Disclosure of government secrets often has little to do with the public’s right to know and has everything to do an official’s need to tell, according to ACLU deputy director Jameel Jaffer.
And that’s especially true when it comes to assassinations, which have not traditionally been an openly admitted component of U.S. foreign policy — but the American Civil Liberities Union is cautioning that the Obama administration is changing all of that.
In an exclusive interview with Raw Story, Jaffer, a key attorney with the rights group, even warned that the Democrat in office has taken a position on unilateral murder so extreme as to be “profoundly troubling” in its legal reach and potential for future use.
“U.S. officials hurt our democracy by withholding information from the courts but then disclosing it to the public whenever it suits their needs,” Jaffer wrote in a Wednesday Los Angeles Times op-ed.
For example, the CIA’s “targeted killing” program has been shrouded in secrecy for years, but a recent Newsweek interview with former CIA lawyer John Rizzo shed light on the policy.
The “kill list,” which Rizzo said he signed off on during his time at the agency, contains about 30 civilians or “unlawful combatants” to be targeted and killed.
“The Predator [drone] is the weapon of choice, but it could also be someone putting a bullet in your head,” Rizzo told the magazine.
“It’s a radical departure that the administration has taken from historical practice,” Jaffer told Raw Story. “The administration has taken the position that it has the authority — not just in traditional war zones like Afghanistan, but far away from traditional war zones in places like Somalia or Yemen — to use lethal force against anyone whom the administration concludes is an enemy of the United States.”
“To us, that’s a profoundly troubling assertion. The reality is that many Americans trust the Obama administration with this power. Even if it’s justifiable to trust this administration with that power — and I’m not sure that it is — but even if it is justifiable, you have to consider what the next administration will do with this power. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to come up with a scenario where a power like this could be abused,” he said.
The ACLU wrote a letter to President Barack Obama last year urging him to reject the targeted killing of Americans outside of conflict zones.
“At the very least, we think that the administration ought to disclose more about the program, more about the scope of the program, the scope of the authority that it’s claiming and the circumstances it believes it can use lethal force,” Jaffer continued.
He explained that it was hard to be upset with Rizzo, but the public deserves to hear the truth through official channels.
“Allowing government officials to eschew official information channels in favor of unofficial ones has real consequences,” Jaffer said. “It’s not just that officials can control what information is released to the public, and when, and in what contexts. They can also control which legal challenges get heard, because courts can’t adjudicate challenges to government policies if they don’t know what those policies are. When the executive branch strips the courts of information, it also strips them of authority.”
The ACLU director also said that there were direct consequences for Americans when the government abuses secrecy.
“Americans are denied the opportunity to participate in the conversation about counter-terrorism policy. When we don’t know what the government’s policies are, we can’t critique those policies or reject them.”
David Edwards has served as an editor at Raw Story since 2006. His work can also be found at Crooks & Liars, and he's also been published at The BRAD BLOG. He came to Raw Story after working as a network manager for the state of North Carolina and as as engineer developing enterprise resource planning software. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidEdwards.
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