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News Opinion Editorial

The secret wars

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and the other leaders of Congress' intelligence committees this week issued a strong, bi-partisan statement of condemnation for recent leaks of classified information about America's clandestine operations abroad, including its cyber-warfare against Iran and drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. They promised new legislation to clamp down on leaks that they say can endanger Americans. Sen. John McCain went further, alleging that the Obama administration has engaged in a double standard on leaking — aggressively prosecuting low-level leakers while tolerating or even encouraging high-level leaks of information that could bolster the president's re-election prospects.

There is no doubt that the White House's attitude about leaking classified material during this administration and others has been selective. President Obama, who promised transparency when running for office, has prosecuted more leakers than all of his predecessors combined. But his administration has also disclosed details of drone strikes on al-Qaida operatives, even though they are run under classified CIA programs. The Bush administration, likewise, leaked intelligence information that bolstered its case for war in Iraq. Later, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, was convicted for his role in outing covert CIA agent Valerie Plame, another leak that served a political purpose. Classified information should not be used as a political tool.

But the effort by Mr. Ruppersberger and his colleagues skirts a more fundamental question: What should be classified and what shouldn't? In as much as recent leaks may have had a political dimension, they have also opened a window on new and aggressive military action in nations with which we are not at war. They have exposed to the public view actions that have placed the United States in uncharted moral and strategic ground and which demand a fuller public debate.

The drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen have long raised questions about the president's authority to order strikes against suspected terrorists who are not on the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan and who have never been charged with a crime in the U.S. When the president declares a militant an "enemy combatant" and puts his name on a CIA "kill-or-capture list" he is essentially acting as judge, jury and executioner. Yet because the drone program is classified as secret, the decision is never open to public scrutiny.

That problem was highlighted last year when a drone attack killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-born al-Qaida propagandist who also happened to be a U.S. citizen. Mr. Awlaki may have been a bad person, but the point is we have no way of knowing all the facts used to justify killing him because they're classified. We simply have to take it on faith that the president made the right decision, just as we have to take the CIA's word that very few innocent civilians are killed by drone attacks.

The secret cyber-attacks approved by the president to disable Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program raise a similar line of questions about the president's power to wage war without congressional authorization or oversight. Reportedly, the cyber-war against Iran's uranium enrichment facility at Natanz has been going on for at least five years; that's longer than America's involvement in World War II, and the public never even knew it was happening. Because of the secrecy surrounding the conflict, there's been virtually no discussion of whether such attacks are legal under international law, or of whether they constitute an act of war in the traditional sense or are merely a sophisticated form of espionage.

The distinction might seem of little consequence as long as such methods slow Tehran's drive to build a bomb. But what are the rules of engagement for such actions? Have we conducted similar operations in other countries? And consider how our government would react if a foreign power conducted a similar attack on U.S. soil, especially if it weren't confined to an isolated plant but knocked out other critical infrastructure such as the electrical grid or the nation's water supply. Chances are we would respond with all the means at our disposal short of a nuclear weapon, up to and including an invasion.

Both the Obama and Bush administrations have treated the use of drones and malicious computer codes as something in between conventional war and spying, which is perhaps understandable because the new weapons combine elements of both. But when such weapons start killing people and destroying targets in countries with which we are technically at peace, the difference hardly matters. The leaks of classified information that have brought these attacks to light may be vexing to members of Congress, but without them, we could not begin to hold our elected officials accountable for the damage — and violence — they do in our name.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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