No Comment — May 23, 2012, 1:12 pm

Behold the Lord High Executioner!

Kimberley Dozier of the Associated Press reports that the burden of making the life-and-death decisions surrounding drone use is settling on the shoulders of a single man, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan:

White House counterterror chief John Brennan has seized the lead in guiding the debate on which terror leaders will be targeted for drone attacks or raids, establishing a new procedure to vet both military and CIA targets. The move concentrates power over the use of lethal U.S. force outside war zones at the White House.

The process, which is about a month old, means Brennan’s staff consults the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies as to who should go on the list, making a previous military-run review process in place since 2009 less relevant, according to two current and three former U.S. officials aware of the evolution in how the government targets terrorists. In describing Brennan’s arrangement to The Associated Press, the officials provided the first detailed description of the military’s previous review process that set a schedule for killing or capturing terror leaders around the Arab world and beyond.

The report notes that Brennan’s role has been justified by the winding down of the Pentagon’s role in drone use in Afghanistan, where U.S. military operations are entering their next, lower-profile stage. The Pentagon’s drone deployments have, however, been far less controversial than the CIA-dominated deployments in places like Pakistan and Yemen. Brennan has distinguished himself as a champion of a militarized CIA, outfitted with drone technology and given a critical role on the hot battlefield just south of the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This position has been unsurprising considering his career at CIA, where he was a key architect of the agency’s war-on-terror strategies.

Dozier’s report adds another drop of information to what we already know about the Obama Administration’s drone policies and processes. The government has steadily countered the public’s demands for information by insisting that the CIA’s drone wars fall under the shield of “covert action.” It has occasionally unveiled small fragments of drone policy by dispatching Brennan, Attorney General Eric Holder, State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh, and others to deliver public speeches, but the information released has been scattered and thin. Even the program’s legal underpinnings remain largely mysterious.

Now Brennan has emerged as the White House’s drone czar—though Gilbert and Sullivan provide us with the more appropriate title of Lord High Executioner. Dozier tells us that Brennan will consolidate agency recommendations and present final analyses to the president—bureaucratic euphemisms for what is in fact a program of death penalties to be handed down by the government’s growing assassinations bureau.

Most Americans would likely agree that drone assassinations are justified at some level—most especially in the context of an active war. But other aspects of the program, such as the targeting of U.S. citizens far from any active battlefield, have the public concerned and demanding a more candid description of the Obama White House’s activities. The elevation of Brennan, a non-military figure outside of the conventional chain of command, accentuates these concerns. Prudent policy would require such operations to be handled by the military. Instead, they are shifting to the intelligence community, whose unwholesome influence is growing.

The immediate question is why Brennan has been chosen. Few figures in the Obama White House inspire less confidence. Brennan was thought to be Obama’s first choice to head the CIA, but he dropped out when details emerged about his support for torture techniques before he joined the Obama campaign and repudiated them. As a White House adviser, he has attracted negative attention for being gabby with the press about supposedly covert matters, for instance in a Washington Times interview where he justified the decision to kill Anwar al-Awlaki before it happened, in his pathetically confused account of the killing of Osama bin Laden, and in his absurd contention that CIA drone attacks in Pakistan have produced “not a single collateral death.”

Brennan’s misstatements may have prepared him for the comic-opera role of Lord High Executioner, but they disqualify him from playing the more serious part of adviser to the president on drone assassinations. We do need more information about how drones are being used, and on how the decisions about their use are being made, but we’ve seen enough from Brennan to know that he’s not going to provide it—and that he’s not fit to be managing this program.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

April 2015

The Joke

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abolish High School

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beat Reporter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Going It Alone

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Rotten Ice

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Life After Guantánamo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

[Browsings]
Photograph by the author
Article
Rotten Ice·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“When I asked if we were going to die, he smiled and said, ‘Imaqa.’ Maybe.”
Photograph © Kari Medig
Article
Life After Guantánamo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I’ve seen the hell and I’m still in the beginning of my life.”
Illustration by Caroline Gamon
Article
Going It Alone·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The call to solitude is universal. It requires no cloister walls and no administrative bureaucracy, only the commitment to sit down and still ourselves to our particular aloneness.”
Photograph by Richard Misrach
Article
No Slant to the Sun·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“She didn’t speak the language, beyond “¿cuánto?” and “demasiado,” but that didn’t stop her. She wanted things. She wanted life, new experiences, a change in the routine.”
Photograph © Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

Acreage of a Christian nudist colony under development in Florida:

240

Florida’s wildlife officials decided to remove the manatee, which has a mild taste that readily adapts to recipes for beef, from the state’s endangered-species list.

A 64-year-old mother and her 44-year-old son were arrested for running a gang that stole more than $100,000 worth of toothbrushes from Publix, Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS stores in Florida.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Driving Mr. Albert

By

He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today