My Meeting with White House Staff about U.S. Drone Killing

Antal White House Staff Meeting

The delegation of religious leaders I joined on Thursday, July 14, in Washington. The photo was taken in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where we met with eight members of the White House staff. Pictured, left to right, are: Jay Wittmeyer, Executive Director, Global Mission and Service, Church of the Brethren; Yasmine Taeb, Legislative Representative for Human Rights and Civil Liberties, Friends Committee on National Legislation; Catherine Gordon, Representative for International Issues, Presbyterian Church; Chris Antal, Representative for Peace, Disarmament and Security, Unitarian Universalist Association;Robert McCaw, Director of Government Affairs, Council on American Islamic Relations;Ervin Stutzman, Executive Director, Mennonite Church USA; Joshua Russell, Legislative Assistant/Communications Coordinator, Mennonite Central Committee; Steve Colecchi, Director, Office of International Justice and Peace, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

We met with eight members of the White House staff, including: David Heifetz, Speechwriter and Advisor, Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs; Steve Pomper, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, National Security Council;
Melissa Rogers, Special Assistant to the President and Executive Director of the White House Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnership;Julie Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Deputy Director of Public Engagement, Office of Public Engagement; Josh Geltzer, Senior Director for Counterterrorism, National Security Council; Ian Moss, Director for Human Rights and National Security Issues, National Security Council; and Milancy Harris, Director for Counterterrorism, National Security Counci.

The White House staff requested the meeting “off the record” which means I cannot disclose the content of what they said. The focus of the meeting was on the administration’s use of armed drones to kill people outside of areas of active hostilities (Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria). Steve Pomper and Josh Geltzer did most of the talking. My questions focused on the administration’s definition of “imminence” and I pressed the staff to explain why we are killing people who do not seem to meet the President’s own criteria of “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” I asked them why a tactic (drone strikes) that by the military’s own analysis in Operation Haymaker (operation in Afghanistan from January 2012- February 2013 that killed over 230 people mostly with drone strikes and 90% of them were not the intended targets) is being used in countries like Yemen and Pakistan where we do not have the intelligence or infrastructure that we have after 15 years in Afghanistan. Another member of our delegation pressed the staff about the administration’s “preventive” war and made the distinction between preemptive strikes and preventative strikes, the former being moral due to the imminent nature of the threat, the later being aggressive and immoral. A third member asked for a timeline of when the drone program will be moved from the CIA to the DOD for greater oversight and accountability.

I can say while I was glad to be representing the UUA at this landmark encounter, the outcome was frustrating and disappointing. However, the primary achievement was building a relationship, starting a conversation, and letting the Executive Branch know the faith community cares and is paying attention.