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.