Foreign Policy Blogs

Pakistan or “the country in question”?

Photo Credit: Todd Huffman

Photo Credit: Todd Huffman

On Monday, February 10, the Associated Press broke a story that the Obama administration is mulling over potentially conducting a drone strike on a U.S. citizen in an unidentified country who is allegedly plotting terrorist attacks. The AP notes that it withheld the name of the country “because officials said publishing it could interrupt ongoing counterterror operations.”

A number of news organizations took the same route as the AP, including the Washington Post, withholding the name of the “country in question”—a phrase used in the initial AP article.

On Monday night, however, the New York Times broke the mold, identifying the country as Pakistan. Carolyn Ryan, the Times’ D.C. bureau chief, told the Huffington Post in an email that the decision wasn’t a rash one.

“We take every request from the government seriously, but I worry that their requests to withhold information have become almost blanket policy,” she said.

Given the ongoing debates surrounding transparency in the U.S. drone policy, especially those after Obama’s “revamped” drone policy unveiled in May 2013, the question of whether the administration’s request is reasonable raises some interesting points.

On the one hand, there could be some strategic motives behind limiting the information surrounding the possible strike. It could be a preventative measure to keep the target from fleeing. It could be because of a recently imposed limit on drone strikes in Pakistan. Just one week ago, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. was “sharply” curtailing strikes as the Pakistani government engages in peace talks with the Taliban. Nevertheless, U.S. officials made it clear that there were two cases in which it would break the moratorium: 1) if a senior al Qaeda target became “available”; 2) to stop an “imminent threat” to the United States.

On the other hand, these requests are arguably symptomatic of the very problems that drove much of the uproar surrounding drones in the first place. The program has been shrouded in secrecy since it began. Key details — such as civilian deaths, the criteria for populating “kill lists,” and the explicit legal basis of the program — remain incomplete or totally missing. We know the “five points” that each strike must adhere to. As for the rest, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions and lawyer Sarah Knuckey told the Guardian, “we are all left guessing.”

But while the administration’s push for transparency may seem half-hearted so far, it doesn’t always have to be. Ceasing its “blanket policy” of requesting the press to limit certain potentially unimportant details could be a good, and easy, start.



Hannah Gais

Hannah is assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association, a nonresident fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and the managing editor of Her work has appeared in a number of national and international publications, including Al Jazeera America, U.S. News and World Report, First Things, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, Truthout, Business Insider and Foreign Policy in Focus.

Gais is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. and the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, where she focused on Eastern Christian Theology and European Studies. You can follow her on Twitter @hannahgais