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Gibbs: I was ordered not to acknowledge drone program existed

Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Sunday that he and other administration spokesmen often seem evasive about the government's drone program because they have been told not to acknowledge the secret strikes.

“When I went through the process of becoming press secretary," Gibbs told MSNBC, "one of the things, one of the first things they told me was, 'You’re not even to acknowledge the drone program. You’re not even to discuss that it exists.' "

The former press secretary said that instruction led to a sort of "Wizard of Oz" phenomenon when he was asked about drone operations in the press briefing.

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“Here’s what’s inherently crazy about that proposition," Gibbs said. "You’re being asked a question based on reporting of a program that exists. So you’re the official government spokesperson acting as if the entire program — pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

Current White House press secretary Jay Carney has acknowledged the drone program in recent weeks, as questions have swirled over a leaked Justice Department white paper that outlines the legal justifications that the government claims enable it to carry out drone strikes against terrorist-affiliated American citizens abroad. But President Obama had previously spoken publicly about the drone program, freeing the current press secretary in some regards.

Carney has said the strikes were "necessary to mitigate ongoing attacks" and argued "they are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise."

On Sunday, Gibbs said he had not discussed transparency over the program with the president, but believed Obama saw an advantage in discussing the drone strikes more openly.

Gibbs said attempting to ignore the strikes "when it’s obviously happening, undermines people’s confidence overall in the decisions that their government makes."

Lawmakers have called for greater scrutiny of the drone program, with Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) intending to hold hearings on a federal court to oversee the strikes.

During the State of the Union address earlier this month, Obama pledged greater transparency in the program.

"In the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world," Obama said.