(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