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The Grilling that John Brennan Deserves
As Washington’s pundit class sees it, Defense Secretary-designee Chuck Hagel deserves a tough grilling over his hesitancy to go to war with Iran and his controversial detection of a pro-Israel lobby operating in the U.S. capital, but prospective CIA Director John Brennan should get only a few polite queries about his role helping to create and sustain Dick Cheney’s “dark side.”
During the upcoming confirmation hearings of these two nominees for President Barack Obama’s national security team, we all may get a revealing look into the upside-down world of Washington’s moral and geopolitical priorities, where too much skepticism about rushing to war is disqualifying and complicity in war crimes is okay, maybe even expected.
Still, there is at least a hope that Brennan’s confirmation hearing might provide an opening for the Senate Intelligence Committee to force out the secret legal justifications and the operational procedures for the lethal drone program that has expanded under Obama, including successfully targeting for death U.S. citizen and al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.
Over the past few years, senior administration officials have praised the rigorous standards applied to these life-or-death decisions by Brennan and his counterterrorism team, but have refused to release the constitutional rationales for the President exerting these extraordinary powers or to explain exactly the methodology of selecting targets.
Presumably, some committee member will ask Brennan about such nitpicky things as constitutional due process and the Bill of Rights even if the panel will have to scurry into a classified session to hear the answers. But there is still a chance that Brennan or one of the senators will blurt something out, shedding light on one of the darkest corners of the ongoing war against al-Qaeda and other Islamic militants.
Yet, what hits closest to home for many of my Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) colleagues and me is Brennan’s earlier role, under President George W. Bush and CIA Director George Tenet, in corrupting the CIA’s analysis directorate into fabricating fraudulent intelligence to “justify” war on Iraq. From the perspective of CIA analysts who worked by a very different ethos, such treachery is truly unacceptable.
Brennan, as Tenet’s chief of staff and then the CIA’s Deputy Executive Director, had a front-row seat for all this. Former CIA colleagues who served with Brennan before and during the war with Iraq assert that there is absolutely no possibility that Brennan could have been unaware of the deliberate corruption of intelligence analysis.
Brennan’s confirmation hearing, with the nominee under oath, might be the best opportunity to hear his explanation of what he did when he faced two conflicting allegiances – his career advancement on one side and his duty to the nation as an intelligence officer on the other.
After a five-year investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the pre-Iraq-war “intelligence” was described by committee chair Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, as “uncorroborated, contradicted, or even non-existent.”
Hagel, then a senator from Nebraska and a member of the committee, was one of two Republicans voting to approve the Senate report, making it bipartisan and presumably annoying some of his more partisan brethren who resisted admitting to the lies that President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney used to take the country to war.
Hagel also has co-chaired Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board, giving him even more insights into the challenges of rebuilding a professional intelligence service, one that puts a commitment to objective analysis over pleasing the boss. If only Brennan could show such a commitment.
A principal objection to Brennan’s return to the CIA is that he has rarely displayed any rigorous discipline in his approach to the truth. One of his most famous deviations from reality was his gilding-the-lily presentation of Seal Team 6’s killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Just hours after Osama bin Laden was killed, Brennan gave the press this rendition of what had happened and how bin Laden had died: “He was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in. … Just thinking about that from a visual perspective: here is bin Laden … living in this million-dollar-plus compound … in an area that is far removed from the front … hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield. I think it really just speaks to just, to how false his narrative has been over the years.”
Even giving Brennan the benefit of the doubt about the “fog of war” and such, his spin suggested not so much a lack of still-fuzzy details but an assembling of fake details, his own false narrative if you will. Brennan’s account was more agit-prop than an attempt to tell the story straight.
It was not enough to let the facts speak for themselves – Americans were surely not going to be sympathetic to the man they blame for the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people – but Brennan still chose to further belittle bin Laden as a coward hiding behind one of his wives while seeking to save himself.
Later, White House spokesman Jay Carney clarified some of Brennan’s inaccuracies. Bin Laden was not armed; he did not use one of his wives as a shield; and there was no firefight to speak of, only an initial exchange of gunfire between the U.S. commandos and one of bin Laden’s couriers in an adjacent building.
There were other details that came out subsequently, including that bin Laden’s 12-year-old daughter was in the room and watched as he was shot and killed, according to the London Guardian. Pakistani officials said bin Laden’s daughter had been hit in the ankle moments before the American assault team reached the room where they found and killed her father, and she then passed out.
Given the recent sorry history of CIA directors participating in what amount to propaganda and disinformation campaigns aimed as much at the American people as any foreign enemy, a nominee for CIA director should not have a record of making stuff up or misleading the public.
Ducking Hard Truth
Another Brennan example of ducking hard truths was his claim in June 2011 that during the previous year, “there has not been a single collateral death” from CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. Far more credible reporting shows that there have been hundreds of people killed simply for being in the vicinity of an al-Qaeda or Taliban suspect.
Yet, some administration officials are so touchy on this point that they suggest that dissenters might be terrorist sympathizers. On Feb. 5, 2012, the New York Times’ Scott Shane reported the following quote from an anonymous “senior American counterterrorism official”:
“One must wonder why an effort that has so carefully gone after terrorists … has been subjected to so much misinformation. Let’s be under no illusions – there are a number of elements who would like nothing more than to malign these efforts and help Al Qaeda succeed.” So, raising tough questions means you’re with the terrorists.
Brennan had similar problems with forthrightness when he was assigned to explain to a press conference on Jan. 8, 2010, how the infamous “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab almost downed an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
Clearly, Brennan did not expect to be asked a real question, like what motivates an upper-class Muslim youth from Nigeria to do such a thing, but a tenacious 89-year-old Helen Thomas was still in the White House press corps and was one of the very few journalists (as distinct from the stenographers) willing to pose such questions.
Thomas asked why Abdulmuttalab did what he did, a question of human motivation that is rarely part of the Washington conversation.
Thomas: “And what is the motivation? We never hear what you find out on why.”
Brennan: “Al Qaeda is an organization that is dedicated to murder and wanton slaughter of innocents. … They attract individuals like Mr. Abdulmuttalab and use them for these types of attacks. He was motivated by a sense of religious sort of drive. Unfortunately, al Qaeda has perverted Islam, and has corrupted the concept of Islam, so that he’s (sic) able to attract these individuals. But al Qaeda has the agenda of destruction and death.”
Thomas: “And you’re saying it’s because of religion?”
Brennan: “I’m saying it’s because of an al Qaeda organization that used the banner of religion in a very perverse and corrupt way.”
Brennan: “I think this is a — long issue, but al Qaeda is just determined to carry out attacks here against the homeland.”
Thomas: “But you haven’t explained why.”
The why would be the sort of question you might wish a CIA director would want answered – and answered honestly – since enemy motivation is a crucial element in winning a war or, more importantly, avoiding one.
But all the American public gets is boilerplate about how al-Qaeda evildoers are perverting a religion and exploiting impressionable young men. Or, as Brennan suggests, some “militants” are just hard-wired for things like knocking down aircraft over Detroit with themselves on board.
There is almost no discussion about why so many people in the Muslim world object to U.S. policies so strongly that they are inclined to resist violently and even resort to suicide attacks. Perhaps, the U.S. and Western proclivity toward intervening in their affairs over many decades – propping up corrupt dictators and favoring Israel over the Palestinians – has left some Muslims looking for any way to strike back, even self-destructive acts of terror.
Maybe today, one of the reasons for the number of “militants” willing to attack Americans might have something to do with drones buzzing over Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and other locales – and with distant “pilots” getting clearance from Brennan and his associates to push some button and obliterate some unsuspecting target.
Despite the American people’s legitimate right to know what’s being done in their name, Brennan gets thin-skinned when criticized or asked tough questions. Four years ago, when President Obama was first considering Brennan to head the CIA, Brennan faced questions about what he did for the Bush/Cheney “dark side” and promptly withdrew his name. In a bitter letter, he blamed “strong criticism in some quarters, prompted by [his] previous service with the” CIA.
Yet, Brennan’s 25-year career at the CIA would seem to be fair game in evaluating whether he should run the place. His former managers in CIA’s analysis directorate tell me he was a bust as an analyst.
Instead, like former CIA Director (and more recently Defense Secretary) Robert Gates, Brennan’s career zoomed upwards after he caught the attention of key White House officials – in Brennan’s case, George Tenet who held the top intelligence advisory job under President Bill Clinton before he was made CIA deputy director and then director.
Of course, the tradeoff for that kind of advancement often is your integrity, both as an intelligence officer and as a public servant. Indeed, it’s hard to conceive how someone could have flourished in the corrupt world of U.S. intelligence, especially since its descent into the post-9/11 “dark side,” without selling out one’s professionalism and morality.
Those who stood their ground and demonstrated integrity found themselves out on the street or marginalized as “soft on terror” – or maybe they were considered suspiciously finicky when it came to “quaint and obsolete” notions like the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Conventions and the rule of law.
But don’t worry. Endorsing the nomination of Brennan on Wednesday, the editors of the Washington Post tell us that, although “the administration’s current strategy of countering al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia with drone strikes is unsustainable … the strikes are certainly legal under U.S. and international law … [even though they] are problematic, given the backlash they have caused in Pakistan.”
Still, it might be nice if the American people could see the secret legal justifications underpinning Brennan’s last four years as keeper of the “kill lists.”
A version of this article first appeared on Consortium News