COLUMN - The 'trust me' administration

David Rohde
Reuters Middle East

(David Rohde is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his


NEW YORK, Feb 6 (Reuters) - In a bold second inaugural

address, one line was my favorite.

"We will defend our people and uphold our values," President

Barack Obama declared, "through strength of arms and rule of


Obama was right to describe the "rule of law" as a weapon

the United States can use to defend itself. But the

administration's insistence on enveloping its counter-terrorism

efforts in excessive secrecy flouts the rule of law. A proud

American ideal is being turned into a liability, not an asset.

"It's not sufficient for the administration to say, 'Trust

us, we're taking care of it,' " said Amrit Singh, author of a

new Open Society Institute report that raises numerous questions

about the United States' use of rendition and torture since

2001. "There needs to be greater transparency."

One reason residents of Pakistan, Yemen and other countries

so bitterly oppose covert drone strikes is that they flout the

"rule of law." A legal concept that dates to Aristotle, the rule

of law means the legal code's supremacy over autocratic


Given the current unrest in the Middle East, Americans'

cynicism about the spread of such ideals is understandable. But

the "rule of law" is a galvanizing concept around the world.

From Syria to Brazil to China, people are demanding governments

that are accountable to them, less corrupt and merit-based.

Establishing those ideals is extraordinarily difficult, but the

popular desire is clear.

The Obama administration's covert drone program is on the

wrong side of history. With each strike, Washington presents

itself as an opponent of the rule of law, not a supporter. Not

surprisingly, a foreign power killing people with no public

discussion, or review of who died and why, promotes anger among

Pakistanis, Yemenis and many others.

Questions about covert drone strikes are finally being asked

in Washington. Hearings tomorrow on whether John Brennan should

become the next CIA director will bring rare scrutiny to the

program. And NBC News' publication of a leaked Justice

Department memo justifying the administration's claim that it

has the authority to kill an American citizen without judicial

review is finally prompting criticism as well.

While attention has rightly focused on the number of

civilians killed in the covert strikes, a story in the New York

Times on Wednesday revealed another destructive by-product of

the overreliance on drones. The piece described how Yemen's

elite, U.S.-trained counterterrorism unit has been posted to

traffic duty in the capital in recent weeks. Instead of the

force carrying out raids to capture militants, drones are being


The approach is counterproductive in two ways. Using local

security forces to kill and capture militants is more precise,

popular and effective in the long run than drone strikes. And by

snubbing local forces, the United States is alienating its


"We could be going after some of these guys," a member of

the elite force told the Times. "That's what we're trained to

do, and the Americans trained us. It doesn't make sense."

The United States is ignoring its own calls for

transparency. Singh's report, "Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret

Detention and Extraordinary Rendition," found that at least 136

people were victims of "extraordinary rendition" by the United

States under the George W. Bush administration. It reveals that

at least 54 countries have assisted in the effort by allowing

U.S. planes carrying detainees to land on their territory.

But the full extent of the program - and whether it

continues in any form today - remains unknown. Both the Obama

administration and congressional oversight committees have

failed to release exhaustive reviews and basic documents that

could set the record straight.

Brennan, who served in the CIA at the time, has denied

approving of extraordinary rendition or torture. Officials

inside and outside the administration portray him as a moderate

who favors minimizing drone strikes, opposes torture and favors

increasing transparency. His move to Langley is an effort, they

say, to shift drone strikes from covert CIA activities to more

overt attacks carried out by the U.S. military.

If true, that would be a welcome step. But the Obama

administration has a long record of promising transparency and

then embracing secrecy - from drone strikes to legal memos to

unprecedented prosecutions of government officials for leaking

to the news media.

Accusing Obama's actions of falling short of his rhetoric is

nothing new. His excessive embrace of secrecy, though, is more

than a case of inaction. It is a faulty policy that is a

flagrant display of American hypocrisy in predominantly Muslim

countries, where we need public support. Muslim moderates who

yearn for the rule of law are our potential allies. In the end,

only they, not U.S. soldiers, have the power to eradicate


I support using drone strikes as a last resort. They have

helped kill senior militants in Pakistan's tribal areas. But

targeted killing in any form is not a magic bullet.

In Pakistan, drone strikes have created a stalemate. Senior

militants are killed, but their deputies cite exaggerated

civilian casualty counts to gain new recruits. The CIA weakens

militant groups but can't eradicate them.

Drones strikes should be minimized and made public. Why an

attack is carried out, who is killed and if civilians died

should be publicly detailed.

At best, the Brennan move will increase transparency. But it

may be too late. Since 2001 the United States has acted as a

high-handed power not subject to the law. For more than a

decade, average Pakistanis and Yemenis, whose support we need to

isolate militants, have seen this.

Now, Americans are finally seeing it as well.

(David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, two-time winner of

the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter for The New York

Times. His forthcoming book, "Beyond War: Reimagining American

Influence in a New Middle East" will be published in April


(David Rohde)

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