John O. Brennan’s nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has attracted far less attention than President Obama’s other second-term appointees.
Brennan worked in the CIA for twenty-five years, as an analyst, a station chief, and chief of staff for then-director George Tenet. He was head of the National Counter Terrorism Center before he left government in 2005. He advised candidate Obama’s campaign on foreign policy issues and became President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism in 2008.
1) What was your role with regard to the policy of rendition and torture of detainees after September 11? What do you think it did for our national security, both good and bad?
Brennan was the chief of staff under CIA director George Tenet when the Bush administration’s rendition and enhanced interrogations techniques first were used. Many have said that Brennan was not close to the program, but he has publically defended it in the past, stating that “valuable” information was gathered and that these programs definitely “saved lives.” Brennan’s connection to these programs, which has yet to be clarified, is what kept him from becoming CIA director in Obama’s first term.
Brennan asserts he outwardly expressed his criticism for these programs during his time in the Bush administration; to his credit, he has classified waterboarding as torture, and has been acclaimed as a source of moral rectitude in the Obama administration’s counterterrorism pursuits. However, in light of the public attention that our rendition and torture policies under President Bush are receiving after the release of the film Zero Dark Thirty, there has never been a better time to discuss the downfalls — and possible positive yields — of the Bush administration’s policies. Surely, we need to continue an active debate as to whether it is better to detain suspected terrorists, without torture, or to actively assassinate them with special forces or drone strikes to avoid the complications of detainment and trial.
2) Can you articulate the factors you took into consideration while creating the “disposition matrix”? What criteria did you use to establish this system, and how has it evolved? Could you explain the criteria for conducting a “signature strike”? Most importantly, now that we have gone down this path, what does the end game look like?
There have been several high profile articles and interviews with John Brennan, crediting him for establishing the parameters within which the Obama administration carries out its drone strikes and special forces raids. This rubric has become known as the “disposition matrix”: a set of suspected terrorists “arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations.” This list allows the United States to track suspected terrorists within their networks and use allied governments or our special forces to attempt to capture these individuals. If the suspected terrorist is deemed an “imminent threat” and capture isn’t possible, John Brennan and President Obama sign off on a lethal drone strike.
The criteria for what constitutes “imminent threat” to the United States remains shrouded in secrecy, and in the wake of the deaths of American citizens Anwar al-Awlaki, his sixteen-year-old son Abdulrahman, and Samir Khan, alarming questions about civil liberties and counterterrorism have been brought to light. Not only did these cases bring to light the targeting of American citizens abroad, but called attention to the Obama administration’s policy classifying any military age male killed in a drone strike a militant, unless there is intelligence proving otherwise after their death.
There is also the question of the “signature strikes” carried out by the Obama administration. In these situations, “suspicious compounds” or training camps in areas controlled by militants can be targeted, even if no high-value person is identifiable. Although some have suggested the criteria for carrying out one of these strikes is “tighter” than it seems, it is important that we have an honest debate about both the disposition matrix and signature strikes.
As Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution put it, “The problem with the drone is it’s like your lawn mower. You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.” The Obama administration was criticized for having a “Whac-a-Mole” policy toward Al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorist movements. If John Brennan is to be confirmed, the public deserves a clear cut idea of what the end game for our War on Terror looks like.
The Obama administration, and John Brennan himself, has been adamant that there is no evidence of anger, resentment, or blowback as a result of these drone strikes. According to Michah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations in his new report, “Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies,” there have been over 400 drone strikes, killing more than 3,000 people in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since 2002. The Obama administration has not only continued the Bush administration’s drone policies, but has also accelerated them. In June 2011, John Brennan claimed there wasn’t “a single collateral death” from drone strikes. Additionally, John Brennan claims there is “little evidence that these actions are demonstrating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for A.Q.A.P.”
Several reports from scholars and journalists, most notably Jeremy Scahill and Gregory Johnson, are clear on the impact our signature strikes have had in the Yemen. Johnson states that “civilian casualties” have been fuel for “Al-Qaeda’s rapid growth” in Yemen in an op-ed about John Brennan, “The Wrong Man for the CIA.” According to Johnson, when the United States started bombing in Yemen in 2009, AQAP only numbered between 200 and 300 fighters. Today, the estimate stands at a few thousand.
Scahill has written extensively in The Nation on the blowback from our drone strikes and counterterrorism policy in Yemen. Scahill proposes that “AQAP’s agenda is indigenously spreading and merging with the mounting rage of powerful tribes at US counterterrorism policy and Washington’s years of support for the Saleh regime.”
Civilian deaths are, as one would assume, wildly unpopular and seem to be driving individuals into the hands of Ansar Al-Sharia, an Al-Qaeda-sympathetic group that operates alongside AQAP providing social services in southern Yemen. With all this said, shouldn’t we consider the possibility that drone strikes may serve to further “metastasize” Al-Qaeda and create sympathetic actors across the globe? After all, Faisal Shazad, the would-be Times Square bomber, cited drone strikes as a main motivator for his desire to attack the United States.
John Brennan knows the CIA from an analyst and administrative standpoint. He has worked his way up through the ranks and is being granted the unique opportunity to run the organization that has guided him to the upper echelons of government.
In the years after September 11, the CIA has drifted into a strange territory. It seems to have let intelligence-gathering fall by the wayside while it has engaged in what some would call “paramilitary” operations throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia. John Brennan has the opportunity to return the CIA to its traditional intelligence-gathering activities. He can be bold and pull back on the CIA’s drone strike capability, or he can look for a more delicate balance between intelligence-gathering and defensive operations. By all accounts, Brennan has attempted to scale back the CIA’s role in drone strikes over his time with the Obama administration and turn this capability entirely over to the military. Once Brennan is in the driver’s seat at the CIA, will he feel the same?
As Gregory Johnson so eloquently points out, without “more and better human intelligence” we can expect civilian casualties from drone strikes to continue. The CIA, some time ago, would have been focusing solely on the human intelligence that would strengthen our capacity for carrying out drone strikes judiciously. John Brennan, a man with immense, often conflicting power in his current position, has the opportunity to right the CIA’s ship in his next position.
This article was first published at The Century Foundation.