Lost amidst the manufactured controversy over President Barack Obama’s pick of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense is the equally consequential pick for new director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Yesterday, President Obama tapped a man for the top CIA post who has supported the hallmarks of the permanent war on terror: wiretapping, drone strikes and torture. Pending confirmation, John Brennan, currently a top counterterrorism adviser to Obama, will be the new head of the powerful CIA. Brennan will take over from David Petraeus, who was felled by an extramarital affair.
President Obama praised Brennan in a press conference January 7, where the announcement of Brennan as CIA head was made. “For the last four years, as my Advisor for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, John developed and has overseen our comprehensive counterterrorism strategy — a collaborative effort across the government, including intelligence and defense and homeland security, and law enforcement agencies,” said Obama. “And so think about the results. More al Qaeda leaders and commanders have been removed from the battlefield than at any time since 9/11.”
Obama’s praise for Brennan ignores the man’s dubious record. So instead, we’ll give Brennan’s history a closer look–and point out five disturbing facts you should know about Brennan’s past.
1. Staunch Drone Warrior
Brennan is closely identified with the Obama administration’s expanded policy of using drones, or remotely piloted aircraft, to strike at suspected militants in countries such as Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. The Washington Post refers to Brennan as “the principal architect of a policy that has transformed counterterrorism from a conventional fight centered in Afghanistan to a high-tech global effort to track down and eliminate perceived enemies one by one.” The Post adds that Brennan is at the “core” of the White House centered effort to use drones and that “when operations are proposed in Yemen, Somalia or elsewhere, it is Brennan alone who takes the recommendations to Obama for a final sign-off.”
What has this meant for people on the ground in Yemen and Pakistan? Disaster, in a word. The drone strikes have killed scores of civilians in those countries, sparking widespread anger at the United States and, in some cases, driving people into the arms of extremists who despise the U.S. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which closely tracks U.S. drone strikes, 290 civilians have been killed in Pakistan as a result of the Obama administration’s drone program.
2. Misleading Advocate for Drones
Brennan has also been the administration’s public face when they feel the need to explain their program of targeted assassinations. Brennan gave the first public acknowledgement of the Obama administration’s drone strike program in an April 30, 2012 speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
He’s also a serial misleader on the drone program. “There hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop,” Brennan said in June 2011. But as Micah Zenko points out in Foreign Policy, there have been many “public reports — from Pakistani and Yemeni reporters and anonymous administration officials — of civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes.”
Zenko also points out another of Brennan’s misleading statements on drone strikes. In an August 2012 speech, Brennan claimed that “contrary to conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that [drone strikes] are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP. In fact, we see the opposite: Our Yemeni partners are more eager to work with us.” But Brennan is dead wrong on this. As Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen wrote in The New York Times, “Brennan’s assertion was either shockingly naïve or deliberately misleading. Testimonies from Qaeda fighters and interviews I and local journalists have conducted across Yemen attest to the centrality of civilian casualties in explaining Al Qaeda’s rapid growth there. The United States is killing women, children and members of key tribes.”
3. Supporter of Immunity for Telecom Companies
When the scandal of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping of Americans broke, one issue that got a lot of attention was the complicity of telecommunication companies who allowed the Bush administration to spy on their customers. But Brennan thinks those companies should be left alone, despite his skepticism of warrantless wiretapping.
In 2008, as the debate over telecom immunity raged, Brennan said: “I do believe strongly that they should be granted that immunity, because they were told to do so by the appropriate authorities that were operating in a legal context, and so I think that’s important.” This line of reasoning, later implemented into the law, shields corporate communication companies from lawsuits from customers who may have been unlawfully spied on.
4. Supporter of Torture
Brennan is opposed to waterboarding, the most infamous torture tactic of the Bush years. But on other aspects of the torture program, he’s more supportive. “A lot of information… has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has in fact used against the real hard-core terrorists. It has saved lives,” he said in 2007, while he was a CIA aide. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer described Brennan as a “supporter” of the CIA’s torture program.
And what were these CIA tactics that Brennan is referring to? They included slamming detainees’ heads against walls; prolonged standing in stress positions; beating and kicking; prolonged shackling of hands and feet; and much more.
5. Extraordinary Rendition Booster
Closely connected to the Bush administration’s torture regime was its program of extraordinary rendition–the term given to the practice of abducting suspected terrorists from one country and secretly shipping them to another country, where they would be interrogated and tortured. Brennan was in full support of this program.
In 2005, Brennan described extraordinary rendition as “an absolutely vital tool” that “without a doubt has been very successful as far as producing intelligence that has saved lives.” What Brennan left out is that rendition often delivered people to brutal regimes where they were tortured at the behest of the U.S. And, while it certainly nabbed extremists trying to attack the U.S., innocent people were also caught up in the operation. Maher Arar is the most visible face of how the rendition program went wrong: a dual Syrian and Canadian citizen, Arar was detained by the U.S. in 2002 and then deported to Syria where he was tortured on suspicion of being a member of Al Qaeda. Turns out he was nothing of the sort, and the Canadian government has since apologized to Arar.