SEAL Team 6: A Big Secret, Unless Obama Wants to Brag
Having to choose between siding with the Obama administration and siding with the ACLU is tough -- but the ACLU wins this one.
The ACLU sued the CIA for information about the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son, and Samir Khan in CIA/JSOC drone strikes in Pakistan. The goal was to force the government to present its legal justification for targeting and killing American citizens and to establish oversight into the process, including what may have been a secret process to strip the three of their US citizenship1.
The Obama administration claimed that what it did was legal and argued for secrecy based on national security. The ACLU lost two related federal court cases against the CIA -- one in which al-Awlaki's father was deemed not to have standing to sue, and one in which the court said administration comments on the drone program were not specific enough to constitute "public disclosure" of the existence of the programs.
Suddenly, however, the administration can't seem to stop talking. In what appears to be an effort to claim reflected glory, the administration is not only openly defending the "secret" drone strikes, but also talking about the glories of SEAL Team 6, the formerly secret elite-of-the-elite U.S. commando team.
In an online "town hall," a questioner asked the president about a) the number of drone strikes and b) reports of civilian casualties. Creating a straw man, Mr. Obama replied that the "perception" that "we're just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly" is wrong -- although the questioner never suggested that they were "willy-nilly" or ill-conceived. He simply told the president, [You] "ordered more drone attacks in your first year than your predecessor did in his entire term."
Said the president, "This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists, who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases and so on...I think that we have to be judicious in how we use drones[.] ... And I want to make sure that people understand that drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties. For the most part, they have been very precise, precision strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates."
Translation: we are doing it, and we are good at it.
That should be enough for the ACLU to ask under what circumstances the United States government puts people on that list and specifically how American citizens come to be there. The fact that al-Awlaki was probably most people's least-favorite natural-born citizen isn't at issue. When the president talks to Americans on the internet about a policy/program, it strains credulity for the courts to say that the "fact of the existence or non-existence" of the drone program is undetermined.
Not anymore, it isn't.
The president and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have been talking quite a lot about SEAL Team 6 as well. The commando team was formed in the early 1980s and rarely mentioned until now. It was used in Greneda, Panama, and Bosnia, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. Who knew? Its profile was raised after the rescue of a Merchant Marine Captain from Somali pirates in 2009, and then President Obama hailed them publicly after the killing of Osama bin Laden. He gave them a "shout-out" during the State of the Union address for the rescue of aid workers taken hostage in Somalia.
During a recent 60 Minutes interview, Scott Pelley noted that Bin Laden's "house is also short one brick. Hanging on the wall of his office, Panetta has a memento that CIA officers brought him. Labeled it bin Laden's code name: Geronimo, Abbottabad Pakistan."
Retired Navy Commander J.D. Gordon wrote in The Washington Times this week that one result of the increased spotlight on the SEALS is "their identities [are] closer to being disclosed ... they all live and train somewhere. High-profile discussions draw more attention to them personally, their families, their bases and their local communities. That presents force-protection concerns in our open society." Furthermore, Gordon wrote, team members do not seek glory from the president. "Their reward was the pride in accepting and achieving the toughest challenges the military had to offer -- and that the nation relied on them."
So on the one hand, the administration fights to keep secret the mechanism by which it determines who is targetable for death -- including American citizens who have not had their day in court -- under a program with no judicial or congressional oversight. On the other, it basks in reflected glory by shining a spotlight on military forces that work best unknown and certainly unseen.
Both are recipes for undermining the security of our country.
Which is why Press Secretary Jay Carney's response to a question about drones -- as reported in The Washington Post this week -- is so scary. "Carney suggested that nothing Obama had said could be a security violation: 'He's the commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States. He's the president of the United States.'"
Oh...well, OK, then.
Shoshana Bryen is senior director of The Jewish Policy Center. She has more than 30 years' experience as a defense policy analyst and was previously senior director for security policy at JINSA and author of JINSA Reports (1995-2011).
1 It took the Justice Department from 1977 to 2002 to revoke the citizenship of John Demjanjuk, a naturalized citizen, on charges that he lied abut his Nazi past on his immigration papers. It took until 2005 to get a deportation order and until 2009 to actually deport him. Awlaki was born in the United States.