The Seven Deadly Sins of John Brennan

What Obama's high priest of targeted killings doesn't want you to know.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Last week, I introduced readers to John Brennan, the U.S. president's closest advisor for intelligence and counterterrorism issues. Although Americans know little about Brennan, he plays an essential role in shaping and implementing the expansive, unprecedented targeted killing of suspected terrorists and militants. He is, the New York Times reported, citing administration officials, the "priest whose blessing has become indispensable" to Obama. After Brennan lost out on the nomination for CIA director, he became the White House's homeland security advisor and deputy national security advisor for counterterrorism. As Michael Hayden -- the holdover CIA director until Leon Panetta was confirmed -- once observed, "John Brennan's the actual national intelligence director."

Last week, I introduced readers to John Brennan, the U.S. president’s closest advisor for intelligence and counterterrorism issues. Although Americans know little about Brennan, he plays an essential role in shaping and implementing the expansive, unprecedented targeted killing of suspected terrorists and militants. He is, the New York Times reported, citing administration officials, the "priest whose blessing has become indispensable" to Obama. After Brennan lost out on the nomination for CIA director, he became the White House’s homeland security advisor and deputy national security advisor for counterterrorism. As Michael Hayden — the holdover CIA director until Leon Panetta was confirmed — once observed, "John Brennan’s the actual national intelligence director."

Not only does Brennan oversee Obama’s vision of targeted killings, but he is their public face, defending the policies in major speeches, appearing on Sunday morning talk shows, and providing on- and off-the-record interviews to journalists. According to current and former administration officials, Brennan has embraced this role because he believes that the United States must be more transparent about the legal and ethical foundations for targeted killings. Whereas George W. Bush’s administration never discussed any aspects of its targeted-killing policies, Barack Obama’s administration has been marginally more forthcoming, beginning with its first official acknowledgment of the practice of targeted killings by drones in a speech this April by Brennan.

Given that Obama authorized Brennan to play such an extraordinary role, it is useful to examine what Brennan has said, especially because, since he’s a presidential advisor, Congress will never compel him to answer questions in a hearing. After a close reading, what emerge are seven half-truths and direct contradictions between stated U.S. policies and actual practices.

1. We will kill all of al Qaeda.

"We’re not going to rest until al Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas. We’re determined to do that." (This Week with George Stephanopoulos, April 29, 2012)

The mantra of U.S. military officials who oversee counterterrorism or counterinsurgency policies is "you can’t capture or kill your way out" of problems caused by those using violence to achieve political objectives. It is a slogan based in the real-world experiences of many military commanders and much academic research. For example, a 2008 Rand Corp. study, How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, examined 268 terrorist groups that ended between 1968 and 2006. The authors — including Seth Jones, former advisor to U.S. Special Operations Command — found that the vast majority of terrorist groups were eliminated because they either were infiltrated by local police and intelligence agencies (40 percent) or reached a peaceful political agreement with the government (43 percent).

Meanwhile, military force — think drones and Navy SEAL raids — eliminated terrorist groups only 7 percent of the time. The reason? "[O]nce the situation in an area becomes untenable for terrorists, they will simply transfer their activity to another area, and the problem remains unresolved." This is certainly the case in Pakistan, where the CIA drone campaign has killed suspected senior al Qaeda officials, midtier operatives, and more than 1,000 low-level militants. The Associated Press reported on Sept. 3 that, according to two senior U.S. officials, drone strikes have made would-be militants "skittish, prompting some to leave Pakistan for other battlefields in Syria, Yemen, Iraq or their home countries." Reportedly, some 250 militants have fled in just the past month to fight in Syria, depressing the price of secondhand weapons in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Although drone strikes have arguably been effective at killing some senior al Qaeda members in Pakistan, the numbers elsewhere suggest there is a lot of killing yet ahead. The State Department’s "Country Reports on Terrorism 2011" lists the following estimated strengths of al Qaeda franchises (outside Afghanistan and Pakistan): "1,000-2,000" in Iraq, "under a thousand fighters" in the Islamic Maghreb, "several thousand members" in Somalia, and "a few thousand members" in the Arabian Peninsula (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP). Can U.S. drone strikes really kill them all? Even so, it is exceedingly unlikely that all individuals affiliated with al Qaeda would be "destroyed and eliminated" without expanding the scope of the problem. As Sudarsan Raghavan reported from Yemen, "AQAP operatives killed in U.S. drone attacks are quickly replaced."

2. We prefer capturing suspected terrorists.

"Whenever it is possible to capture a suspected terrorist, it is the unqualified preference of the administration to take custody of that individual so we can obtain information that is vital to the safety and security of the American people." ("Strengthening Our Security by Adhering to Our Values and Laws," speech, Sept. 16, 2011)

By the time Obama entered office, the United States had basically quit capturing terrorists in non-battlefield situations. This was not always the case. Although it may be difficult to recall, in the 14 months after the 9/11 attacks, more than 3,000 al Qaeda operatives and affiliates were detained in over 100 countries. Most were eventually released, but hundreds of others (plus additional suspected terrorists captured in the subsequent half-decade) were transferred to CIA black sites, Guantánamo Bay, or U.S.-controlled prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq. By no later than 2006, however, the Bush administration stopped detentions because the White House and Congress could not reach an agreement over the legal jurisdiction of captured suspected terrorists.

In late 2009, this was made plain when Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly told Obama, "We do not have a plausible capture strategy." According to Daniel Klaidman in his book, Kill or Capture, "The inability to detain terror suspects was creating perverse incentives that favored killing or releasing suspected terrorists over capturing them." And in the words of an anonymous "top counterterrorism adviser": "We never talked about this openly, but it was always a back-of-the-mind thing for us.… Anyone who says it wasn’t is not being straight."

This reality was recently echoed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, who serves on the Armed Services and Judiciary committees: "We lack, as a nation, a place to put terrorists if we catch them.… I can tell you that the operators are in a bad spot out there. They know that if they capture a guy, it creates a nightmare. And it’s just easier to kill ’em." This perverse incentive remains in place today and largely explains why around 3,000 suspected terrorists and militants have been killed by drone strikes under Obama and only a handful have been captured.

3. We don’t kill civilians.

Stephanopoulos: "Do you stand by the statement you have made in the past that, as effective as they have been, they have not killed a single civilian? That seems hard to believe."

Brennan: "What I said was that over a period of time before my public remarks that we had no information about a single civilian, a noncombatant being killed. Unfortunately, in war, there are casualties, including among the civilian population.… And unfortunately, sometimes you have to take life to save lives." (This Week with George Stephanopoulos, April 29, 2012)

In his public comments, Brennan is clear that the Obama administration endorses a drone-first eliminationist strategy for dealing with al Qaeda — and any "military-age males" nearby. This requires a tremendous amount of killing. In June 2011, Brennan claimed: "There hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop." He later, however, provided a statement to the New York Times that the newspaper said "adjusted the wording of his earlier comment": "Fortunately, for more than a year, due to our discretion and precision, the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths resulting from U.S. counterterrorism operations outside of Afghanistan or Iraq."

Brennan did not clarify what constituted "credible evidence," but as Justin Elliott and I myself quickly pointed out, there were many public reports — from Pakistani and Yemeni reporters and anonymous administration officials — of civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes. Either Brennan did not receive the same reports of civilian casualties as other administration officials did (an implausible notion), he lacks Internet access to read these anonymous comments (equally implausible because Brennan closely responds to critics of targeted killings in his following media appearances), or he was lying. Regardless, his belief in the infallibility of the find-fix-finish cycle defies an understanding of the inherent flaws and limitations of even the most precise uses of lethal force.

4. Yemenis love U.S. drone strikes.

"Contrary to conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that [drone strikes] are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP. In fact, we see the opposite: Our Yemeni partners are more eager to work with us.… In short, targeted strikes against the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists are not the problem — they are part of the solution." ("U.S. Policy Toward Yemen," speech, Aug. 8, 2012)

Based on his education and deployments with the CIA, Brennan is said to have a deep knowledge of the Middle East; he speaks Arabic; and he enjoys contact with many senior officials in foreign intelligence and interior ministries — which explains his de facto role as White House liaison to Yemen. As Brennan says, "I find the Arab world a fascinating place."

Although he might have unique insights into the Arab mind, actual Yemenis and journalists reporting from the country (see here, here, and here) say that Yemenis hate drones strikes. There is also a strong correlation between targeted killings in Yemen since December 2009 — primarily conducted by U.S. drones — and increased anger toward the United States and sympathy or allegiance to AQAP. In 2010, the Obama administration described AQAP as "several hundred al Qaeda members"; two years later, it increased to "more than a thousand members." Now, AQAP has a "few thousand members." After a drone strike reportedly killed 13 civilians in early September, Yemeni activist Nasr Abdullah noted: "I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake." Let’s hope Brennan and Abdullah can agree to disagree.

5. U.S. citizens are acceptable collateral damage.

Wallace: "Are U.S. citizens in Yemen in danger?"

Brennan: "We are doing everything possible to make sure that all U.S. citizens, as well as Westerners and the Yemenis themselves, are protected from the scourge of al Qaeda." (Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, Jan. 3, 2010)

According to the State Department, five U.S. citizens have been killed in terrorist attacks in Yemen: in December 2002 three hospital workers by a lone gunman at a Baptist hospital in Jibla; in September 2008 one American (and 17 others) in an attack on the U.S. Embassy by seven assailants dressed in government security-service uniforms; and this March one U.S. citizen in Taiz, a murder that AQAP claimed responsibility for. These five Americans were killed by various Islamist groups in brutal acts of terrorism, defined under U.S. law as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."

Over that same period, four U.S. citizens were killed in Yemen by U.S. drones, only one of them intentionally:

  • November 2002: Ahmed Hijazi (aka Kamal Derwish) was killed while in an SUV by a CIA drone whose intended target was Abu Ali al-Harithi. U.S. officials acknowledged that the CIA did not know Hijazi was in the vehicle, though one later claimed his death was justifiable because he "was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
  • September 2011: Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were killed in a single attack, though Awlaki was the only target. Khan reportedly produced propaganda videos for AQAP. Awlaki was a senior member of AQAP. Before his death, U.S. officials had described him as "inspirational," "charismatic," and an "effective communicator"; after his death, they described him as "the most operational affiliate," "very operational," and "the leader of external operations."
  • October 2011: Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed by a drone along with a number of suspected militants. U.S. officials initially fudged the details, saying that he was in his mid-20s and of "military age." (In response, the Awlaki family released his birth certificate, which shows he was born on Aug. 26, 1995.) The State Department has refused to discuss or acknowledge his death because it has "not received confirmation of his death from the government of Yemen," though that has never stopped U.S. officials before. Anonymous U.S. officials later stated, "The U.S. government did not know that Mr. Awlaki’s son was there."

Attorney General Eric Holder argues that the Fifth Amendment right to due process is determined solely by the executive branch and that only with "robust oversight" can the United States target its citizens. Similarly, Brennan claimed that the Obama administration engages in "additional review if the al Qaeda terrorist is a U.S. citizen." None of these reviews mattered, however, for the three U.S. citizens killed by U.S. drones who were not intended targets, but collateral damage. At the same time, the United States has never provided public evidence that they were involved with terrorist groups in Yemen.

6. Drones are just a part of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

"[Obama] has insisted that our policy emphasize governance and development as much as security and focus on a clear goal to facilitate a democratic transition while helping Yemen advance political, economic, and security reforms so it can support its citizens and counter AQAP.… This year alone, U.S. assistance to Yemen is more than $337 million. Over half this money, $178 million, is for political transition, humanitarian assistance, and development. Let me repeat that. More than half of the assistance we provide to Yemen is for political transition, humanitarian assistance, and development.… Any suggestion that our policy toward Yemen is dominated by our security and counterterrorism efforts is simply not true." ("U.S. Policy Toward Yemen," speech, Aug. 8, 2012)

There are a couple of problems with Brennan’s math. First, he excludes the vast costs of maintaining the manned and unmanned aerial platforms, nearby naval assets, and U.S. military targeters and trainers stationed in growing numbers at the al-Anad Air Base. It also does not include the covert aid funneled to members of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi’s regime and others who support U.S. interests in Yemen. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh carefully manipulated the presence of suspected international terrorists within his country in order to maintain Western support crucial for his survival, and he reportedly received hundreds of millions of dollars in covert assistance. Some Yemeni officials, analysts, and journalists such as Sam Kimball now claim that under Hadi, "the Yemeni government is fully aware of a number of al Qaeda cells — and their existence is tolerated and their crimes covered up."

Finally, Brennan’s boasts that U.S. civilian and military assistance is evenly split is nothing new. Between 2007 and 2011, U.S. (overt) aid to Yemen was $642 million: $326 million in security assistance primarily for counterterrorism and border security, and $316 million in civilian assistance for development and humanitarian work. If this alleged 50-50 foreign aid to Yemen strategy led to the collapse of the Saleh regime, widespread anti-American sentiment, and the tripling of al Qaeda, why would it work this time around?

7. The United States isn’t involved in an insurgency in Yemen, or maybe it is.

"So while we have aided Yemen, the Yemeni government, in building their capacity to deal with an AQAP insurgency that exists on the ground there, we’re not involved in working with the Yemeni government in terms of direct action or lethal action as part of that insurgency.… A lot of these, you know, Yemenis in [AQAP] are not determined, you know, only to carry out attacks against the Americans wherever they may be. A lot of them are trying to gain ground. And unlike in a place like the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan] or somewhere else, they actually put up their flags, you know, controlling the territory. You know, they’re trying to unseat the government of Sanaa. So we’re trying to help the Yemenis, you know, thwart that insurgency and push it back because that certainly is counter to our interests." ("U.S. Policy Toward Yemen," speech, Aug. 8, 2012)

This puzzling contradiction gets to the faulty premise that underscores the low threshold for who can be targeted by U.S. lethal force. Brennan initially claims, "We’re not involved" with lethal action against an insurgency, but, seconds later, says, "We’re trying to help the Yemenis … thwart that insurgency." What exactly is the core mission of U.S. drone strikes: counterterrorism or counterinsurgency? As is true in Pakistan, the vast majority of individuals killed by U.S. drones were seeking to impose some degree of sharia law, fight a defensive jihad against the security services of the central government, or ultimately unseat what they perceived as an apostate regime running the country.

After militants were killed in a drone strike on Aug. 31, Reuters reported, citing a Yemeni Defense Ministry without evidence: "The men were heavily armed, carrying machine guns and explosives.… [They] were thought to have been on the way to carry out an attack." Unless they were boarding a flight to the United States to conduct this attack, they did not pose direct threats to the U.S. homeland, which is the threshold Brennan has repeatedly stated. Nor did they meet the implausible standard that Obama claimed in early September: "Our goal has been to focus on al Qaeda and to focus narrowly on those who would pose an imminent threat to the United States of America." So why would America bother to kill them?

Soon after Obama entered office, Brennan proclaimed, "We will harness perhaps our greatest asset of all — the power of America’s moral example.… We will uphold the values of justice, liberty, dignity, and rule of law." It would be hard to conceive of a U.S. moral example that the rest of the world has so strongly rejected as targeted killings. In a Pew Global Attitudes Project public opinion poll released in June, the overwhelming majority of respondents opposed drone strikes, including those among America’s allies and partners: Greece (90 percent), Egypt (89 percent), Jordan (85 percent), Pakistan (83 percent), Turkey (81 percent), Spain (76 percent), Brazil (76 percent), and Japan (75 percent). The same people, including Obama, Brennan, and Holder, who decried the Bush administration for perverting America’s morals for the detention and questioning of suspected terrorists now implement and defend the practice of how they are killed — at seven times the rate that they were killed under Bush.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans. Twitter: @MicahZenko

More from Foreign Policy

Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.
Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.

Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak

Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.
Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.

Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage

The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.

A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.
A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.

The West’s False Choice in Ukraine

The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.

Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi

The Masterminds

Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.