(David Rohde is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)
By David Rohde
NEW YORK, Feb 6 (Reuters) - In a bold second inaugural address, one line was my favorite. "We will defend our people and uphold our values," President Barack Obama declared, "through strength of arms and rule of law."
Obama was right to describe the "rule of law" as a weapon the United States can use to defend itself. But the administration's insistence on enveloping its counter-terrorism efforts in excessive secrecy flouts the rule of law. A proud American ideal is being turned into a liability, not an asset.
"It's not sufficient for the administration to say, 'Trust us, we're taking care of it,' " said Amrit Singh, author of a new Open Society Institute report that raises numerous questions about the United States' use of rendition and torture since 2001. "There needs to be greater transparency."
One reason residents of Pakistan, Yemen and other countries so bitterly oppose covert drone strikes is that they flout the "rule of law." A legal concept that dates to Aristotle, the rule of law means the legal code's supremacy over autocratic rule-by-dictat.
Given the current unrest in the Middle East, Americans' cynicism about the spread of such ideals is understandable. But the "rule of law" is a galvanizing concept around the world. From Syria to Brazil to China, people are demanding governments that are accountable to them, less corrupt and merit-based. Establishing those ideals is extraordinarily difficult, but the popular desire is clear.
The Obama administration's covert drone program is on the wrong side of history. With each strike, Washington presents itself as an opponent of the rule of law, not a supporter. Not surprisingly, a foreign power killing people with no public discussion, or review of who died and why, promotes anger among Pakistanis, Yemenis and many others.
Questions about covert drone strikes are finally being asked in Washington. Hearings tomorrow on whether John Brennan should become the next CIA director will bring rare scrutiny to the program. And NBC News' publication of a leaked Justice Department memo justifying the administration's claim that it has the authority to kill an American citizen without judicial review is finally prompting criticism as well.
While attention has rightly focused on the number of civilians killed in the covert strikes, a story in the New York Times on Wednesday revealed another destructive by-product of the overreliance on drones. The piece described how Yemen's elite, U.S.-trained counterterrorism unit has been posted to traffic duty in the capital in recent weeks. Instead of the force carrying out raids to capture militants, drones are being used.
The approach is counterproductive in two ways. Using local security forces to kill and capture militants is more precise, popular and effective in the long run than drone strikes. And by snubbing local forces, the United States is alienating its allies.
"We could be going after some of these guys," a member of the elite force told the Times. "That's what we're trained to do, and the Americans trained us. It doesn't make sense."
The United States is ignoring its own calls for transparency. Singh's report, "Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition," found that at least 136 people were victims of "extraordinary rendition" by the United States under the George W. Bush administration. It reveals that at least 54 countries have assisted in the effort by allowing U.S. planes carrying detainees to land on their territory.
But the full extent of the program - and whether it continues in any form today - remains unknown. Both the Obama administration and congressional oversight committees have failed to release exhaustive reviews and basic documents that could set the record straight.
Brennan, who served in the CIA at the time, has denied approving of extraordinary rendition or torture. Officials inside and outside the administration portray him as a moderate who favors minimizing drone strikes, opposes torture and favors increasing transparency. His move to Langley is an effort, they say, to shift drone strikes from covert CIA activities to more overt attacks carried out by the U.S. military.
If true, that would be a welcome step. But the Obama administration has a long record of promising transparency and then embracing secrecy - from drone strikes to legal memos to unprecedented prosecutions of government officials for leaking to the news media.
Accusing Obama's actions of falling short of his rhetoric is nothing new. His excessive embrace of secrecy, though, is more than a case of inaction. It is a faulty policy that is a flagrant display of American hypocrisy in predominantly Muslim countries, where we need public support. Muslim moderates who yearn for the rule of law are our potential allies. In the end, only they, not U.S. soldiers, have the power to eradicate militancy.
I support using drone strikes as a last resort. They have helped kill senior militants in Pakistan's tribal areas. But targeted killing in any form is not a magic bullet.
In Pakistan, drone strikes have created a stalemate. Senior militants are killed, but their deputies cite exaggerated civilian casualty counts to gain new recruits. The CIA weakens militant groups but can't eradicate them.
Drones strikes should be minimized and made public. Why an attack is carried out, who is killed and if civilians died should be publicly detailed.
At best, the Brennan move will increase transparency. But it may be too late. Since 2001 the United States has acted as a high-handed power not subject to the law. For more than a decade, average Pakistanis and Yemenis, whose support we need to isolate militants, have seen this.
Now, Americans are finally seeing it as well.
(David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter for The New York Times. His forthcoming book, "Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East" will be published in April 2013.)