House Republican says Obama administration needs to do better with drone reporting

Critics knock White House attempts at transparency

WASHINGTON, D.C. - After pushing for more disclosures from the White House related to its drone program, Rep. Mac Thornberry has given the Obama administration failing marks on a new secret report detailing drone strikes.

The vice chairman of the House Armed Service Committee says he can’t give the particulars of why the report isn’t up to snuff because it’s classified.

But the drone report, which was originally due in late March, only materialized after a proposal became public to withhold funding to a Pentagon office.

The secretary of defense’s report to congressional defense committees is supposed to detail the legal justification and process for approving targets in kill or capture operations carried out by U.S. armed forces outside the United States and Afghanistan.

“I don’t think this is just another report. This is serious issues on which the Congress needs to conduct serious oversight,” Thornberry said.

The Texas Republican authored the law requiring the classified report and said he will consult with both Democrats and other Republicans in the Senate and House to see if they share his view.

“If so, we’re going to let the Pentagon know,” the Republican from Clarendon said. "We had to make sure the administration understood this is not just another report that you can lollygag on."

With Thornberry finding the report wanting, the fate of the funding is uncertain. In any case, using the power of the purse strings often gets Congress results.

“When Mac Thornberry says, ‘This homework assignment is incomplete, and you’re not getting your allowance,’ the executive branch is going to listen,” said Cully Stimson, senior legal fellow at conservative think tank Heritage Foundation and manager of its National Security Law Program.

Carried out under the Bush administration and stepped up under Obama, drone strikes are a lightning rod for controversy. The public and Congress are mostly in the dark about target approval, including of suspected American terrorists abroad. And human rights groups protest drone attacks, saying they kill innocent civilians.

Obama has more than once pledged more transparency on drone activity, urging the military to take the lead in providing information during a late May speech at West Point.

His critics greeted that with skepticism. 

“I certainly have been incredibly disappointed by the lack of transparency by this administration,” said Andrea Prasow, Human Rights Watch deputy Washington director.

As for the report, Prasow said the American public and the global public have a right to know the administration’s legal justification for targeted killing.

The public should know the legal rationale for each individual strike, the target’s identity, whether the target was killed, whether people who were not the target were killed and what steps were taken to minimize civilian harm, she said.

Stimson said the Obama administration has created its own problem with repeated claims about being the most transparent administration ever.

“It’s a dangerous world, and you can’t release all your secrets for the world to see,” he said. “You can’t even expect the executive branch in any administration to release everything of a classified nature to the Congress. They play an important role on oversight. That’s for sure, but oversight has limits.”

Scripps Washington correspondent Trish Choate can be reached at Trish.Choate@Scripps.com and @Trish_In_DC.

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