John O. Brennan, the Obama administration’s nominee to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, appeared on Capitol Hill Feb. 7 to face protesters and tough questions about the so-called “targeted killing” of extremists by CIA drone aircraft.
Brennan, 57, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that is pondering his appointment to be CIA boss. It was the first time a high-ranking official of the Obama administration spoke in public about the remotely-controlled, missile-firing, robot aircraft that have been picking off alleged al Qaeda and Taliban leaders.
Pandemonium reigned at the start of the hearing. “Murderer!” cried a protester. A woman held up a sign that read: “Drones fly! Children die!” After some protesters were escorted out of the Capitol, Brennan sat down to face speechmaking and questions from critics and supporters. A source in the Senate said that even many of Brennan’s backers are critical of previous public appearances he’s made.
The architect of the drone policy, Brennan was expected to win Senate confirmation – probably with some difficulty – after the administration passed over CIA Acting Director Michael J. Morell.
Morell was nixed because of his cooperation with Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the director-producer duo that created the motion picture Zero Dark Thirty, although he did so with full permission from the White House. The movie re-creates the May 1, 2011 mission by Navy SEALs, flown into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. At the time he worked with the filmmakers, Morell was deputy director under then-CIA chief Leon Panetta. Observers believed the White House preferred Morell, but feared Republican critics would put a “hold” on his nomination if it reached the Senate.
Brennan is being asked about other issues, including the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya last year and the crises in Syria and Mali. But it’s the CIA’s campaign of aerial drone strikes that has focused attention on him. Details of a “kill list,” administered by Brennan and approved by Obama on a weekly basis, remain secret. At least two individuals targeted for killing by drone-fired missiles were American citizens and some strikes have killed innocent civilians and friendly warlords. Separate drone strikes killed U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and, subsequently, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son in Yemen.
Brennan is a former career CIA officer, and is currently the White House’s chief terrorism advisor. No other figure is more closely linked to the drone war.
Once Brennan began testifying, more members of the audience protested and were ushered out. After that, senators asked a few questions and did a lot of pontificating.
“I think this has gone about as far as it can go as a covert activity,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told Brennan of the drone campaign. Feinstein wants greater transparency and believes some kind of classified court arrangement must be established to determine who may lawfully come under attack in a drone strike.
A more critical view of the way the administration uses unmanned aircraft came from Rep. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who, with better intentions than grammar, complained about “having one person in the executive branch get together with some flashcards and decide who they’re going to kill around the world, particularly American citizens.”
Some U.S. military experts share Feinstein’s concern that the targeted killings may have gone too far. So long as drones are used against al Qaeda and Taliban forces engaged in belligerency against U.S. troops in Afghanistan (even if the insurgents are inside the Pakistan border), the program is justifiable, some say. But now, targeted killings by drone are taking place in Yemen, aimed at members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and mounted from covert bases in Saudi Arabia and the Horn of Africa. The CIA is reportedly constructing another covert drone base in the African nation of Niger, which is close to Mali, where French troops, with U.S. help, are combating a strong jihadist movement.
The U.S. Air Force handles most drone operations within publicly acknowledged war zones – currently, Afghanistan – but CIA officers and civilian contractors who work for them carry out strikes against targets in Pakistan, Yemen and Mali. The rise of a massive, clandestine CIA paramilitary apparatus employing unmanned aircraft operated by civilians is a recent phenomenon. It’s not clear how their work fits with the internationally recognized Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC).
Some argue that the drone strike program should be halted because it doesn’t work. For every jihadist insurgent killed by an exploding Hellfire missile, they say, someone innocent dies. Every strike from the sky that wipes out an al Qaeda terrorist may also inspire a hundred new recruits. The revelation of close U.S. cooperation with Saudi Arabia is especially damaging: The U.S. presence on the Arabian peninsula was the primary justification given by bin Laden for attacking the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
Brennan negotiated with officials in Riyadh for the building of the Saudi base, whose exact location still isn’t appearing in print: it was built in December 2009 and first used in the September 2011 strike that killed al-Awlaki.
In contrast to the popular Morell and the more affable Panetta, even supporters view Brennan with little warmth. Moreover, Brennan has few fans among journalists who see him as stilted and even deceptive in his rare public appearances. When he gave the first public description of the raid that killed bin Laden days after the event, almost every detail he provided proved inaccurate.
David Brooks made the case for drone kills in the New York Times on Feb. 8. Brooks wrote of Obama and by extension of Brennan: “He’s decided, correctly, that we are in a long war against al Qaeda; that drone strikes do effectively kill terrorists; that, in fact, they inflict fewer civilian deaths than bombing campaigns, boots on the ground or any practical alternative; that, in fact, civilian death rates are dropping sharply as the CIA gets better at this.” The bottom line for Brooks: “Acting brutally abroad saves lives at home.” Not everyone agrees, but Brennan will probably be confirmed and the program appears likely to continue.