On Thursday the Senate will have a rare opportunity to grill President Obama’s counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan, who’s been nominated to head the CIA. Let’s hope they don’t blow it. This White House has been as secretive and closed-mouth as any, leaving us in doubt what exactly our counter-terrorism policy is. We’re still dropping drone missiles on Pakistan, although the front seems to have shifted to North Africa and the Sahel. Are we truly winning against al-Qaeda, or is it moving around too fast for us to keep up? That may be too abstract of an equation to get answered in a Senate hearing. But if Brennan were sitting in front of me, I wouldn’t let him go until he’d clearly and factually answered these questions:
1. Assassination of American citizens
The Administration has claimed authority to assassinate American citizens it judges to be an “imminent” danger to this country. What sort of affiliation would cause an American to end up on a “kill list”? How many Americans are are currently on them? But most importantly, how sure are we of the intelligence that puts an American on one of these lists? There are persistent reports from Pakistan and Yemen that drones are killing the wrong people. How do we know the same faulty intelligence won’t lead to the wrongful assassination of an American?
2. Is Pakistan Playing with an Open Hand on al-Qaeda?
Abbottabad is a garrison town, vigilantly patrolled and protected by Pakistan’s military and security services. Foreigners can’t drive ten feet into town without being stopped and having their IDs checked. How was it that Osama bin Laden and his Arab entourage managed to live there for nearly seven years without coming to the attention of the authorities? The chances of Pakistan’s normally efficient – at least to some degree – intelligence services being entirely ignorant about Bin Laden’s presence are zero to none. So, how high did such knowledge go? If it went to the top, it means that Pakistan has never truly been fighting on our side. What implications does that have for our end game in Afghanistan? Will al-Qaeda resurface there?
3. Would the Administration Ever Reconsider “Enhanced Interrogation”?
In a still secret report, the Senate Intelligence Committee reportedly determined that “enhanced interrogation” contributed little or nothing to finding Bin Laden. Does the Administration share that opinion? Would it ever authorize the “enhanced interrogation” techniques used under the Bush Administration, and if so, under what circumstances?
4. What Perils Await After Syria’s Assad Falls?
It remains difficult to read the political balance among the armed rebels fighting to oust Syria’s President Bashar Assad, and probably will be until the regime falls. But are we talking to the groups doing the actual fighting, or are we only dealing with the parlor revolutionaries, mostly in exile, who may play little role in shaping the post-Assad Syria on the ground? There are persistent reports that the most effective fighters are uncompromising Salafis, the first cousins of al-Qaeda, foremost among them the Jabhat al-Nusra group labeled an international terrorist organization by the U.S. but increasingly popular among rebels on the ground. If so, what happens if the rebels come to power? How can we lock down Syria’s advanced chemical weapons, VX and Sarin? And two, how can we stop the Salafi movement from taking hold in Iraq, Jordan, Libya, and even among the Palestinians. Are we dealing with a domino effect?
5. How Do We Fill the North Korea Intel Gap?
New missile tests coming on the heels of an opaque leadership change underscore the fact that North Korea continues to teeter on the edge of the abyss. The CIA’s capacity to collect good intelligence there has and always will be limited. Are China and Russia, two countries who’ve traditionally had better ties with North Korea, able to fill the gap?
6. What Does China Want?
Pressure on the U.S. across the Middle East as well as parts of Africa and Asia gives China many opportunities to push back against American interests. China certainly has the ability to empower our adversaries, particularly Iran, but does it have the motivation to do so? Do we expect strategic competition with China across a wider global terrain?
7. Are Intelligence Assessments Being Bureaucratically Diluted?
Important questions remain unanswered about the watered-down “talking points” related to the attack on our consulate in Benghazi last September. No one has explained why there were so many cooks in the kitchen preparing what should have been a simple assessment. And why, by the way, was the FBI even given a say? The way these things used to work, the State Department and the CIA worked together to expeditiously hammer out an acceptable version. Will Brennan go back to a simplified process, cutting away bureaucratic bloat?
8. Are We Losing Our Edge in Experience?
The CIA, like the military, is now coming up on 12 years of the “war on terror.” Its taken a hard toll on operatives and analysts working overseas – separations from family, quick rotations in and out of war zones, resources drawn away from other important missions. The CIA has had to jerry-rig all of its overseas operations, cutting corners against its preferences. How many stations are now manned by retirees or contractors? What is the standard rotation in and out of war zones? Do agents spend sufficient time in a deployment to develop real expertise on a country? What is the real attrition rate at the CIA? Are operatives and analysts rewarded at rates commensurate with the risk they take and the time they spend overseas?
9. How Many Bambara Speakers Does the CIA Have?
The CIA has always struggled with difficult languages, from Arabic to Mandarin, that are nonetheless crucial to intelligence work. I would imagine that things haven’t improved since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. How many fluent Pashto and Urdu speakers does the CIA currently have working in the Af-Pak theater? Or how many operatives speak Bambara and Touareg, right now the most useful languages in Mali? Or do we simply rely on the locals to keep us current?
10. Can the CIA’s Belt be Tightened?
With the CIA more or less out of Iraq, and about to be reduced to a skeleton in Afghanistan, what reductions can we expect to see in the intelligence budget? More money doesn’t equal better intelligence, and in fact could produce the opposite. Brennan’s experience in the Agency and the White House ought to provide an informed perspective.
Robert B. Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, is TIME.com’s intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.