Director of National Intelligence James Clapper

At the request of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and the wider executive branch, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is chaired by Senator Dianne Feinstein, agreed to remove a provision in an intelligence bill that would have required the president to release an annual report on casualties from drone strikes launched by the United States.

On April 18, Clapper sent Feinstein and Senator Saxby Chambliss, vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, a letter essentially outlining why President Barack Obama’s administration was not ready for transparency yet.

“The Executive Branch is currently exploring ways in which it can provide the American people more information about the United States’ use of force outside areas of active hostilities,” Clapper states.

“To be meaningful to the public, any report,” which included data on the number of “combatants” and civilians killed by “targeted lethal force,” “would require context and be drafted carefully so as to protect against the disclosure of intelligence sources and methods or other classified information.”

He later adds, “We are confident that we can find a reporting structure that provides the American people additional information to inform their understanding of important government operations to protect our nation, while preserving the ability to continue those operations.”

The words “exploring ways” would seem to be the clearest indication of foot-dragging and resistance to transparency.

Leaders like Clapper, especially those in intelligence, will always err on the side of enforced and total secrecy. At the GEOINT conference in Tampa, Florida, on April 15, Clapper gave his version of why the intelligence community had released documents on NSA surveillance after Edward Snowden disclosed information.

“We need to engage in the kind of national conversation that free societies have - to correct misunderstandings that lead to false allegations in the media and to counter misperceptions that the [intelligence community] work force is violating civil liberties. So we made the painful choice to declassify critical documents in the interest of being more transparent,” Clapper stated.

Similarly, the language in Clapper’s letter offers a hint at what senators, intelligence agency heads and White House officials mean when they say “transparency” in the same sentence as drone strikes.

Clapper and others are working to be “more transparent” on drone strikes, but in a way that will not lead the public to “misunderstand” drone operations. That means whatever data is disclosed has to be presented in a manner that will ensure the public is not outraged by what is disclosed.

The “reporting structure” Clapper and Feinstein probably favor is one where they could provide the context they want to explain or justify civilian deaths. For example, consider a recent drone strike in Yemen that reportedly killed 12 people who the US government believes were “al Qaeda militants.” The strike also killed three civilians when, as one Yemeni official put it, “their pickup truck unexpectedly appeared next to [a] targeted vehicle.”

This would be important context to include in an annual report because Obama administration officials could claim they had “not specifically targeted” these civilians. It was an accident. The civilians in the pickup truck should not have been driving nearby the vehicle they targeted when the US was about to launch a drone strike, and so it was unfortunate. But deaths like this would not be critical enough to discontinue the program of so-called targeted killings.

As Feinstein explained at CIA Director John Brennna’s confirmation hearing early in 2013:

I have been calling and others have been calling — the vice chairman and I — on the use of — for increased transparency on the use of targeted force for over a year, including the circumstances in which such force is directed against U.S. citizens and noncitizens alike.

I’ve also been attempting to speak publicly about the very low number of civilian casualties that result from such strikes. I have been limited in my ability to do so. But for the past several years, this committee has done significant oversight of the government’s conduct of targeted strikes, and the figures we have obtained from the executive branch, which we have done our utmost to verify, confirm that the number of civilian casualties that have resulted from such strikes each year has typically been in the single digits. When I asked to give out the actual numbers, I’m told, you can’t. And I say, why not? Because it’s classified. It’s a covert program. For the public, it doesn’t exist.

Well, I think that rationale, Mr. Brennan, is long gone. And I’m going to talk to you in my questions a little bit about that because I think it’s very important that we share this data with people.

In other words, Feinstein would like to correct the “misperception” on the number of civilian casualties occurring from drone strikes that she thinks undermines support for these operations, however, she cannot go on a more aggressive campaign because she is constrained by secrecy.

Interestingly, this context would likely require the disclosure of information that if leaked to the press, would lead Clapper and Feinstein to call for a fierce investigation into whomever was responsible.

There are also lawsuits by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which argue that certain information must be released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Obama administration has fought these requests. If the president released an annual report with some context, what effect would that have on those lawsuits?

For Clapper, any step taken to provide a bit of transparency would have to pose no threat to the current secrecy regime, which benefits the executive branch immensely. Even information that would make the administration look good has to remain concealed until the finer details can be worked out.

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.