No Comment — September 20, 2011, 3:21 pm

Brennan Does Yemen

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Post
CamperForce·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After losing their savings in the stock market crash of 2008, seniors Barb and Chuck find seasonal employment at Amazon fulfillment centers.

Minimum number of shooting incidents in the United States in the past year in which the shooter was a dog:

2

40,800,000,000 pounds of total adult human biomass is due to excessive fatness.

Trump’s former chief strategist, whom Trump said had “lost his mind,” issued a statement saying that Trump’s son did not commit treason; the US ambassador to the United Nations announced that “no one questions” Trump’s mental stability; and the director of the CIA said that Trump, who requested “killer graphics” in his intelligence briefings, is able to read.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today