Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Sunday that the reason he and other administration spokespeople sometimes seem evasive about the government's drone program is because they have been told not to acknowledge the secret strikes.
“When I went through the process of becoming press secretary," Gibbs told MSNBC, "one of the things, one of the first things they told me was, 'You’re not even to acknowledge the drone program. You’re not even to discuss that it exists.' "
Gibbs said that instruction led to a sort of "Wizard of Oz" phenomenon when he was asked about drone operations in the press briefing.
“I would get a question like that and literally I couldn’t tell you what Major asked, because once I figured out it was about the drone program, I realize I’m not supposed to talk about it.
“Here’s what’s inherently crazy about that proposition," Gibbs said. "You’re being asked a question based on reporting of a program that exists. So you’re the official government spokesperson acting as if the entire program — pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
Current White House Press Secretary Jay Carney acknowledged the drone program in the past weeks, as questions swirled over a leaked Justice Department whitepaper that outlined legal reasons the government claims enable it to carry out drone strikes against terrorist-affiliated American citizens abroad. However, President Obama previously spoke on the record about the drone program, which frees the current press secretary in some respect.
Carney has said the strikes were "necessary to mitigate ongoing attacks" and argued "they are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise."
On Sunday, Gibbs said he had not discussed transparency over the program with the president, but believed Obama saw an advantage in discussing the drone strikes more openly.
Gibbs said attempting to ignore the strikes "when it’s obviously happening, undermines people’s confidence overall in the decisions that their government makes."
Lawmakers have called for greater scrutiny of the drone program, with Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) intending to hold hearings on a federal court to oversee the strikes.
During the State of the Union address earlier this month, Obama pledged greater transparency in the program.
“I think you’ve seen recently the president discuss the need and desire to be more forthcoming,” Gibbs said. “I have not talked to him about this, so I want to be careful, this is my opinion, but I think what the president has seen is, our denial of the existence of the program when it’s obviously happening undermines people’s confidence overall in the decisions that their government makes.”