Brennan at the CIA Might Surprise Us

Brennan at the CIA Might Surprise Us

The tough guy might yet rein in drones. And steer the CIA away from covert ops to intelligence collection.


John Brennan. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster.)

Were you a terrorist or member of Al Qaeda, you wouldn’t want to meet John Brennan in a dark alley. He’s an Irish tough guy, and he doesn’t apologize for wanting to obliterate Al Qaeda. For four years, as Obama’s top adviser on counterterrorism, that’s been his job. And in that job, he’s used drones freely to strike both leaders and members of Al Qaeda and related groups, including the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Often, innocents have died.

But Brennan may surprise us.

There have been scathing reviews on the left of Brennan’s role in the Obama administration, such as the one by Marcy Wheeler on Democracy Now!, in which she accused Brennan of being “Obama’s Cheney,” a “proven liar,” a supporter of torture, and more. The Democracy Now! piece included a clip of an intervention against Brennan by Code Pink, whose Medea Benjamin lashed out at Brennan over the drone assassination program.

And he’s been criticized by Gregory Johnsen as the “The Wrong Man for the CIA.”

But maybe, just maybe, John Brennan won’t be a bad CIA director. In 2008, as Obama’s chief adviser on intelligence matters during the campaign, Brennan was in line for the CIA job back then, and he didn’t get it because of widespread accusations, not necessarily accurate, that he supported torture during the George W. Bush administration. As a long-serving CIA officer, then as head of the National Counterterrorism Center, Brennan may or may not have objected to the use of waterboarding and other violent techniques, and it would be useful to question him on this topic during his confirmation hearing. But to say that Brennan was a supporter of torture, and that such a history disqualifies him to serve at the CIA, is an accusation without proof.

On drones, too, it’s a mixed bag. On several occasions, I met and interviewed Brennan, and indeed what stands out for me from those talks is his belief that the military is the wrong instrument in fighting terrorism. (During the George W. era, of course, the military was the administration’s instrument of choice for everything, from fighting terrorism to exporting democracy, so Brennan’s views were decidedly to the left.)

Last October, in a Washington Post profile, Brennan’s views on drones were also cast in a light that indicated that he has been trying to limit, not expand, drone warfare, and that he has sought to extricate the CIA from its role in lethal, drone warfare. Said the Post:

Brennan is leading efforts to curtail the CIA’s primary responsibility for targeted killings. Over opposition from the agency, he has argued that it should focus on intelligence activities and leave lethal action to its more traditional home in the military, where the law requires greater transparency.

And, added the Post:

For each of Brennan’s critics, there are many associates who use the words “moral compass” to describe his role in the White House. It is Brennan, they say, who questions the justification for each drone attack, who often dials back what he considers excessive zeal by the CIA and the military, and who stands up for diplomatic and economic assistance components in the overall strategy.

It’s important to note that for 20 years there has been an increasing tendency to put generals and admirals in key U.S. intelligence positions, and that Brennan replaces General David Petraeus at the CIA. De-militarizing the CIA is an important reform, and perhaps Brennan is a key step in the right direction.

Not long ago, Brennan got into trouble for saying that the intensified drone attacks in Pakistan, hadn’t killed civilians, a claim that was blatantly false. Brennan was taken to task for those comments, including in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, who said to Brennan’s face that it “seems hard to believe.” Brennan made clear that he was talking about a specific stretch of time, and in a statement to The New York Times he said:

Fortunately, for more than a year, due to our discretion and precision, the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths resulting from U.S. counterterrorism operations outside of Afghanistan or Iraq.

Over at Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko takes Brennan to task on drones, citing seven point-by-point examples of where Brennan deserves to be questioned.

To be sure, as the White House’s counterterrorism chief and as a spokesman for the administration, Brennan has no choice but to defend the administration’s policy of carrying out a global drone warfare program. And he’s played a coordinating role in that program until now, with the White House and the president himself directly involved in selecting and approving drone targets.

In part, of course, the reliance on drones emerged as a counterweight to those in the administration who wanted more troops and a more troop-intensive counterinsurgency program in Afghanistan. In that sense, Brennan’s support for drone warfare was part of an internal struggle against the generals who wanted to expand the war in Afghanistan. As the Times put it, in writing about Obama’s nomination of Brennan to the CIA, Brennan “helped devise the ‘light footprint’ strategy of limiting American interventions, whenever possible, to drones, cyberattacks and Special Operations forces.”

 But the question is: What are his private views? And will he now restrain the CIA?

In a letter to Brennan, Senator Ron Wyden says that he wants answers about the administration’s legal justification for killing American citizens via drone attacks.

Brennan’s confirmation hearing will be held February 7. That should be seen as an opportunity to get answers to all these questions, on the record.

Tom Hayden wrote about proposals to reform the drone program—and why Congress must push them through—in his latest article.

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