John Brennan and John Kiriakou worked together years ago, but their careers have dramatically diverged. Brennan is now on track to head the CIA, while Kiriakou is headed off to prison. Each of their fates is tied to the so-called war on terror, which under President George W. Bush provoked worldwide condemnation. President Barack Obama rebranded the war on terror innocuously as “overseas contingency operations,” but, rather than retrench from the odious practices of his predecessor, Obama instead escalated. His promotion of Brennan, and his prosecution of Kiriakou, demonstrate how the recent excesses of U.S. presidential power are not transient aberrations, but the creation of a frightening new normal, where drone strikes, warrantless surveillance, assassination and indefinite detention are conducted with arrogance and impunity, shielded by secrecy and beyond the reach of law.
John Kiriakou spent 14 years at the CIA as an analyst and a case officer. In 2002, he led the team that found Abu Zubaydah, alleged to be a high-ranking member of al-Qaida. Kiriakou was the first to publicly confirm the use of waterboarding by the CIA, in a 2007 interview with ABC’s Brian Ross. He told Ross: “At the time, I felt that waterboarding was something that we needed to do. ... I think I’ve changed my mind, and I think that waterboarding is probably something that we shouldn’t be in the business of doing.” Kiriakou says he found the “enhanced interrogation techniques” immoral, and declined to be trained to use them.
Since the interview, it has become known that Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times, and that he provided no useful information as a result. He remains imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, without charge. Kiriakou will soon start serving his 30-month prison sentence, but not for disclosing anything about waterboarding. He pled guilty to disclosing the name of a former CIA interrogator to a journalist, with information that the interrogator himself had posted to a publicly available website.
Meanwhile, John Brennan, longtime counterterrorism advisor to Obama, is expected to receive Senate confirmation as the new director of central intelligence. I recently asked Kiriakou what he thought of Brennan:
“I’ve known John Brennan since 1990. I worked directly for John Brennan twice. I think that he is a terrible choice to lead the CIA. I think that it’s time for the CIA to move beyond the ugliness of the post-September 11th regime, and we need someone who is going to respect the Constitution and to not be bogged down by a legacy of torture. I think that President Obama’s appointment of John Brennan sends the wrong message to all Americans.”
Obama has once already considered Brennan for the top CIA job, back in 2008. Brennan withdrew his nomination then under a hail of criticism for supporting the Bush-era torture policies in his various top-level intelligence positions, including head of the National Counterterrorism Center.
What a difference four years makes. With the killing of Osama bin Laden notched in his belt, Obama seems immune from counterterror criticism. John Brennan is said to manage the notorious “kill list” of people that Obama believes he has the right to kill anytime, anywhere on the planet, as part of his “overseas contingency operations.” This includes the killing of U.S. citizens, without any charge, trial or due process whatsoever. Drone strikes are one way these assassinations are carried out. U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in Yemen by a drone strike, then, two weeks later, his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was killed the same way.
I asked Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005, what he thought of Brennan. He told me: “What’s happening with drone strikes around the world right now is, in my opinion, as bad a development as many of the things we now condemn so readily, with 20/20 hindsight, in the George W. Bush administration. We are creating more enemies than we’re killing. We are doing things that violate international law. We are even killing American citizens without due process and have an attorney general who has said that due process does not necessarily include the legal process. Those are really scary words.”
While Kiriakou goes to prison for revealing a name, the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism is launching a project called “Naming the Dead,” hoping “to identify as many as possible of those killed in U.S. covert drone strikes in Pakistan, whether civilian or militant.” The BIJ reports a “minimum 2,629 people who appear to have so far died in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan.” John Brennan should be asked about each of them.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.