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Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Sunday that he was told not to "acknowledge" or "discuss" the secret drone program when becoming the government's top spokesman.
Chris Hayes, host of MSNBC's "Up," played a video clip of Gibbs and current press secretary Jay Carney dodging questions about drones in the White House briefing room before asking if the Obama administration has been sufficiently forthcoming about the controversial targeted killing program. Gibbs, who recently became an MSNBC contributor, recalled the instructions he was given upon taking the job.
“When I went through the process of becoming press secretary," Gibbs said, "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.'”
The national media was slow covering the secret drone war in Pakistan and Yemen during Obama's first term, which has been difficult to track given both the government's secrecy and that strikes often take place in remote areas. But the drone media debate has gained steam early in Obama's second term, alongside questions for top counter-terror official John Brennan upon his nomination to become CIA director.
Gibbs said that once he figured out a reporter's question was about the drone program, "I realized 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."
While Gibbs referenced the "Wizard of Oz" on Sunday, a federal judge last month described the "Alice-in-Wonderland nature" of the Obama administration's secrecy over drones in a decision against The New York Times' request for legal memos outlining the rationale for targeting a U.S. citizen suspected of terrorist ties. The White House has not publicly released the legal memos, but Carney made several references to the legal rationale in a 16-page Department of Justice white paper -- but only after it was leaked to NBC News.
Gibbs said he hasn't talked to Obama recently about transparency and the drone program, but said he thinks the president has seen that the White House's denial of the program "when it’s obviously happening, undermines people’s confidence overall in the decisions that their government makes."