Facing The Heat: John Brennan,Torture, And Drones

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Is the White House killing its credibility—particularly, with respect to its secret drone program—by nominating someone apparently knee-deep in torture and alleged abuse of power?

[Speaking Truth To Power]

Last week, as the White House pushed for the nomination of John Brennan to run the CIA, controversial news broke of the Obama Administration’s secret drone program that targets alleged terrorists for assassination.

Is the White House killing its credibility—particularly, with respect to its secret drone program—by nominating someone apparently knee-deep in torture and alleged abuse of power? Thursday, White House counter-terrorism adviser Brennan appeared before members of the Senate Intelligence Committee as President Obama’s nominee to head the CIA and replace General David Petraeus. President Obama’s decision to select Mr. Brennan to lead the spy agency has provoked a backlash, especially in progressive circles where Brennan is seen a poster-child for terror.

Brennan’s nomination hearing also coincided with the publication of a Justice Department “white paper” memo detailing the Obama White House’s reasoning behind its drone assassination program; existence of the memo was first revealed by NBC News.

The program has provoked anger. Critics argue that the drone strikes often take place far from the battlefield—and that it even justifies the extra-judicial killing of Americans if they’re considered “senior operational leaders,” or, “an associated force.”

Mr. Brennan is linked to the post-September 11 torture and “extraordinary rendition” program of President George W. Bush’s Administration. Under that program, terror suspects were sent to third-party “black site” countries to be tortured. Brennan also oversees the “Disposition Matrix”—a kill, or, capture list of terror suspects. Several times, during the proceedings, members of the activist group Code Pink interrupted the confirmation hearing in protest, including Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin.

“Brennan is unfit for office because he’s the architect of the unconstitutional and secret predator drone killings that violate due process and our moral sensibilities,” said Benjamin author of the book “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote.” After several outbursts by Code Pink members Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Ca.) barred Code Pink members from returning to the proceedings.

But the opposition to Brennan’s nomination also includes former veterans and members of the intelligence community like former U.S. Army Col. Ann Wright and former Army Intelligence officer and CIA analyst Ray McGovern—who have written a letter to the Senate calling for the rejection of Mr. Brennan.

In part, the letter reads “We are particularly concerned about drones in the hands of the CIA. While the military has rules of engagement, more open procedures for the use of force, and a chain of command that is supposed to ensure accountability, the CIA does not. It is a civilian organization that, with its own fleet of drones, has been engaged in lethal actions veiled in secrecy and devoid of accountability.
We urge you to use the occasion of this nomination to not only question Brennan’s qualifications for this job, but to also conduct a serious evaluation of the CIA’s drone program. The CIA should revert back to being an intelligence-gathering organization and we need a CIA director who is committed to overseeing this transition.”

The Obama White House’s decision to nominate Mr. Brennan is puzzling. When Mr. Obama was first elected president, he made a point of trying to distance his White House from any association with the agenda of torture many accused former Vice-President Dick Cheney and the Bush White House of perpetrating. So why is President Obama nominating someone affiliated with those who were, arguably, guilty of war crimes—and of Geneva Conventions violations?

Last week, Mr. Brennan insisted those protesting his nomination have the wrong idea about the drone program saying the targeted killings are done as a “last resort” in the face of imminent threats. Unfortunately, this claim is dubious, at best. For one thing, Mr. Brennan should be compelled to tell why so many are killed so far from the battlefield—especially when the lives of innocent civilians are at risk.

He should also be required to show proof those killed in the strikes are indeed terrorists—and not just innocent victims of faulty intelligence. Approximately, 3,000 people have been killed in drone strikes connected to Mr. Brennan. Was the targeted killing of 16-year-old U.S. citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, in Yemen, one of “last resort?” What threat did he represent?

This 16-year-old was the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, alleged Al Qaeda associate, killed two weeks before his son. But besides the fact that Mr. Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was the son of this alleged terrorist, there has been no reasonable justification given for his killing. Moreover, former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs—now a senior advisor to the president—said this regarding the killing of the younger al-Awlaki: “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well-being of their children.”

This answer is callously outrageous and doesn’t quite cut it. This 16-year-old was killed weeks after his father. Why? Is Mr. Gibbs saying America will kill anyone who just happens to be related to some suspected terrorist? Shall the “sins of the father” now lead to death sentences for the sons?

During the hearing, Mr. Brennan claimed the innocent civilians killed yearly in the drone program “have typically been in the single digits.” This assertion is no doubt incorrect though hard statistics are often difficult to obtain. But according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the last nine years anywhere from 556 to 1,128 civilians have been killed by these drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. 

Another problem with this drone death program is its use in sovereign countries that are said to be American allies. In Yemen, these strikes may well have the blessings of the regime there. But is this the case in Pakistan? No; if one is to believe the recent protests made by one Pakistani official.

"Drone attacks are against sovereignty of Pakistan, against international law and against the UN charter," said Jalil Abbas Jilani, the administrative head of Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry to members of Pakistan’s Parliament in the country’s capital of Islamabad. "Innocent people have been killed in these attacks. We are having talks with the US to stop the drone attacks and we hope for a positive outcome of the dialogue and hope that drone attacks will stop.”

Some Americans are now worried this drone killing technology will migrate back to America and be used by local law enforcement to kill domestic criminals—and put innocent American civilians at risk. According to the ACLU, the use of “drones are coming to America…deploying drones among police departments is increasing and our privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that the new technology will be used responsibly.”

The Obama White house has stated it uses drones in a responsible manner. Unfortunately, that claim is being seriously undermined by this current nominee being endorsed to head the CIA. Last week, Mr. Brennan couldn’t even bring himself to admit “enhanced interrogations” and the like constituted torture.

If his nomination is successful and he is named CIA chief, this will give credence to a growing perception that the Obama White House is continuing some of the most egregious practices from the last White House.


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