A Cynic’s Guide to John Brennan and William McRaven

Photograph Source White House/David Lienemann | CC BY 2.0

John Brennan is a thorn digging deep into President Donald Trump’s hide.  Even before Trump’s inauguration, the former CIA director accused Trump of colluding with Russia to swing the 2016 presidential election.  Brennan called Trump’s performance with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July “treasonous.”  So it was no surprise when President Trump yanked Brennan’s security clearance on August 15.

President Trump has virtually admitted that this was a political move.  In an undated statement [1] read by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president assailed Brennan for “a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations—wild outbursts on the internet and television—about this Administration.” Trump said that allowing access to “our Nation’s most sensitive secrets” is “particularly inappropriate when former officials have transitioned into highly partisan positions and seek to use real or perceived access to sensitive information to validate their political attacks.”

Losing his security clearance may not be the best thing that ever happened to the former CIA director, but it has won Brennan a lot of new friends among progressives.  Then, on August 16, retired US Navy Admiral William H. McRaven published an open letter to President Trump in the Washington Post.  McRaven asked President Trump to revoke McRaven’s own security clearance, “so that I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.”  Since then, progressives have been going gaga over McRaven, too.

I am glad that Brennan and McRaven have spoken out against Trump.  Really. But there are facts about the two men which none of the media stories I have seen over the past week mention. They are facts that demonstrate that Brennan and McRaven, although they deserve our thanks for speaking out against Trump, don’t deserve the hero treatment progressives are giving them.

John Brennan: Torture and Drone Kills

Brennan, a thirty-year CIA veteran, had first been considered to head the CIA in 2008 by President-Elect Barack Obama.  Brennan withdrew his name from consideration when the ACLU and other human rights groups charged that he had been involved in the torture of suspected terrorists during the administration of President George W. Bush.  Apart from consistently denying that he was personally involved with the CIA’s torture program, Brennan has alternated between condemning torture and defending it.  Brennan has defended “extraordinary rendition,” the euphemism for “rendering” suspected terrorists to other countries to be questioned under torture.  Brennan claims that he spoke out during the Bush years against some “harsh interrogation” practices, but no one has been found who recalls this.[2] Perhaps the soft-spoken Brennan spoke out quietly.

Before he became Obama’s CIA director in 2013, Brennan was Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser.  During the years 2009 to 2013, Brennan and Obama met every “Terror Tuesday” (the macabre designation used in the White House) to study proposed “kill lists” of suspected members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in order to decide who the US would kill next with Hellfire missiles fired from unmanned aerial drones, including kills in countries with which the US was not at war.

Salon calls Brennan a “serial misleader” when it comes to drones. Perhaps Brennan’s biggest whopper came in June 2011.  In public remarks, Brennan claimed that no civilians had been killed by US drones in nearly a year.  When that claim raised eyebrows, Brennan backpedaled, telling the New York Times a few days later that there had been no “credible evidence” of civilian casualties for the past year.  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a British-based NGO, contends that at least 45 civilians were killed by US drones during that period.  By the time Brennan left his post as Obama’s counterterrorism adviser in 2013 to become CIA director, US drones had killed 891 civilians just in Pakistan, including 176 children, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

When MSNBC host Rachel Maddow interviewed Brennan on August 17 about the loss of his security clearance, neither she nor Brennan said a word about drones.  This is all the more remarkable in that Maddow had previously questioned President Obama’s “Orwellian” drone program.  If liberals don’t like civilians being killed by drones, why are they celebrating John Brennan?  CounterPunch editor Jeffrey St. Clair asks:

“Are liberals who are bewailing the revocation of John Brennan’s security clearance worried that Trump’s drone strikes will become less accurate?”

William McRaven:  Terror by Night

Virtually all of the news stories since McRaven’s open letter note that the Admiral ran the 2011 Navy SEAL operation that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.  This is correct, but does not begin to tell us what we need to know about McRaven.

McRaven is the mystery man pursued by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill in the movie made from Scahill’s book Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield (both 2013).  On February 12, 2010, a massacre took place in the small village of Khataba in Afghanistan’s Paktia Province.  At around 3:30 AM, American troops struck the village.  Although the unarmed villagers offered no resistance, the masked Americans came in shooting.  Seven of the villagers were killed, including two pregnant women and a teenage girl. One of the people killed, Mohammed Daoud Sharabuddin, was a local police commander (Dirty Wars, page 334).  Most of the other villagers worked for the Afghan government.  Two of the victims might have lived had the Americans not refused to evacuate them to a hospital.

Murdered in the raid was the wife of Mohammed Sabir. Sabir told Scahill that after his wife’s murder he wanted “jihad against the Americans.”  Sabir wanted to put on a suicide vest and kill Americans, but was prevented by his brother and father (Dirty Wars, page 339).

The masked invaders remained in the village for hours.  They dug their bullets out of their victims with knives.  The Americans told the villagers that they had information that 50 Taliban were in the village.  None were.

None of the American or Afghan officials Scahill spoke to afterwards seemed to know who these “bearded Americans,” as the people of Khataba called them, were.  Scahill traced the Americans to a shadowy military outfit, one he had never heard of in ten years of war reporting: the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Scahill learned that JSOC, created in 1980 and never consisting of more than a “few thousand” members, was the most elite military force at America’s command.  JSOC, Scahill says in his film, was “designed to be the most covert unit in the military and the only one that reports directly to the president.”

Scahill learned that the raid on Khataba was not an isolated incident.  “By May 2010, the United States was conducting as many as 1,000 night raids a month [in Afghanistan]” (Dirty Wars, page 348), leaving behind an untold number of dead.

JSOC, however, does not confine its activities to Afghanistan.  An anonymous former member of JSOC, shown on screen as only a darkened silhouette, told Scahill that JSOC conducts “covert operations” in 40 countries “on multiple continents.”  It has “hundreds of concurrent operations.”  There is no reason to believe that any of this has changed since 2013 when Dirty Wars was published.

If JSOC served any nation other than the US, Americans would not hesitate to call it a death squad (Scahill calls JSOC a “global hit squad”).  And from August 2011 to August 2014, JSOC was a death squad commanded by Admiral William McRaven.

I venture upon certainty that someone will read this and think I am defending Trump.  I’m not.  Trump is a disaster.  As Brennan told Rachel Maddow, Trump is “drunk on power.”  But Brennan and McRaven are selling a narrative along with their attacks on Trump.  It’s the narrative, which too many liberals accept, that Trump represents a break from traditional US foreign policy which respected other nations.  Buy that, and you’ll believe that once Trump leaves office US conduct abroad will return to “normal” (and that some of the credit should go to selfless guardians of the republic like John Brennan and William McRaven). But torture, waterboarding, extraordinary renditions, and the killing of innocents are the US norm, and were carried out by both Democratic and Republican administrations long before Donald Trump descended the escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015 to announce his presidential candidacy.  John Brennan and William McRaven know this, but don’t expect them to admit it.


[1]  White House TV pool reporters were first given a copy of the statement that was dated July 26.  This suggests that the decision to terminate Brennan’s security clearance was made weeks earlier.  Minutes later, an undated copy of the statement was distributed.

[2]  Gina Haspel, who was confirmed as the current CIA director in May, was such an enthusiast for torture during her career at CIA that she earned the nickname “Bloody Gina.”  That could have only endeared her with Donald Trump.  Although he would later backtrack, candidate Trump said in 2016:  “I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”


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Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.

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