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The Dronemaster and His Senatorial Overseers

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearing on John Brennan’s nomination to be CIA director presents a rare public opportunity for Congress to insist that the White House publicly defend whatever legal reasoning has been adduced to justify the killing of alleged American terrorists working with al-Qaeda on plots to attack the United States.

Brennan, from his position as President Barack Obama’s adviser on counterterrorism, is widely (and correctly) seen as the promoter and implementer of policies that ignore a citizen’s traditional constitutional protections, which require some form of judicial procedure before the government can take life or property, a structure of due process that has been thoroughly trampled since 9/11 and the “war on terror.”

The question before the Senate Intelligence Committee is whether the members will demand serious answers regarding the rationale for these extrajudicial killings and whether those answers can be squared somehow with the U.S. Constitution.

Will Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, D-California, allow the public curtain to be lifted on the key legal issues involved in the killings as well as on narrower operational aspects? Recent congressional practice – especially since 9/11 – has been to acquiesce to even the most blatant CIA evasions and to halt the rare truthful briefing by declaring, in effect, “OK, that’s enough; I don’t need to know any more.”

With very few exceptions, congressional overseers have transitioned into congressional overlookers. This goes in spades when the word “terrorism” is raised; members face an unwelcome dilemma between choosing to remain unwitting (and, thus, have plausible denial) on the one hand or to acquire complicit knowledge on the other. A high-profile public hearing like the one on Brennan’s nomination makes it more difficult than usual to maintain the desired ambiguity.

I am reminded of the lame lament by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who — after an unusually long tenure on the House Intelligence Committee — complained that she had been lied to by the CIA about torture. But CIA’s Office of Congressional Affairs quickly dug out memoranda of conversations with Pelosi alleging that she had been let in on the dirty secret. The California Democrat suddenly fell silent.

If further proof of congressional obsequiousness were needed, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, has openly described Congress’ abnegation of responsibility, noting last year, with uncommon candor: “Who wants to be the congressman or senator holding the hearing as to whether the President should be aggressively going after terrorists? Nobody. And that’s why Congress has been AWOL in this whole area.”

Graham does not sit on the Intelligence Committee, but this attitude is widely shared. And, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he does oversee/overlook lethal operations by the Joint Special Operations Command.

Hiding Behind Secrecy

Congress has shown little interest in grappling with nettlesome constitutional issues, like the secret legal opinions that seek to justify “targeted killings” of suspected terrorists, including Americans, by stretching presidential war powers to far corners of the world, distant from any active battlefield, wherever someone might be plotting some threat to the American homeland. The evidence, like the legal justification, remains secret.

Only on the eve of Brennan’s confirmation hearing did Obama finally order the detailed 2010 legal memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to be shared with the Intelligence Committees. The memo justified the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who became a leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen and allegedly participated in operational planning for terrorist attacks on the United States. Awlaki was killed in a CIA drone strike in September 2011.

Until Obama’s announcement, the administration had not even openly acknowledged the existence of the documents. It also remains unclear how publicly the legal memo will be discussed during Brennan’s confirmation hearing on Thursday.

If Feinstein takes the discussion behind the closed doors of an executive session, Americans will be deprived of a chance to learn who is “authorized” to kill suspected terrorists, with what kind of “due process,” and for what “suspected” activity. Hearing these details may be troubling but at least the explanation would finally be out in the open where citizens can make informed judgments.

In my view, it would be shameful for Feinstein and her committee colleagues to shirk their duty again by evading the need for public debate. There is ample evidence that John Brennan (a mediocre analyst at CIA before he ingratiated himself with CIA Director George Tenet) is not up to the job substantively. Nowhere is this clearer than when, as chief of counterterrorism, he has been asked to address the issue of what motivates terrorists.

At a press conference on Jan. 7, 2010, two weeks after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day, President Obama criticized the intelligence failures that contributed to the near catastrophe. He then turned the stage over to the official where the counterterrorist buck was supposed to stop – John Brennan.

It took the questioning of then 89-year old veteran correspondent Helen Thomas to show how little Brennan knows – or is willing to admit – about what leads terrorists to do what they do. As her catatonic White House press colleagues took their customary dictation and asked their predictable questions, Thomas posed an adult query that spotlighted the futility of government plans to counter terrorism with more high-tech gizmos and intrusions on the liberties and privacy of the traveling public.

Thomas asked why Abdulmutallab did what he did: “And what is the motivation? We never hear what you find out on why.”

Brennan: “Al Qaeda is an organization that is dedicated to murder and wanton slaughter of innocents… They attract individuals like Mr. Abdulmutallab and use them for these types of attacks. He was motivated by a sense of religious sort of drive. Unfortunately, al Qaeda has perverted Islam, and has corrupted the concept of Islam, so that he’s (sic) able to attract these individuals. But al Qaeda has the agenda of destruction and death.”

Thomas: “And you’re saying it’s because of religion?”

Brennan: “I’m saying it’s because of an al Qaeda organization that used the banner of religion in a very perverse and corrupt way.”

Thomas: “Why?”

Brennan: “I think this is a — long issue, but al Qaeda is just determined to carry out attacks here against the homeland.”

Thomas: “But you haven’t explained why.”

Leading off that press conference, President Obama had not done any better than Brennan in getting to what motivates terrorists. Before relinquishing the podium to Brennan, Obama had said:

“It is clear that al Qaeda increasingly seeks to recruit individuals without known terrorist affiliations … to do their bidding. … And that’s why we must communicate clearly to Muslims around the world that al Qaeda offers nothing except a bankrupt vision of misery and death … while the United States stands with those who seek justice and progress. … That’s the vision that is far more powerful than the hatred of these violent extremists.”

But why it is so hard for Muslims to “get” that message? Why can’t they end their preoccupation with dodging U.S. missiles in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia long enough to reflect on how we are only trying to save them from terrorists while simultaneously demonstrating our commitment to “justice and progress?”

Slow Learner But Some Progress

In a major speech on April 30, 2012 on drones and killing, Brennan did share one profound insight: “Countries typically don’t want foreign soldiers in their cities and towns.” His answer to that? “The precision of targeted [drone] strikes.”

Did Brennan really mean to suggest that local populations are more accepting of unmanned drones buzzing overhead and firing missiles at the push of a button by a “pilot” halfway around the world?

Brennan is on a first-name basis with some of the leaders of Yemen. Have they not told him that the number of al-Qaeda members and sympathizers has more than tripled under the impact of three years of U.S. airstrikes initially disingenuously disguised as conducted by the Yemeni armed forces?

One can only hope that some senator on the Senate Intelligence Committee will show the mettle of Helen Thomas and ask real questions about the counterproductive results stemming from the tactics favored by Brennan in countering terrorism.

Ray McGovern was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). He can be reached at: rrmcgovern@gmail.com.

A version of this article first appeared on Consortiumnews.com.

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Ray McGovern was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). He can be reached at: rrmcgovern@gmail.com. A version of this article first appeared on Consortiumnews.com.  

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