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.