Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, has suggested that al Qaeda is winning the honesty war against the United States in a piece entitled “Is al Qaeda outdoing the U.S. on truth telling?

While on first blush the suggestion might seem like partisan slander, a look at Bergen’s argument reveals an unsettling truth: we may be losing the honesty war to al Qaeda due to our secret, and unaccountable, drone program.

To make his point, Bergen compares two recent, and accidental, civilian massacres by each side, and how each side dealt with the situation. Unfortunately for the Obama administration, Bergen’s example demonstrates how we have become a nation so secretive in the region that we are incapable of apologizing for our mistakes, much less acknowledge them:

When Gen. David Petraeus was U.S. commander in Afghanistan in 2010 he issued guidance to his troops, one of the key points of which was to “be first with the truth.”

Yet, in Yemen where the U.S. has been fighting a small, undeclared war for the past four years, we have now arrived at the ironic point where America’s main enemy there, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is doing a better job of truth telling than the U.S.

In a video message released on Sunday, a leader of al Qaeda in Yemen apologized for an attack on a hospital in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa earlier this month in which civilians were killed … “We confess to this mistake and fault. We offer our apologies and condolences to the families of the victims,” said the al Qaeda leader.

Bergen’s example is contrasted with the U.S. military’s recent, tragic drone strike against a wedding procession in Yemen on December 12. The strike killed scores of innocent civilians on their way to a joyous celebration and sparked outrage in Yemen.

More outrageous, however, is that the Obama administration, unlike al Qaeda, has said nothing about the incident. No acknowledgement. No apology.


As Bergen notes, the Obama administration is hamstrung by its secret drone program – a program which prevents the Obama administration from telling the truth, particularly when it errs.

This gets to a key problem of the secretive American drone program. Its clandestine and unaccountable nature means that when the U.S. does make a mistake, as it inevitably will, instead of apologizing and making some kind of compensation to the civilian victims of a botched strike — a common practice when the U.S. military inadvertently kills civilians in wartime — American officials instead say … nothing.

Now, al Qaeda apologizing for its December 5 mistake is self-serving. Such admissions are meant to shore up and protect public support for their activities. However, the U.S. massacring Yemen civilians, and then not even acknowledging that it has done so, much less apologize, does more to shore up support for al Qaeda than anything the organization could do itself.

Meaning: our lack of honesty about a drone program which continues to kill innocent civilians makes us not only ruthless in practice, but in appearance as well.

More so than al Qaeda in the eyes of those in the Middle East. So much for winning hearts and minds.


What Do You Buy For the Children
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, just out from Oneworld Publications.

Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.

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