Deputy National Security Advisor John O. Brennen delivered an important speech at Harvard on Friday evening, in which he gave what may well be the most comprehensive presentation so far on the Obama Administration’s counterterrorism efforts. The speech dealt with a series of contentious issues: the use of drones, the dividing line between the military and the intelligence community, and the line between the military and the law-enforcement community. Discussion of these issues has generally been marked by coarse and misleading political rhetoric. Republicans, for instance, have derided efforts to use law-enforcement tools, insisting instead on military solutions. But Brennan said the obvious: “We will use every lawful tool and authority at our disposal.” Indeed, notwithstanding sharp differences in their rhetoric, the functional responses to terrorism of the Bush and Obama Administrations are far more alike than different.
One of the more serious issues raised by Brennan’s speech relates to the country’s hottest new weapons technology: missile-armed predator drones. State Department legal adviser Harold Koh previously told us that the United States often justifies its use of drones on grounds of self-defense. (It now appears that there is at least some limited controversy within the administration on this subject.) But the Obama team has failed to provide a thorough, consistent explanation for its actions, especially in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Instead, it has labeled its drone programs there as “covert action.”
One of the White House’s explanations for this move is that it is trying to accommodate local governments that have approved at least some of the strikes but don’t want their approval to be public fact. At this point, however, such claims verge on the absurd. The drone war in Pakistan is not a discrete handful of strikes; it is a full-fledged military campaign, with clear military objectives, sustained at high levels over many years. The people of Pakistan certainly know what’s going on—a recent survey of U.S. and Pakistani press coverage suggested that the label “covert action” keeps the drone program secret from the people of the United States, and no one else.
Brennan expanded what we know about the drone program slightly, saying that the U.S. does not feel it must do a fresh “self-defense” analysis every time it strikes against an Al Qaeda target, and that it does not feel limited to striking “‘hot’ battlefields” (Afghanistan and the Pakistani borderlands, Iraq). But he balanced these statements with a suggestion that the administration’s process includes some level of consultation with host governments. Brennan failed to explain why the U.S. government seems to prefer lethal force to efforts to arrest and interrogate the targets. A good explanation may well exist, but so far none has been offered.
Another portion of the Brennan speech deserves closer inspection:
[A] key element of this Administration’s counterterrorism strategy is to help governments build their capacity, including a robust and balanced legal framework, to provide for their own security.
Though tailored to the unique circumstances of each country, we are working with countries in key locations to help them enact robust counterterrorism laws and establish the institutions and mechanisms to effectively enforce them. The establishment of a functioning criminal justice system and institutions has played a key role in the security gains that have been achieved in Iraq. We are working to achieve similar results in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
Monday morning, headlines around the world focused readers’ attention on the fifty unarmed civilian protesters killed in Yemen by a tenacious dictatorship that has been held in place with U.S. support. The “elsewhere” Brennan mentions includes Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain—all nations rocked by the Arab Spring. Brennan, a career CIA man and onetime candidate to run the agency, knows that an honest description of the U.S.’s security relationship with these regimes would be quite different from the one he gave his audience at Harvard. In fact, the CIA built a tight counterterrorism relationship with the very institutions whose gross abuses fueled the uprisings and their cries for “dignity.” The Agency operated proxy prison regimes in several of these countries, counting on the immunity of local security operations from judicial scrutiny or oversight, their willingness to arrest and detain citizens arbitrarily, and their use of harsh interrogation techniques, including torture.
When citizens of Cairo stormed the headquarters of the State Security Investigations Service, and more recently when investigators sifted through the files of Qaddafi’s former intelligence chief in Tripoli, they found documents directly linking the CIA with the most abusive conduct of Egypt and Libya’s overthrown regimes, including appeals to hold prisoners outside of access to the courts and the law. In both places, the abuse had been covered by the label “counterterrorism cooperation.” It remains unclear to what extent the Obama Administration has carried this legacy forward.
Brennan argued at Harvard that “we will uphold the core values that define us as Americans, and that includes adhering to the rule of law.” This is a worthy claim, but one few people in Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, or Bahrain are likely to believe. Team Obama has a long way to go if it wants to be upholding core American values. It should start with candid explanations of what it’s up to in countries where the U.S. has been cooperating with local authorities on prisons and interrogations, and what its drone program is doing in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.