Revealed: Why Obama won't show the rest of his drone memos to Congress

The Senate Intel Committee’s seen four memos. Turns out, per Dianne Feinstein, that the White House has many more in its files and is very, very reluctant to share the rest — to the point that it’s willing to make a deal with the hated GOP to keep them covered up. From Wednesday’s NYT:

Rather than agreeing to some Democratic senators’ demands for full access to the classified legal memos on the targeted killing program, Obama administration officials are negotiating with Republicans to provide more information on the lethal attack last year on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, according to three Congressional staff members.

The strategy is intended to produce a bipartisan majority vote for Mr. Brennan in the Senate Intelligence Committee without giving its members seven additional legal opinions on targeted killing sought by senators and while protecting what the White House views as the confidentiality of the Justice Department’s legal advice to the president.

That made it sound like the White House was holding back simply to make things easier for its nominee, a revelation that didn’t go over well in civil libertarian circles and ended up giving Jon Stewart 10 minutes of material about the Most Transparent Administration Evah last night. So now it’s time for Plan B — the real reason why they won’t release the memos. Is this it, or will we move to Plan C next week if Obama takes heat for this too?

A key reason for that reticence, according to two sources who have read the memos or are aware of their contents, is that the documents contain secret protocols with foreign governments, including Pakistan and Yemen, as well as “case-specific” details of strikes…

“That is what is missing from the white paper but forms a core part of memos,” the expert told National Journal, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information is classified. He said the administration believes that the protocols would almost certainly leak to the public if they were shared with Congress…

It’s not clear how many such secret government-to-government protocols exist. At least some were made with since-deposed dictators such as Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. Others may have been signed with the leaders of Algeria and Mali, the legal expert said. Given the widespread unpopularity of the drone program, the disclosure of these agreements could prove extremely embarrassing both for the United States and partner governments. That’s especially true of Pakistan, where Islamabad’s troubled military alliance with Washington and an intense U.S. drone campaign against Taliban and al Qaida targets have provoked fierce anti-Americanism…

“These guys don’t even know what the hell they’re asking for,” [an Obama administration] official said. “They think they can ‘reverse-engineer’ the [drone] program by asking for more memos, but these are not necessarily things that exist or are relevant … What they’re asking for is to get more people read into very sensitive programs. That’s not a small decision.”

Any reason why the White House would be worried about fueling a backlash in Yemen or Pakistan? Well, here’s where we’re at right now opinion-wise in the latter:


If a memo leaks and lays out in gory detail just how deeply involved the Pakistani government is in facilitating U.S. drone attacks, at a minimum you risk Islamabad pulling out of the arrangement in embarrassment and leaving the CIA’s hands tied. Beyond that, the White House’s absolute worst-case foreign-policy scenario is seeing Pakistan destabilized by jihadis and its frighteningly large nuclear stockpile ending up in play. Could be that O and his advisors have concluded that, with anti-Americanism peaking there, it’s simply too risky to further weaken the government with an unpopular revelation. Although in that case (a) isn’t continuing the drone program a much, much greater risk? And (b) if Pakistanis are sufficiently aware of the drone program to fuel the sort of polling you see above, don’t most of them already assume the complicity of their government? We’ve been firing missiles at people on the ground there for years and years; Pakistanis can’t be so naive as to think this is all being done against Islamabad’s wishes. Then again, who knows what’s in the memos? Could be that some of the less rogue elements in ISI are helping identify targets or steering them covertly to locations where it’s easier for us to reach them. Or maybe this is all a smokescreen and the real reason Obama doesn’t want the memos released is because they’re a bit more candid about the death toll — which could be much, much higher than Americans have been led to believe.

Anyway. Your move, Dianne Feinstein. Better move quickly, too — the next drone base is being built as we speak. Exit question via lefty William Saletan: If drones are an unacceptable form of war, despite involving no risk to Americans and minimal risk to foreign civilians, what’s left?