President's Rhetoric, Popularity Muddling Discussion over Drone Policy

February 19, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

Lawmakers, on national and state fronts, seem a bit more interested in knowing more about the Obama administration’s use of drones in targeted killings abroad and possibly some regulation of the counterterrorism measure. After the weak “white paper,” apparently a brief summary of several documents created by lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel was made public by NBC, lawmakers and a few more journalists have discovered greater interest in the administration’s use of drones to take out suspected terrorists overseas.

But reporting for Salon, Joan Walsh points to some polling that suggests that the administration’s expanding and secretive use of drones is getting a pass from and even winning over some liberals, who were not shy about blasting the Bush administration’s egregious legal reasoning used to justify torture of military detainees.

A poll of 1,000 voters from last summer, conducted by Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler, “found significantly more support for targeted killing of suspected terrorists among white ‘racial liberals’ (i.e., those liberal on issues of race) and African Americans when they were told that Obama supported such a policy than when they were not told it was the president’s policy.”

Walsh’s piece explains Tesler’s work, including some caveats, but concludes the polling suggests that respondents “reaction may be informed by their support for the president, which is at least a little bit troubling. The U.S. is moving into uncharged political, military and moral territory with the use of drones, as well as expanded claims of presidential powers on targeted killings, on what seems to be a global battlefield in time of endless war.”

The support for counterterrorism policy solely or mostly on favorability of the president is highly disconcerting. Especially since the legal reasoning we’ve seen so far looks a lot like a just-trust-me policy. Indeed from a Dish post a couple weeks back, Andrew Sullivan blasted the wobbly white paper for its “corruption of the English language” and for coming “perilously close to the equivalent of ‘Because I said so.’ And the core message is trust me.’”

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi notes the “histornics and gymnastics some people have resorted to in their efforts to defend this infamous drone program. Extralegal murder is not an easy thing to manufacture consent around, and the signs of strain in the press have been pretty clear all around.”


Taibbi continues that The New York Times kept under wraps its knowledge of a U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia “for over a year because, get this, the paper was concerned that it might result in the base being closed.”

The papers’ editorial board then crafted an editorial calling for a toothless and secretive court to oversee the administration’s use of drones for targeted killings. The editorial suggested the court could be modeled after the one that oversees government requests for warrantless spying of suspected terrorists. The FISA court, as Taibbi notes, has rarely rejected the government’s request for warrantless spying.

“So the newspapers bold proposal to right the moral wrong of killing people not only without trial but without charge is to create a secret court that they themselves admit would be little more than a rubber-stamp,” Taibbi writes.

The leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee has demanded that the Obama administration release all the documents that supposedly provide the constitutional underpinnings for the administration’s policy on drones for killing suspected terrorists abroad, even American citizens. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), in their Feb. 7 letter note the obvious constitutional concerns of the drone policy -- like trampling a person’s due process rights.

The president may have provided some compelling liberal rhetoric during his second Inaugural Address and his State of the Union speech, but that rhetoric and his popularity should not mute or befuddle those concerned that his counterterrorism policies may not only be constitutionally suspect, but incredibly counterproductive – creating more terrorists than capturing or killing them.