There has been plenty of reaction on the nominations of John Brennan as director of the CIA. Some have commented “Many thought and hoped that Obama would pick Mike Morell, now the deputy at CIA, to help refocus the agency on its more conventional mission of intelligence collection and analysis, as opposed to drone strikes and other paramilitary operations that Brennan has advocated, at least in the past”.
A piece by drone expert, Micah Zenko from last September notes that “No politically appointed official in U.S. history has played such a prominent role in killing so many people outside of a war zone as John Brennan. He has been a ‘close advisor‘ to President Barack Obama since November 2008, was a Team Lead for the president-elect’s review of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), and has served as homeland security advisor and deputy national security advisor for counterterrorism, with the rank of assistant to the president, since the first day Obama entered office. Brennan does not merely fill a White House position, but also meets with the president several times a day and — according to administration officials — serves as ‘a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Obama.’”
Zenko goes on to write “Brennan plays the essential role in shaping and implementing Obama’s vision for protecting the United States, its allies, and its interests from politically motivated violence. The predominant counterterrorism tool under Obama has been targeted killings in non-battlefield settings, and Brennan reportedly oversees and manages the 100-person inter-agency process that nominates and vets suspected militants and terrorists for the United States’ various kill lists – implemented by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command. Obama’s has been a ‘lethal presidency,’ and Brennan is the Lethal Bureaucrat”. For all of Zenko’s admitted expertise in this area this implication Brennan as some kind of modern day executioner in chief is unhelpful to discourse. Firstly, a central co-coordinator is needed as President Obama is unable to do it himself on a day to day basis. Secondly, Zenko takes the argument to the extreme when he endorses labels such as the “lethal presidency”. Obama and Brennan are only doing what every president and his national security staff should do, protect America, and by implication, its allies. Zenko’s endorsement of the term ignores everything else Obama has done from the stimulus to health care reform on the domestic side to other aspects of his foreign policy.
Zenko writes “it is important to understand the scope of what Obama has authorized in comparison with his predecessor. Since Sept. 11, 2001, there have been an estimated 393 targeted killings — in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and the Philippines. (President George W. Bush also authorized an October 2008 raid six miles inside Syria to kill Abu Ghadiyah, an Iraqi-born senior operative of Al Qaeda in Iraq, as well as several of his bodyguards and several civilians.) Under Bush, there were roughly 50 targeted killings; under Obama there have been 343 in less than half the time — 95 percent of them by Predator or Reaper drones. At least 2,000 people have been killed by U.S. targeted killings since Obama entered office”. It would be unfair to question the accuracy of these figures but there are generally around 30,000 deaths of US roads a year so these figures are minor. Also, it should not be forgotten those that are being targeted, terrorists with violent intent against the United States and its allies. Zenko adds “Brennan is especially well-suited for his position at the intersection of lethal covert operations and bureaucratic management. He spent a quarter-century in the IC, serving in wide-range of distinguished roles, including as Middle East chief of station, daily intelligence briefer for President Bill Clinton, and — from 1999 through 2005 — chief of staff to CIA Director George Tenet, deputy executive director of the CIA, and head of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, later named the National Counterterrorism Center. It was during these years that Bush authorized the CIA to use enhanced interrogation techniques”. He ends the piece “It should be noted that all of the powers endowed within Brennan’s cramped White House office were bestowed by Obama, who, as commander-in-chief, has shown unmatched enthusiasm for “broadening the aperture” of whom the United States will use lethal force against. Although both Clinton and Bush had their own under-reported kill lists, neither was nearly as willing to attempt to kill as many named and anonymous suspected militants or terrorists”.
Zenko concludes, “Brennan has touted drones’ ‘surgical precision, the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it.’ He also used this cancer metaphor at his first meeting with Obama, when they were finishing each other’s sentences”. In a different article, Zenko quotes Brennan “‘We’re not going to rest until al Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas. We’re determined to do that.’ (This Week with George Stephanopoulos, April 29, 2012) The mantra of U.S. military officials who oversee counterterrorism or counterinsurgency policies is ‘you can’t capture or kill your way out’ of problems caused by those using violence to achieve political objectives. It is a slogan based in the real-world experiences of many military commanders and much academic research”. This Zenko puts under the heading of eliminating all of al-Qaeda. This is patently false, Zenko is unfairly putting words into Brennan’s mouth. What Brennan is saying in the quote is that the organisation will be destroyed but nowhere does he imply that the whole organisation should, and can, be destroyed. As Brennan in a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace speech in December 2010 said, “A counterterrorism strategy that focuses on the immediate threat to the exclusion of the more comprehensive political, economic and development-oriented approach is not only short-sighted but also doomed to fail.”
Zenko then argues that Brennan does not capture more terrorists, he writes “By the time Obama entered office, the United States had basically quit capturing terrorists in non-battlefield situations. This was not always the case. Although it may be difficult to recall, in the 14 months after the 9/11 attacks, more than 3,000 al Qaeda operatives and affiliates were detained in over 100 countries. Most were eventually released, but hundreds of others (plus additional suspected terrorists captured in the subsequent half-decade) were transferred to CIA black sites”. Yet, Zenko does not address the need for such sites or the usefulness of having them, or that fact that Obama tried to close Guantánamo but failed, simply because it fulfils a purpose. Zenko goes on to mention “By no later than 2006, however, the Bush administration stopped detentions because the White House and Congress could not reach an agreement over the legal jurisdiction of captured suspected terrorists. In late 2009, this was made plain when Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly told Obama, ‘We do not have a plausible capture strategy.’ According to Daniel Klaidman in his book, Kill or Capture, ‘The inability to detain terror suspects was creating perverse incentives that favoured killing or releasing suspected terrorists over capturing them.’”
He does make some fair points about some civilian causalities and other points but ends citing a poll about some nations opposition to drones. However, it is doubtful that people understand the usefulness of drones in comparison to other possibilities. Secondly even if people asked in this poll are correct, which is highly doubtful, conducting foreign and security policy by what the average person thinks is reckless and dangerous.