Drone of silence: the national-security policy that Obama and Romney won’t debate

Robert Gibbs was holding court in the press room at last week’s second presidential debate at Hofstra University. The former White House press secretary turned senior adviser to the Obama campaign had a single-minded mission of boosting the president to quote-obsessed reporters. So it is easy to imagine Gibbs’ exasperation when he began being hectored by video journalists from the activist group We Are Change.

Their recently released three-minute video of the encounter is mostly familiar footage of a campaign mouthpiece trying to deflect off-message questions from unknown reporters. Asked about drone attacks, Gibbs retreated to the kind of non-responsive answer that he used to deliver from the lectern in the White House press room: “When there are people who are trying to harm us -- and have pledged to bring terror to these shores -- we've taken that fight to them."

What came next is what makes this press room face-off sadly emblematic of larger truths. The question involved the drone killing a year ago in Yemen of a United States citizen, the 16-year-old son of American-born cleric and al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki.

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This was Gibbs’ cold-blooded answer about the lesson from this murder from the skies: “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well-being of their children. I don’t think becoming an al-Qaida jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.”

All the perfumes of Arabia will not wash that one away.

Yes, Gibbs was provoked. And he has not held a governmental role since he left the White House in early 2011. (At the time, Barack Obama praised Gibbs, who was earning $172,200 a year, for “going 24/7 with relatively modest pay”). So these ghoulish pick-your-parents-carefully comments by Gibbs were not a statement of official administration policy.

Yet Gibbs was one of Obama’s closest advisers during the early days of the administration when the president began personally picking the suspected terrorists who would be targeted by drone attacks. So Gibbs is familiar with the presidential rationale for these targeted killings and the collateral damage that sometimes accompanies them. As a result, Gibbs’ answer carries more policy weight than, say, a response from Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Democratic National Committee.

The mindset surrounding the drone attacks is analogous to Richard Nixon’s declaration, “When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.” In this case, Gibbs was saying, in effect, “When the president kills you with a drone strike, that means you are a terrorist.” And if you are an American citizen like the 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, then you too are fair game.

Except that this teenager was not with his father when he died in 2011. As Tom Junod reported in Esquire, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki had not seen his father in two years and was searching for him -- haunted as many boys are by the missing imprint of a male parent. Given the blanket of executive secrecy surrounding the president’s kill list, we do not know why the group of relatives and friends that he was eating dinner with by the side of the road was targeted by a drone.

(Gibbs presumably incorrectly assumed that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was collateral damage in the drone attack that killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. At the time, Obama declared, “The death of Awlaki is a major blow to al-Qaida’s most active operational affiliate).

Drone strikes are not, as Gibbs clearly understood, a major voting issue in this campaign. And for that sliver of the electorate concerned about this airborne assassination program, November 6 offers scant choice, unless you want to cast a minor-party protest vote. Mitt Romney -- whose overall tone in this campaign has been more hawkish than Obama’s -- unhesitatingly embraced the president’s drone policy during Monday night’s final debate.

The Washington Post reported this week that the Obama administration is developing a “disposition matrix” for its next-generation terrorist assassination program. (The adjective Orwellian is over-used, but it is undeniably apt for a kill list being euphemistically reworked as a “disposition matrix”).

During the Vietnam War, George Aiken, a Republican senator from Vermont, suggested that America should declare victory and come home. Eleven years after the Sept. 11 attacks and 18 months after the death of Osama bin Laden, it is time to debate how long America is justified in using drone attacks against the remnants of al-Qaida and other groups of loosely affiliated terrorists.

Is this war without end, amen? Does the bureaucratic momentum of the drone program mean that it will continue for decades? Is there another kind of disposition matrix that will tell us when the costs of the drone program (from terrorist recruiting to collateral damage) outweigh its benefits?

Obviously, America should not relax its vigilance against terrorist threats. (Of course, heavy-handed airport security is another story). But drone strikes are a form of military convenience – no boots on the ground and no American casualties (aside from the stray teenager in Yemen). And at a certain point, it becomes difficult to justify both practically and morally such extraordinary measures based on a horrible morning in 2001.

But, alas, that kind of debate will not be conducted during the last 12 days of the presidential race or anytime soon.

Robert Gibbs’ callous commentary under duress in the press room at Hofstra is not a definitive administration statement. But it is troubling how little else we have to go on to understand the drone attacks that may indeed be Barack Obama’s most enduring national security initiative.