No secret.

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

Why the U.S. Pretends Drone Strikes Are Secret

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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One of the absurdities about the war on terror is that drone strikes are almost always highly classified by the U.S. government. It's hard to think of a more conspicuous state secret than a pilotless aircraft turning its target into a fireball. And yet, until recently, the Obama administration was reluctant to talk about this publicly in much detail. 

This is starting to change. In May, President Barack Obama himself acknowledged the U.S. drone strike that killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour.  The acknowledgement was significant because he was killed in southwestern Pakistan, a country the U.S. does not consider an active combat zone. Earlier this month, the White House released data for the first time on civilians it estimates have been killed in drone strikes outside of combat zones As one U.S. intelligence official told me Wednesday, the government is beginning to push the envelope on how much it can discuss about its drone strike operations in countries where the U.S. does not acknowledge the war it's fighting against al Qaeda and the Islamic State. 

All of this openness at the end of Obama's second term is welcome. But it's fair to ask, what took so long? On Wednesday, CIA director John Brennan provided a part of this answer: The U.S. operates with the consent of governments where these strikes are happening. There's a catch though. "Sometimes these governments do not want to trumpet that cooperation and they want to keep it quiet," Brennan said. "But I will just caution people to think the United States just goes into airspace abroad without engaging with foreign governments."

We knew from sources like the diplomatic cables disclosed in 2010 by Wikileaks that some countries have acknowledged privately that they lie to their own populations about this issue. One such cable recorded Ali Abdullah Saleh, then president of Yemen, telling General David Petraeus, "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours." 

Nonetheless, it's important Brennan went on the record about this. On the one hand, the request from foreign governments for this secrecy is understandable. None of these leaders would want to admit a super power was operating in his territory. This is particularly true in the Islamic world, where America and its drones are perceived by many as the tip of an imperial spear.

But Americans pay a price for this diplomatic discretion. It means an active American war in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen is largely ignored in the public debate. When the U.S. finally does release its own information about these fields of battle, the delay raises suspicions. Many outside groups said the civilian casualty numbers released this month were too low to be believed.

Finally though, the U.S. does a disservice to the counterterrorism partners who requested the secrecy in the first place. The people in these countries know who is flying the drones. By pretending otherwise, their leaders forgo the chance to make the public case for U.S. airstrikes. Eventually that lie will catch up with even the most discreet dictators and threaten the quiet alliance that all this secrecy was supposed to protect in the first place.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net