Since last April, John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, has been the point man in making the administration’s legal and moral case for targeted killing (what used to be called assassination). But Brennan has also indicated that he doesn’t want the CIA to be in the paramilitary, as opposed to spying, business (at least not all that much). All of which raises an important question: As CIA director, will Brennan continue his current role as the administration’s counterterrorism chief, turning the agency into the president’s personal killing machine? Or will he try to fob off more of the dirty work on the Pentagon?
And if Brennan decides to do the latter, how will Chuck Hagel react? The nominee to run the Pentagon has long talked about conducting a moral foreign policy “determined as much by our commitment to principle as by our exercise of power," as he once put it in a Foreign Affairs article. Hagel has also sought to restrain the use of force so as cause a minimum of “collateral damage”—that is, the accidental killing of innocents--and critics say that is one of the biggest problems with Obama’s dramatically stepped-up drone program.
Thus, the new national-security team is likely to ratchet up internal tensions that are already apparent over the administration’s aggressive covert program, especially since the parameters for the program remain so open-ended and ill-defined.
In a remarkable moment last April, Brennan gave a prepared speech at the Wilson Center in Washington in which for the first time he publicly acknowledged the drone program, saying: “Yes, in full accordance with the law, and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives, the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones. And I’m here today because President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts.”
But the administration has failed to advance this argument very much, and it has left itself open to criticism that the program has badly undermined America’s moral position and provided a dangerous precedent to other nations that might cite Washington's policy to justify, say, political assassinations. “On the one hand, they want to restrain others; on the other hand, they don’t want to restrain themselves in a legal sense,” says Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. ”And they hope that if wise policy guidelines are adopted internally, it will be enough to set precedent that the whole world can follow. I fear that’s naïve. If you don’t have binding norms, which other countries see as binding, then you’re going to have a very hard time getting broad compliance."
In an e-mail to National Journal on Monday, a senior administration official said he didn’t “expect any daylight between Brennan and Hagel over counterterrorism policy or operations. They both understand how to go after terrorists effectively, prudently, and within the confines of American law and policy--that's a hallmark of how both men come at these questions.”
But those confines remain ill-defined. In his Wilson Center speech, Brennan said that such killings are both legal and ethical. “In this armed conflict, individuals who are part of al-Qaida or its associated forces are legitimate military targets. We have the authority to target them with lethal force, just as we target enemy leaders in past conflicts, such as Germans and Japanese commanders during World War II,” he said.
Many critics dispute this characterization. They say that, quite unlike the declared war of that earlier era, the U.S. is now engaged in a more or less open-ended permanent war, and that the U.S. is not only putting itself in permanent violation of its most fundamental values but it is also extinguishing itself forever as a beacon for universal human rights. Among these critics: former President Carter, who told me in an interview last fall that he was horrified by the policy.
“God knows how many civilians we’ve killed with American drones,” Carter said. “If you take universal declaration of human rights, we’ve been violating 10 of the 30 paragraphs.… I would stop the drone assassinations. In dealing with terrorists, I believe it would be better off if we weren’t killing people in Yemen and Afghanistan and Iraq and Somalia, and I think now in northern Mali.… I think that stirs up more legitimate hatred of Americans than it resolves in killing a few leaders of al-Qaida.”
Former Bush administration officials—of whom Brennan was one, controversially backing harsh interrogation techniques—say they are puzzled that the Obama administration often gets a pass from the human-rights community and Europeans for “ending torture” while at the same time killing many more people than were ever waterboarded. "Will human-rights groups stir up Pat Leahy, Carl Levin, and Dianne Feinstein to be as tough on John Brennan--the architect of drone strikes against three thousand al-Qaida members--as they were on Bush administration officials involved in Guantanamo and the CIA interrogation program? Not likely," says a former Bush administration counterterrorism official, who said nonetheless that Brennan is well qualified to be CIA director.
Malinowski says it will be instructive to watch what Brennan does about drones if he’s confirmed to run the CIA. And how Hagel reacts. “If such a program exists on an ongoing basis, is it run by the war-fighting agency of the U.S. government, which has a culture of accountability, not just to the president but to the Congress, even to the American people, and a culture of respect for the importance of international law. Or is it going to be run by a secret intelligence agency which reports only to the president. And by definition lacks that culture?” asks Malinowski. “He has pushed internally for the CIA to get out of this business, whether partially or entirely…. He is troubled by the transformation of the agency into a paramilitary organization…. But now, does he continue to argue that, or does he adopt the institutional position?