Feb 07 2013

Many questions for John Brennan today and only a few hours to ask them

(10 AM – promoted by TheMomCat)

There are a lot of questions for John Brennan’s confirmation hearing today and only a few hours scheduled to ask them.  

Many questions have been published by various news organizations and blogs.  I very much want answers to their questions but I have one big, obvious question as well.  This is my question:

What has changed since 2008-9 when John Brennan was considered to be too toxic to be confirmed as Director of the CIA?  What is so different now that he is expected to be easily confirmed and that only a few hours are needed to question him?

In my opinion, he is even less confirmable in 2013 than he was in 2009.  So what has changed?  I’ll explain more about why I think he is even less suited for the job today, but first, let’s explore some of the questions posed by the media.  

Most of the questions from journalists center around the targeted killing laws and the drone programs and about John Brennan’s actions and background. There aren’t many other questions about the operation of the CIA, though there are some.

This is not surprising, in my view.

The most extremist power any political leader can assert is the power to target his own citizens for execution without any charges or due process, far from any battlefield. The Obama administration has not only asserted exactly that power in theory, but has exercised it in practice.


Questions for John Brennan from journalists

A fair number of journalists, both mainstream media journalists and citizen journalists have many questions for John Brennan and have published them in the past week or so.  Some of these questions are also undoubtedly for President Obama.  Frankly, I wonder why the media has not been flooded with more such questions and for the life of me I cannot understand why only a few hours have been scheduled for a few senators to ask such questions, the only ones who can formally ask these questions when Brennan is under oath.  I should note that this is not a full accounting of questions that have been documented by journalists.

Brennan has submitted answers to some questions in writing already, and you can find two PDF documents here, but personally, I am not satisfied by the answers in these documents and I don’t find the answers to be very enlightening.  Hopefully the senators on the intelligence committee will use the time that they have very well, minimizing opening statements and bloviating.

Prehearing questionaire for completion by presidential nominees (PDF)

Additional Prehearing Questions for Mr. John O. Brennan upon his nomination to be the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (PDF)

The New Yorker

Amy Davidson from The New Yorker wants to know whom the president can kill and she wants a better definition of some of the fuzzy terms that are in the white paper that was leaked this week on the topic.  Toward the end of the article she uses the

It is appropriate to ask Brennan, the Drone Assassination Czar, this question since he has been at the center of this program.

You know, it doesn’t get much more serious than this, and yet, there is a relatively small amount clamor for this question to be answered.  It feels surreal.  I think most Americans have no idea and think it could never happen here.  

Some senators, particularly Sen. Wyden have been asking the president to release the memos that justify killing Americans with no due process (or rather with the Obama/Holder new age due process) for two years now.  He should not have to ask the president for this.   The Constitution says that Congress has oversight over the executive and could there even BE a bigger question than this?  Yet the president denied this request and has only now released two memos (there might be more) to the intelligence committees.  There is no declassified version.  So our president claims the right to unilaterally kill American citizens, anywhere on the globe, including on American soil, but he will not disclose to those same citizens the specific reasons why he might target you.  

John Brennan was the man who was in charge of the operation that killed at least one American citizen, al-Awlaki, and there are still quite a few questions and contradicting pieces of information around that.  And yet Brennan will face only a few hours of questioning from the Senate intelligence committee today.


The question isn’t whether al-Awlaki, who worked with Al Qaeda, was an innocent-the question is at what point he crossed the line and became killable without any judicial proceedings, and when, by extension, the rest of us could be put on a “kill list.”


A few weeks before the Stevenson speech, Nixon offered his own rationalization, in which he said that we were taking our war into Cambodia because the United States could not act “like a pitiful, helpless giant” […] In our great universities, in the days that followed, there were protests and outrage at the expansion of the war. Between Nixon’s speech and Stevenson’s came the Kent and Jackson State shootings, where students who didn’t want the United States to go into Cambodia were killed, along with bystanders, by the National Guard and the police.


What if those students had been Americans at a university in, say, Paris, who formed a group to protest a war? Could a President who read the D.O.J.’s white paper tell himself that they were an “associated force” based in a foreign country, or that, if they succeeded in mobilizing Congress or public opinion against what it considered a necessary military action, that they would pose an “imminent threat”? Could he kill them then? Could he do so now?


ThinkProgress wants some answers about the policy and direction of the drone programs and about the end game of the war on terror.

The One Question Congress Must Ask Before Confirming Obama’s CIA Director

[…] but the hearing presents the perfect opportunity to get the current top Obama administration counterterrorism official perhaps most closely involved in the targeted killing program against al Qaeda to answer the fundamental question about it: when does it end?


In the aftermath of the failed Christmas Day bombing in 2009, Brennan authored a scathing review of what was then U.S. counterterrorism policy. […]

[…] In a profile written in the Washington Post, Brennan is identified as the primary supporter of codifying the rules regarding when and where armed drone strikes could be carried out into what’s now called “the playbook” and the benign-sounding disposition matrix that identifies targets for strikes.

So Brennan, then, is ideally positioned to answer the fundamental question that needs to be answered to get a hold on America’s targeted killing program:

What role do targeted killings play in the broader U.S. counter-terrorism strategy and under what circumstances might we cease to employ them?


Marcy Wheeler has reported on John Brennan more than any other journalist that I know.  Here are her questions.  She has very good and well documented reasons for asking these questions which can be found in her many posts on the subject.   You can visit her site to read the detail attached to each question but I will just excerpt the questions themselves here.

Five Questions for John Brennan

I’m sure I could grill John Brennan for hours. But after a lot of thought, here are the five questions I believe most important that should be asked of him Today.

1) Do you plan to continue lying to Americans?


2) What was the intelligence supporting the first attempt to kill Anwar al-Awlaki?


3) Will your close friendships with Saudis cloud your focus on the US interest?


4) What role did you have in Bush’s illegal wiretap program?


5) Did you help CIA bypass prohibitions on spying domestically with the NYPD intelligence (and other) programs?

The New York Review of Books

I’ve excerpted some of the thirteen questions posed by David Cole of the New York Review of Books.  The questions are very detailed with cites to specifics and it’s well worth reading all of them.

13 Questions for John O. Brennan

6. It has been reported that, in addition to “personality strikes” against particular known individuals, the administration also uses more expansive “signature strikes” to kill unidentified individuals who show patterns of behavior characteristic of a particular militant or terrorist group. In what situations, beyond a traditional battlefield, is it appropriate to use such strikes? What constitutes a sufficient “signature” to warrant a strike?

7. In June 2011, you claimed that there had not been a single civilian death from US drone strikes in the past year. Yet the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported in the same year that there had been forty-five civilians killed by drones in the past year, including six children. Do you stand by your claim? If the drone program is classified and that bars the US from disputing claims about civilian deaths, as some have said, why were you able to say in 2011 that there were no civilian casualties?

8. The New York Times reported in May 2012 that in assessing civilian casualties, the administration “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” That would be directly at odds with the rule of precaution in the law of war, which requires that individuals be presumed civilians where there is any doubt. Can you assure us that the US is complying with the precautionary principle?

9. Were you involved in the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program? When were you made aware of the program? If you believe, as you have said, that waterboarding is torture, what steps did you take to stop the CIA from engaging in such tactics?

The Plum Line at the Washington Post

Greg Sargent focuses on the legal justification for targeted killings.  His questions are primarily based on the white paper leaked by Isikoff.  I note again that both journalists and senators have not had much time to study the white paper and I wonder if it had been released earlier by the Obama administration, would there have been a lot more debate about these programs in the media and the blogosphere?  If the legal memos finally released last night by the Obama administration were given to the intelligence committees were released earlier, as persistently requested by Ron Wyden, would these senators have been better prepared to question Brennan and would they have scheduled a more lengthy and detailed hearing?  I continue to believe that there should be an unclassified version of these documents released to the media and the public and that our Congress should prepare to hold very public and lengthy Watergate-like hearings on this subject.  There needs to be a very public debate on this.

Questions for John Brennan about the targeted killing white paper

With the help of attorney Chris Anders of the ACLU, as well as two letters from Senator Ron Wyden, and blogging by Glenn Greenwald, Emptywheel, Adam Serwer, James Downie, and others, here are a few questions I hope he is asked:


3) In addition to this OLC memo, are there other legal memos further developing the administration’s views as to why these killings are legal? What is the justification for shielding them from Congressional oversight?

4) The white paper claims that these killings are legal if “an informed, high level official” has “determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” Please define “high level official,” and please tell us which members of the administration specifically are seen to have this decision-making authority.

[Emphasis added.]

Medea Benjamin Counterpunch

Regardless of what you may think about Medea Benjamin or Code Pink or their tactics, Benjamin has a unique standing to ask questions of Brennan today.  First, she’s been to Pakistan and has met and spoken personally to drone victims and/or families and neighbors of drone victims.  She spent time with people who live under drone surveillance day in and day out.  She has also been one of the lone voices protesting Brennan for some time now and has taken legal risks in order to do so.  Lastly, she has met John Brennan at his home.  Just a few months ago, he was still lying about deaths of innocent civilians.  He said that we don’t kill civilians and that she was being misled.  

So even after the public speech during which Brennan told the world that the drone program only involved well reviewed and specific targets who were an imminent threat to the United States and that the drones were surgical weapons and that the U.S. had not killed a single innocent civilian, and then he was called on that and had to backpedal, clearly, according to Benjamin, he continues to lie about it almost to this day, or at least he did on the day that she spoke to him.

In this article, first Benjamin asks why senators have waited so long to express their concern with drone assassinations and then she lays out ten questions that Code Pink would ask Brennan if they had the opportunity.  I’ll excerpt a few of them.

10 Questions for John Brennan’s Confirmation Hearing

Why the Drone Czar Shouldn’t Head the CIA

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.

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?


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?


Tom Junod of Esquire focuses mostly on the people killed and injured by our drone program who were not American citizens.  Most of the recent attention has been given to the president’s (and as we now know, high-level officials’) assumption of power to kill American citizens, but what about the thousands of non Americans who have been targeted?  Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been investigating covert drone wars and tracking drone strikes and victims since 2010.  They have now opened a new investigation which will attempt to add to their record by identifying the victims in addition to statistically collecting accounts of the strikes.   Junod also asks about Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the teenaged son of Anwar al-Awlaki, whose killing remains largely a mystery, despite many, many questions directed at the president asking for information.


In his response to the DOJ white paper, the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer commented that it’s written in “the language of limits — but without any real restrictions.” That is the norm for the Lethal Presidency, which deploys terms like “precision” and “discrimination” only in the interest of expansion. Not so long ago, we were assured by an American Administration that those it dispatched to Guantanamo Bay represented “the worst of the worst” — and so we were surprised when most of those it captured it later released, after finding they committed no crimes. Well, we don’t capture anymore, and “kill or capture” has been rendered the latest political euphemism. We kill. According to a former member of the Administration I consulted before writing “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama,” we kill those we would have never have bothered to capture. We don’t let anybody go.

Do we also kill American citizens? Yes, we do — and there is no doubt that John Brennan will be asked about the deliberations that ended in the death of Anwar al-Awlaki. But it would be better to ask him if there were any deliberations that led to the death of al-Awlaki’s son Abdulrahman. It would be better to ask him him if there was a white paper, or a classified memo. It would be better to ask him if he even knows why Abdulrahman was killed, or the importance of the operation that necessitated his death. For although Abdulrahman was an American citizen, his killing was much more typical of the killings meted out by the Lethal Presidency than the killing of his father. Abdulrahman, after all, wasn’t on any kill list that we know of. He wasn’t an Al Qaeda leader. He wasn’t even a militant. He was a kid, eating with other kids. John Brennan should be asked about him, because Abdulrahman is representative not just of the three American citizens but also the too many killed by the Lethal Presidency. He had no idea why he was killed. And neither do we.

The Nation

Robert Dreyfuss at The Nation talks about some people who would have questions for Brennan and his drone program if only they were able to ask them.  In these numbers, he includes the long denied cruise missile attack at the village of al Majala where “49 civilians, among them 23 children and 17 women” were killed.  

Questions for John Brennan That Won’t Get Asked

One of the questioners is Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, a father of seven children and a Yemeni cleric who apparently opposed Al Qaeda and its allies in Yemen. While he was arguing, alongside his cousin, with several Al Qaeda members who were angry with him, he was blown to pieces in a drone strike carried out by the United States. Oh, wait, he can’t ask Brennan anything. He’s dead. Oops.

Another question for Brennan comes from Saleem Hussein Jamal. Jamal happened to give a lift to some people who’d offered to pay him for a ride. During the trip, because the five riders were apparently Al Qaeda members, the car was blown to smithereens, and rescuers couldn’t identify anyone except by scraps. “We found eyes, but there were no faces left,” said one. Oh, Jamal can’t ask Brennan his question. He’s dead, too. Oops.

Dozens of questions come from Yemenis who experienced a US military drone strike in December 2009, the first in Yemen during the Obama administration. Unfortunately, because dozens of civilians died in that strike, which carried cluster munitions, they’re not going to able to ask Brennan anything, either. They’re all dead, too. Oops.

My Question and why I believe Brennan is less confirmable now than in 2009

Getting back to my big obvious question, one for which I have not seen any answer that I find to be satisfying.

What has changed since 2008-9 when John Brennan was considered to be too toxic to be confirmed as Director of the CIA?  What is so different now that he is expected to be easily confirmed and that only a few hours are needed to question him?

As promised, I’ll explain why I think Brennan is even less suited for the job of heading the CIA than he was in 2009.   Many strong reasons are obvious just from the questions from journalists cited above and the fact that some of them even have to be asked.  Really, it would take a lot more than one post to explain all of my doubts and reasons for opposing the Brennan nomination.  While writing this, I realized that I could have gone on at much further length.  In general, I’m not a fan of very long blog posts, so in  the interest of keeping this post to a reasonable length, I’ll try to summarize my main objections.

  • Questionable honesty  In an organization which operates almost entirely in secrecy, the honesty of the director is of utmost importance.  Sen. Wyden’s recent letter to John Brennan says that the torture report reveals that “the CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information about its interrogation program to the White House, the Justice Department, and Congress”.  A director who a history of integrity and honesty is critical to avoid that happening again.  John Brennan himself has a history of serial lying.  Some examples of that are well known, such as his claim that no civilians have ever been killed by American drone strikes, which was an obvious lie that he had to walk back.  The other well known lie is related to his erratic reports about the bin Laden kill.  Brennan has also been less than honest to the public about signature strikes.
  • Torture John Brennan was in a high level CIA position during the height of the Bush-Cheney “enhanced interrogation” and rendition programs.  He now claims that he opposed waterboarding and believes it to be torture but it is also known that he would have been involved in meetings and briefings on the torture program and officials who were in a position to know have told journalists that they do not remember him ever objecting to the program at the time.  I would need more evidence to believe his claims that he opposed torture at that time.
  • Assassinations  Based on what I have read, I believe that Brennan is the “Assassination Czar” as he has been nicknamed and is responsible for the deaths of both combatants and many innocent women and children based on what I believe to be dubious legality and constitutionality.
  • Influence on Drone Policy  Based on what I have read, I believe that Brennan has had more influence over the president than any other person with regard to the drone policy and the NDAA policy of assassinating American citizens and I think he has given him bad advice, in the extreme and should not be in any advisory position.

  • NYPD CIA  I strongly disagree with the NYPD branch of the CIA and the use of the CIA on American soil in any way.  Brennan defended the CIA on the Hudson and it is suspected that he was instrumental in creating it.

A few hours isn’t nearly enough time to explore this big question or the other enormously important specific questions that are so important for which the American people deserve to have answers.

The reason that we have these confirmation hearings is because some of the most powerful jobs in the United States require an enormous amount of public trust.  As David Cole said:

“That responsibility is nowhere more grave than in the case of the CIA. Because so much of what the agency does is necessarily hidden from public view, it is all the more essential that its director be rigorously vetted.”

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