s completely ridiculous when you take into account the fact that a) there have been voluminous news accounts of drone strikes, including the one on Mr. Awlaki, and b) pretty much every top government official involved in this issue has talked about the drone strikes in public.