Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has announced that a U.S. drone strike recently killed one of AQAP’s senior commanders, Nasr Ibn Ali al-Ansi. This would, of course, be a very significant achievement in the U.S.’s armed conflict with al Qaeda; therefore the U.S. government presumably would want to confirm it to American and international audiences, and commend those responsible for it.
In his press conference yesterday, however, Secretary of Defense Carter did not so much as mention it. Not surprisingly, then, a member of the press corps asked him about it in the Q&A. The Secretary’s response was: “I’m afraid I cannot give you a specific response on this particular strike. We just don’t talk about those and certainly not from this podium.” Another questioner pointed out that “the U.S. military has announced drone strikes in the past or alluded to drone strikes in the past in Somalia,” and asked the Secretary whether there have been “military drone strikes in Yemen in the recent weeks [or] months.” Carter’s reply:
With respect to drones, I’m limited in what I can say, but I will say the following: we — the president included and especially — believe in being as transparent as we possibly can with all of the measures we take to protect America and our citizens and friends and allies around the world.
And drones are no different. They’re used only when it’s necessary and appropriate and there’s no better way to achieve the same objective. As you know, we have a preference to capture individuals who are a terrorist threat, so it’s done with the utmost care and deliberation. And I think that’s the most important thing.
Obviously, we in the Defense Department stand ready to do whatever the president wants us to do and play whatever role he wants us to play in this, but I think the important impulse here is one of transparency and conveying the care taken to make sure that these actions are necessary, appropriate, and lawful. And I’m afraid I can’t really talk about particular places, because that’s in the nature of things.
What’s going on here? If the President and the Secretary “believe in being as transparent as we possibly can with all of the measures we take to protect America and our citizens and friends and allies around the world,” and that it is important to convey “the care taken to make sure that these actions are necessary, appropriate, and lawful,” what, exactly, is the “nature of things” that “limits what [the Secretary] can say” and that prevents him from “talk[ing] about particular places”?
The U.S. now regularly acknowledges that it uses force against AQAP in Yemen; and last year a Department of Defense proposal to permit greater transparency about such uses of force was (reportedly) close to being approved. What’s happened? Perhaps there are good reasons for such nonacknowledgement here; but, if so, they certainly aren’t obvious: After all, how common has it been, throughout history, for militaries to refuse even to confirm when they have successfully killed high-level commanders of enemy forces? Accordingly, shouldn’t the Secretary at the very least explain why he can’t talk about what AQAP itself is freely broadcasting about a successful U.S. strike? Otherwise, I’m afraid the government’s continued silence on such matters will simply look absurd, and indefensible, to most of the world–as though the government has something to hide, even if it doesn’t.