The White House wants to reduce the secrecy surrounding lethal drone strikes and other counterterrorism efforts, with an eye on President Obama's legacy when he leaves office in 14 months.
Key administration officials are uncomfortable leaving Obama’s successor with a murky regime of drone strikes largely shielded from public scrutiny, people involved in discussions with the White House say.
This week, top administration officials met with legal experts and human rights advocates to discuss how to reveal more information to the public.
“It’s clear to me that senior officials have concerns about the status quo,” said one advocate who has had discussions with the White House. “It’s not like there’s a complacency about what they’re doing.
“I’m very optimistic that they’re going to make some push. What that would yield is unclear to me.”
On Wednesday, human rights advocates and legal experts met with top White House lawyers Lisa Monaco and Avril Haines for a roughly hour-long roundtable on new transparency efforts.
Monaco, Haines and other White House officials were in “listening mode,” according to one person who attended the meeting.
President Obama "wants to make available to the public as much information as possible about U.S. counterterrorism operations and the use of force overseas,” White House spokesman Ned Price added in a statement to The Hill.
“This week's discussion with outside advocates and experts underscored that we remain committed to that objective.”
Price cited recent disclosures about strikes in Iraq, Syria and Somalia as evidence of that transparency.
“We will continue to explore additional avenues for increased transparency consistent with our national security prerogatives,” he added.
If the administration decides to release details about its targeted killing program, it would be another step in what critics describe as a slow and painful drip of information.
When Obama first entered office, the administration refused to even publicly acknowledge the drone program, despite ongoing strikes being common knowledge.
Increasing public scrutiny eventually forced some light on the program.
In 2013, Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulTrump’s feud with the press in the spotlight Rand Paul: We’re very lucky John McCain’s not in charge Rand Paul: John Bolton would be a 'bad choice' for national security adviser MORE (R-Ky.) launched a 13-hour filibuster of the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan, in part because of continued secrecy surrounding the controversial drone program.
In a high-profile speech at National Defense University later that spring, Obama laid out his philosophy for the use of drone strikes and other counterterrorism efforts. He pledged to have set a “high threshold ... for taking lethal action” and called for “strong oversight.”
Last year, the government released a redacted version of a 2010 Justice Department memo outlining the legal basis for killing Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen. The memo was released following a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act from The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Much about the government’s policies, though, remains cloaked in secrecy.
In part, that’s because many of the U.S.’s drone missions are launched by the CIA, as part of a covert effort that is barred from public disclosure. Despite repeated efforts to put the Pentagon in sole control of drone missions, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill insist that the CIA retain some control.
Some advocates of the current system believe that the CIA has a unique capability that the Defense Department is simply unable to match.
Another barrier is Pakistan. Many American drone strikes occur in Pakistan, but the program’s continued secrecy allows the Pakistani government to retain a plausible deniability about its own involvement, which is crucial to preventing a public backlash.
“Speaking for example of Pakistan, the biggest impediment to there being transparency I don’t think is the Americans; it’s really the Pakistanis,” said C. Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University who specializes in South Asian security, “because you don’t want anyone knowing the degree to which they are complicit in this program."
Among other issues, critics of the government’s secrecy want to see legal definitions of key terms outlining when drone strikes are authorized. The government has maintained that it is allowed to kill an American if he or she poses an “imminent threat” of violence against the U.S. and cannot be captured.
They have also pushed for the Obama administration to release statistics about the number of people killed in strikes, the percentage directly targeted and other data. Outside organizations such as The Bureau of Investigative Journalism have compiled data about the strikes, but the government has remained tight-lipped.
As the White House looks toward a new president taking office, it might be inclined to be more public about its framework.
“Unsurprisingly, Obama administration officials think that they have used these powers responsibly. Whether that’s true or not, I’m sure that they don’t have the same confidence in the people who will occupy their offices two years or four years or 10 years from now.” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the ACLU, who did not attend Wednesday’s meeting.
“They must be thinking through what limits do we want to place on these authorities that we’ve claimed.“