A Wake-Up Call On Drones: What the John Brennan Debate Achieved

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Gary Cameron / REUTERS

Senators John McCain (R-AZ) (L) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) confer at the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington March 5, 2013.

It took two confirmation hearings; the release of a slew of White House legal documents; a bunch of new details about the attack in Benghazi; and a 13-hour Rand Paul filibuster followed by a counter-attack from John McCain and Lindsey Graham, but the Senate has finally confirmed John Brennan to lead the CIA by a 63 to 34 vote.

What was accomplished by all that hue and cry? In one sense, not very much. The Benghazi obsessives learned that press aides had a hand in tweaking those famous talking points about the Libyan attack, but it’s not clear what that means and no one seems very exercised about it. Senate Intelligence Committee members, and some staffers, were shown some (but not all) White House legal memos on the topic of striking U.S. citizens on American soil. And Rand Paul is declaring “victory” after receiving a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder explaining that, no, the president cannot order a drone strike against an American non-combatant on U.S. soil. (Future “Hanoi Janes” can safely linger at Starbucks as long as they like.)

But the nomination of Brennan, who as White House counter-terrorism advisor has been the architect of Barack Obama’s aggressive drone policy, forced Congress to have a real and robust debate about drones in an unprecedented way. The focus on the extremely narrow question of targeting American citizens may have been misplaced. But good questions were raised along the way about expanded presidential power, the drawbacks of heavy reliance on drones, and whether it’s time to reassess the basic legal framework governing the war against al Qaeda, its allies, and other terrorist groups.

(One note about that Holder letter, by the way: Is it really the “victory” Rand Paul says it is? Holder says the president cannot use a weaponized drone to kill an American “not engaged in combat” on U.S. soil. But just as administration lawyers have a cleverly inventive definition of imminent, “engaged in combat” could conceivably mean more than meets the eye–for instance, not just someone firing a weapon, but also a bomb maker preparing an explosive device in his basement. Or perhaps Holder is referring to a declared “enemy combatant,” an official phrase whose definition is similarly flexible and could include a propagandist/recruiter figure.)

As for Brennan, he will arrive at a CIA whose role in the drone war has steadily expanded, and which he may try to rein in or at least substantially transfer to the Pentagon. Given his close relationship with Obama and his deep expertise, he will surely retain a strong hand in shaping the administration’s overall drone and terrorism policy. But the complicated burdens of his White House job, and the robust new debate surrounding it, will now be shouldered by someone else. Good luck, Lisa.

22 comments
formerlyjames
formerlyjames

We can now rest easy knowing that our government probably won't strike us down by drone attack.  Then again, take on the government in country, out of country, citizen or not, all bets are off.  They didn't have drones in Waco, but they had big tanks.  Next time, Rand Paul should just continue fighting his windmills and piss on the floor of the chamber as he did figuratively for 13 hours.  

paulejb
paulejb

John McCain and Lindsey Graham beclown themselves in an effort to upstage Rand Paul. Two old dinosaur RINOs who have become irrelevant.

drudown
drudown

Ah, Crowley- your incorrigible refusal to let the Benghazi red herring go is about as telling as your inability to coherently identify what relevance it has to begin with. Let us assume, arguendo, that the Americans were murdered as a form of political speech. What possible utility or relevance is the "timing" of when the "talking points" about the attendant circumstances were dispensed, particularly given the potential diplomatic consequences if such killings were at the direction or were sanctioned by a particular Arab regime? Given that there was no way to recreate what actually happened in the court of PUBLIC OPINION for such self-evident reasons, ANY attempt to divine motive or purpose of the Benghazi killings by ANY elected official (i.e., whether President Obama, S.O.S. Clinton, Rep. Boehner or Sen. McCain, et al.) is not only pure conjecture, but it is exceedingly shortsighted to presuppose that the United States' strategic interests best served by being completely forthright when the State Department was completing its due diligence as to what transpired; perhaps being vague and/or deliberately misleading in "talking points" was necessary and proper. Like the underlying motive of the killings, it calls for speculation and, by definition, the GOP assumes material facts not in evidence. Facts that will likely never be ascertained. 

But what of it?

Reduced to its essence, whether the Americans were killed as a form of political speech by actual, high level terrorists...or they were murdered for the US dollars in their wallet...does not necessarily have any deep meaning for the People of the United States, nor is this "information" a matter of National Security per se. But assuming for the sake of argument that it was deemed to be, in fact, a matter of National Security- the notion that the Obama Administration and/or (then) Secretary of State Clinton should be chastised or criticized for not "fully disclosing" every fact to the public while ascertaining all the pertinent facts is therefore asinine. It is prudent diplomacy and is in no way indicative of some vague and useless "conspiracy" that has sadly become the Benghazi red herring. Enough already. Give it a rest and let the State Department do its job without Congress using the loss of precious American lives as a pretext for partisan politics. As with unfounded criticism of drone use, such public scrutiny of US policy undermines our authority in the eyes of those we purportedly seek to "win over." Of course, in the alternative, the more the GOP draws attention to what very well were random acts of violence, the more incentive Al Qaeda has to kill Americans abroad as political speech. 

In short, the GOP knows the objective for the United States in the Middle East but obstructs the way with such public critique; what they call the way is mere wavering.

"Diplomacy: the art of restraining power." - Kissinger

ThehandEman
ThehandEman

@TIME The devil is in the details...

MrObvious
MrObvious

It's funny; it's the same Congress that gave him that power through the patriot act and other things afterwards. I'm all for a robust debate but it's a lil' late now. Shouldn't these great minds have thought about this before they were so eager about signing shit like this into law?

OonaGonzalo
OonaGonzalo

@TIME good morning? Mean cp acounct ni accpect video? No

Sedated420
Sedated420

@TIME Why are people so pissed off at drones? What about the generations of soldiers who massacred innocents? Soldiers destroyed this world.

xAnnettex
xAnnettex

@TIME Wow impressive finally reporting the good stuff!

paulejb
paulejb

@formerlyjames 

The Obama regime has no trouble pissing all over the US Constitution. Rand Paul brought them up short this time.

drudown
drudown

@formerlyjames 

When you take up arms against the US government, you do so at your own peril. 

Res ipsa loquitur.

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

@paulejb 

In which of the three circus rings are the clowns appearing?  Are they arriving in the Republican clown car with many others?

drudown
drudown

@paulejb 

Right, I'm sure the leaders around the world watching Rand Paul make an absolute fool of himself were thinking "when Rand Paul speaks, people listen."

/s/ EF Hutton

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

@drudown 

I agree and also award you the prize for eloquent verbosity in making the point.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

@MrObvious 

Hey, better late than never.

But I don't believe this will live for long.  Aside from the "we need our guns to prevent tyranny" crowd, I think most people don't believe the "man in the cafe" scenario is anything but an excessively paranoid position.

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

@paulejb @formerlyjames 

The US Constitution before 1868, when Obama wouldn't have been a citizen, much less president?  We have a new one.  You're either with it or against it.  

drudown
drudown

@formerlyjames

Is this preferable:

(enter Danny Glover voice) "I'm getting too old for this &@%$."