Brennan Hearing Shows a Restless Congress on Drones and Terrorism

On drones, Brennan insisted that the president always acts legally—as defined by his own lawyers, that is—when ordering strikes against suspected terrorists.

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Jason Reed/REUTERS

Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on his nomination to be the Director of the CIA, on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 7, 2013.

As you might expect from a public hearing about the activities of the CIA, John Brennan’s Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday was not exactly a font of detailed information about America’s intelligence and counter-terror operations. In an afternoon when he maintained a tough resolve against occasionally testy Senate questioners—Chuck Hagel could learn a few things from this guy!—Brennan revealed virtually nothing new about drones, torture or the war on al Qaeda.

On drones, Brennan insisted that the president always acts legally—as defined by his own lawyers, that is—when ordering strikes against suspected terrorists. But he also told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee that he hoped Americans understood “the care we take, the agony we go through, to make sure we do not have any collateral injuries and deaths.”

On torture, Brennan acknowledged that he was aware of the practice while he was a senior CIA executive in the ‘00s, and that he left the agency believing it could yield useful information, although he opposed it. Yesterday Brennan said he’s now unsure, after reading the summary of a 6,000 page classified report recently produced by the Intelligence Committee, whether torture produce information that saved lives or led to the capture of Osama bin Laden. “At this point, Senator, I do not know what the truth is,” Brennan said.

But the word “torture” can mean different things to different people. And Brennan would not say whether his definition specifically includes the notorious practice of waterboarding, which he called “reprehensible and it is something that should not be done.” “I’m not a lawyer,” Brennan added.

As interesting as Brennan’s cautious, though generally effective, responses were the questions from his interrogators. Congress has generally played a hands-off role on counter-terrorism policy under Barack Obama. But several members of the Intelligence Committee seemed frustrated with various aspects of the ongoing campaign against al Qaeda. Democrats Diane Feinstein and Ron Wyden complained that the Obama administration had been too secretive about the drone program’s very existence, and Wyden pressed his case that the White House should more clearly explain to the public its legal rationale for killing a U.S. citizen believed to be aligned with al Qaeda. Republicans pressed Brennan on whether the Obama administration might be killing terrorists without trying in earnest to capture them because of newly limited interrogation and detention policies.

In one of the hearing’s most interesting exchanges, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine drew back further, asking Brennan whether some basic assumptions about the fight against al Qaeda should be challenged. Noting that the terror group continues to spread, Collins asked, “If the cancer of al Qaeda is metastasizing, do we need a new treatment?” Collins noted that even an experienced military official like former General Stanley McChrystal have begun wondering aloud whether America has become too reliant on drones, at the expense of breeding resentment and backlash within the Muslim world. (You can read about that and related issues in TIME’s recent drones cover story.)

“We have to be very mindful” of local reactions to drone strikes, Brennan answered. But he insisted that people in al Qaeda-infested areas have “welcomed” American strikes on terrorist leaders. It was another cautious and not terribly revealing answer. But Brennan’s response may have been less significant than the concern expressed by a senior Senator—a Republican no less—about America’s drone war. The Brennan hearing may have shed little light on Obama’s likely next CIA director. But it might have been a sign that, when it comes to our long counter-terror campaign, a long-acquiescent Congress is finally getting restless.

15 comments
gysgt213
gysgt213

Did not the same guy just write yesterday that there was nothing all to see at these same hearings now he is back today saying the opposite?  Bang up analysis there.  Way to be on top of your beat. 

WellLubricated
WellLubricated

How the hell is this any different than sending a tomahawk missile from a warship 5 miles away?

Whoooo! Spooky technology got me a'scurrd!

MrObvious
MrObvious

The issue with our drone policy as justified right now, is that the white house insist on it being legal without checks and balances. The question is not about whether or not we can target someone poised at killing other Americans or present an imminent danger to the rest of us. The question is that it's not specified, we don't know who can authorize it and that there are no checks and balances to guarantee that there's actually a real reason to do it.

Maybe some trusted the former White House when it justified torture and maybe some trust the current white house in their drone policy, but can we trust the next guy with such vague authorities in our name?

When a imminent threat becomes a vague supposition to grant a authority without boundaries to kill it's own citizen or for that matter foreign citizens then all of us should pause and reflect. Lots of things are done in the name of democracy but a democracy proposes the idea of rights and laws. And if 'rights' and laws become a matter of a unknown entities arbitrary notion of justice then we're all at risk. Because checks and balances provides a consequence for anyone that steps outside them, but when our political body shrugs their collective shoulders at something like this, it simply tells this and future administrations that it is will to forgo consequences in the false notion of 'security'. 

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

But the word “torture” can mean different things to different people.

 http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/2340

Not really.....

As used in this chapter—

(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;

(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—

           (A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering; 

           (B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;

           (C) the threat of imminent death; or

            (D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and

(3) “United States” means the several States of the United States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States.


CoreyPearson
CoreyPearson

I'm tired of hearing the ridiculous charge that the CIA and drones are "killing Americans". We killed Anwar al Awlaki in Yemen and I'm happy to report that he wasn't the only American "citizen" killed by a hellfire missile in Yemen. Surprisingly, one of our cable media outlets made a mistake in saying that he was the only one. Not true. An American "citizen" named Kamal Derwish, alias Ahmed Hijazi, was blown to pieces on November 5, 2002, in Yemen.Holy Lackawana six, these "Americans" we're killing are the most dangerous threat. They have US citizenship and work in the US, but travel under the radar to train in the Middle East on how to plan and execute terrorist attacks in the US. I wrote an article about this and offer it free to readers here.

 http://osintdaily.blogspot.com/2012/10/cia-capturing-or-killing-american.html

pageup4943
pageup4943

The Republican should realize they started these wars which screwed the hole world up, why ask stupid questions, if you are planning attacks on the US you need to die, whether a US citizen or not. One thing is certain our boys are dying less because of these drones.

jobscabin
jobscabin

If any American crosses over to the dark side like Awliki did, and that American helps recruit suicide bombers to be used to kill Americans, then a drone strike to neutralize that traitor (not just any traitor) is justified. That was Brennan's testimony and it is justified. Millions of dollars saved, thousands of deaths averted. Obama reelected, four more years of sensible forceful command.

levendiman
levendiman

"the word “torture” can mean different things to different people" Torture to me means listening to the deafening silence from the left/Democrats and the main stream media about the drone attacks and the fact that Obama wants to give non US combatant terrorist a trial by jury in our courts but if it is an American citizen he can authorize a drone attack to kill someone "suspected" of  "intentions" or "involved". So, terrorist gets a regular court case with jury, American citizen gets killed by a drone. It is so hypocritical and outrageous yet there is silence. Please someone please explain this, anyone. Defend this with logic before you start your name calling.



falcon269
falcon269

We are back in "1984." Water boarding is not torture? Let me do it to you, Brennan, without any constraint on whether you live or die. Then I will put the question to you if it is torture (if you are still alive). You are dreck.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@MrObvious Shorter: there is no authority for the President or anyone else to order the assassination of an American citizen without due process of law. There is also the issue of military attacks in countries where there is no declared war.

We need some sort of new legal framework for our "global war on terror" to provide the kinds of "checks and balances" you suggest. Hopefully something more transparent than the Kangaroo FISA court, which, I suppose, is better than nothing.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@levendiman No name-calling is necessary. You posted this comment on a "main stream media" post that discussed the intense questioning of the drone policy by Democratic Senators and included critical comments by those on "the left." We know what you are.

MrObvious
MrObvious

@shepherdwong @MrObvious 

The problem is that the entity that can provide checks and balances is also not that interested to do their job. Beyond partisan bickering and hypocrisy of course.

MrObvious
MrObvious

@shepherdwong @MrObvious 

As long as it won't become a hyper partisan food fight over packing that court. Especially since there are fewer that are concerned about this compared about those who think it's alright.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@MrObvious  I was thinking of a special court with strong mandate of legal authority, transparency and independence. I don't see why even the bitterly-divided Congress couldn't appoint judges, say an equal number from each party on the Judiciary Committee, to serve on a court that would rule over each party's Executive decisions over time. I think the bigger question than whether Congress can and would pass such a law is whether existing federal courts would rule in favor of the law over the presumed objection of the White House. They should, but the courts have become so hostile to the clear reading of the Constitution and so deferential to the Executive branch, who knows?