CIA drone strikes are killing scores of civilians in Pakistan and Yemen in an effort to stop terrorists before they strike the United States. The NSA is eavesdropping on tens of millions of phone calls worldwide – including those of 35 state leaders – in the name of national security. And the Department of Homeland Security is using algorithms to “prescreen” Americans’ tax identification numbers, property records and physical characteristics before they board domestic flights.
Is a “Minority Report” style PreCrime unit next?
Obama administration officials have a duty to protect Americans from terrorism. But out-of-control NSA surveillance, an ever-expanding culture of secrecy and still-classified rules for how and when Americans and foreigners can be killed by drone strikes are excessive, unnecessary and destructive. Twelve years after 9/11, the United States’ obsession with al-Qaida is doing more damage to the country than the terrorist group itself.
Two new reports issued this week by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch detailed dozens of civilian deaths in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. And classified documents obtained by the Washington Post suggest that CIA officials who carry out the strikes make little effort to track civilian deaths.
“There is a lot more pressure building” on President Obama, Sarah Holewinski, head of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, a group pushing for greater transparency in drone strikes, told me this week. “I think he’s going to have to look at these legal questions.”
In Europe, documents leaked this week by whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed widespread NSA wiretapping of phone calls by national leaders and president of France. The extent of the surveillance is sparking widespread anger and endangering joint counter-terrorism operations between Germany, France and the United States.
“The perception here is of a United States where security has trumped liberty,” New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote from Berlin on Thursday, “intelligence agencies run amok (vacuuming up data of friend and foe alike), and the once-admired “checks and balances” built into American governance and studied by European schoolchildren have become, at best, secret reviews of secret activities where opposing arguments get no hearing.”
European and American critics of the Obama administration agree that there is a terrorist threat to the United States. And they agree that the administration is under enormous pressure to prevent terrorist attacks. But they say there are effective ways to safeguard the United States without sparking a backlash abroad and at home.
Holewinski called for the Obama administration to swiftly implement its promise to shift command of drone operations from the CIA to the American military. She said the move, which Obama announced this spring, is moving “very, very slowly.”
Military control is a step toward a key goal: greater transparency in countries where drone strikes are enormously unpopular. Keeping the drone strikes a covert CIA-run program makes accountability impossible, she said. If strikes are commanded by the military and disclosed publics, reports of civilian casualties could be investigated under military law and compensation paid to victims, as currently happens across Afghanistan.
Holewinski also called on the administration to publicly answer basic legal questions about targeting rules it has refused to make public. How are civilians defined? How are civilian casualties assessed? What is the definition of an individual who can be targeted? She credited the administration for a decrease in drone strikes that has occurred since Obama promised to do so in May. But she said the targeting process needs to be far more transparent.
Inside the United States, reports emerged on Monday that the TSA is expanding its prescreening of passengers to include employment information, property records and car registration details on government and private databases. Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which opposes the move, said many Americans do not grasp the scale of domestic government data mining.
“The average person doesn’t understand how much intelligence-driven matching is going on and how this could be accessed for other purposes,” she said. “There’s no meaningful oversight, transparency or accountability.”
Another critic called the new TSA program “a pre-crime assessment every time you fly.”
A bipartisan proposal unveiled last month by Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mark Udall, D-Colo., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., is a good start on curbing government surveillance abuse. The measure would end the bulk collection of American’s communications records, limit the legal authority of the government to obtain information from Google and other online service providers, and make the secret court that oversees U.S. surveillance operations far more transparent.
After months of promising change but little action, Obama should back their proposal. And he should enact Holewinski’s recommendations for making drone strikes more transparent. If there is one ideal that Obama needs to embrace it is transparency.
Terrorists know that the United States monitors phone calls and emails worldwide. They already try to act like civilians when drones are overhead. Making drone strikes, TSA screening and NSA surveillance more transparent will build trust at home and solidify counter-terrorism cooperation abroad. Transparency is a strength, not a weakness.
Maine native David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for reporting in Bosnia and Afghanistan.