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10 Questions for John Brennan’s Confirmation Hearing


John Brennan’s confirmation hearing to become head of the CIA will take place at the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, February 7. There is suddenly a flurry of attention around a white paper that lays out the administration’s legal justification for killing Americans with drones overseas, and some of the Senators are vowing to ask Brennan “tough questions,” since Brennan has been the mastermind of the lethal drone attacks.

But why have the Senators, especially those on the Intelligence Committee who are supposed to exercise oversight of the CIA, waited until now to make public statements about their unease with the killing of Americans that took place back in September and October of 2011? For over a year human rights groups and activists have been trying, unsuccessfully, to get an answer as to why our government killed the 17-year-old American boy Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and have had no help from the Senators’ offices.

We look forward to hearing the Senators question Brennan about the legal justifications used by the Obama administration to kill three Americans in Yemen, as we are deeply concerned about their deaths and the precedent it sets for the rights of US citizens.

But we are also concerned about the thousands of Pakistanis, Yeminis and Somalis who have been killed by remote control in nations with whom we are not at war. If CODEPINK had a chance to question John Brennan as his hearing on Thursday, here are some questions we would ask:

1.     You have claimed that due to the precision of drone strikes, there have been only a handful of civilian casualties. How many civilians deaths have you recorded, and in what countries? What proportion of total casualties do those figures represent? How do you regard the sources such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that estimates drone casualties in Pakistan alone range from 2,629-3,461,with as many as 891 reported to be civilians and 176 reported to be children?  Have you reviewed the photographic evidence of death and injury presented by residents of the drone strike areas? If so, what is your response?

2.    According to a report in the New York Times, Washington counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. Please tell us if this is indeed true, and if so, elaborate on the legal precedent for this categorization. In areas where the US is using drones, fighters do not wear uniforms and regularly intermingle with civilians. How does the CIA distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate targets?

3.     In a June 2011 report to Congress, the Obama administration explained that drone attacks did not require congressional approval under the War Powers Resolution because drone attacks did not involve “sustained fighting,” “active exchanges of fire,” an involvement of US casualties, or a “serious threat” of such casualties. Is it your understanding that the initiation of lethal force overseas does not require congressional approval?

4.     If the legal basis for the use of lethal drones is the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), can this authorization be extended to any country through Presidential authority? Are there any geographic limitations on the use of drone strikes? Does the intelligence community have the authority to carry out lethal drone strikes inside the United States? How do you respond to the charge that the US thinks it can send drones anywhere it wants and kill anyone it wants, all on the basis of secret information?

5. Assassination targets are selected using a “disposition matrix.”  Please identify the criteria by which a person’s name is entered into the matrix. News reports have mentioned that teenagers have been included in this list. Is there an age criteria?

6.  In Pakistan and perhaps elsewhere, the CIA has been authorized to conduct “signature strikes,” killing people on the basis of suspicious activity. What are the criteria for authorizing a signature strike? Do you think the CIA should continue to have the right to conduct such strikes? Do you think the CIA should be involved in drone strikes at all, or should this program be turned over the military? If you think the CIA should return to its original focus on intelligence gathering, why hasn’t this happened? As Director of the CIA, will you discontinue the CIA’s use of lethal drones?

7.  Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which the US has implicitly invoked to justify strikes, requires that “measures taken by Members in the exercise of [their] right to self-defense . . . be immediately reported to the Security Council.” Please elaborate on why the United States uses Article 51 to justify drone strikes but ignores the clause demanding transparency.

8.   The majority of prisoners incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay were found to be innocent and were released. These individuals landed in Guantanamo as victims of mistaken identity or as a result of bounties for their capture. How likely is it that the intelligence that gets a person killed by a drone strike may be as faulty as that which put innocent individuals in Guantanamo?

9.  You have stated that there is little evidence drone strikes are causing widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for extremist groups.  Do you stand by this statement now, as we have seen an expansion of Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, possibly triple the number that existed when the drone strikes began?  Do you have concerns about the “blowback” caused by what General McChrystal has called a “visceral hatred” of U.S. drones?

10. If a civilian is harmed by a drone strike in Afghanistan, the family is entitled to compensation from US authorities. But this is not the case in other countries where the US government is using lethal drones. Why is this the case? Do you think the US government should help people who are innocent victims of our drone strikes and if so, why haven’t you put a program in place to do this?

Stay tuned to at 2:30pm on Thursday to hear the Senators’ questions, Brennan’s answers and the response from those of us in the audience who don’t have many such occasions to express outrage at our government’s policy of remote-controlled killing.

Medea Benjamin, cofounder of and, is author of the book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.

Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human right organization Global Exchange. Follow her on twitter at @MedeaBenjamin.

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