Why the Left Should Embrace John Brennan

The architect of the drone program is the only one who can fix it.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Critics of the U.S. counterterrorism drone program can’t seem to catch a break. After a presidential campaign in which the promiscuous use of American drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia was largely given short shrift, President Obama is placing the architect of that program, John Brennan, into a position of even greater power, as head of the CIA.

Brennan, from his perch inside the White House and away from the prying eyes of congressional overseers, has been the engineer of Obama’s targeted killing campaign and intimately involved in its implementation. In fact, according to the Washington Post, when operations are planned, it is Brennan who goes to President Obama for his approval. As my colleague and FP columnist Micah Zenko succinctly put it, "No politically appointed official in U.S. history has played such a prominent role in killing so many people outside of a war zone as John Brennan."

So by this logic, the selection of Brennan is a disaster for drone critics and will likely lead to an increase in U.S. targeted killings.

Well, not so fast. Because at the same time that Brennan is the architect of the drone program, he is also one of the most prominent critics in the administration of its usefulness and secrecy. According to a recent profile in the Post, Brennan is the person inside the president’s national security team "who questions the justification for each drone attack, who often dials back what he considers excessive zeal by the CIA and the military, and who stands up for diplomatic and economic assistance components in the overall strategy."

Indeed, Brennan has been one of the leading proponents of moving the drone program from the CIA, where it is almost completely opaque (aside from the occasional leak), to the military, where by law there would be greater transparency. Now, in fairness, some have questioned whether military control would actually lead to greater openness — actions taken by Joint Special Operations Command can disappear down their own particular black hole. But as Brennan stated this past fall, "I think the rule should be that if we’re going to take actions overseas that result in the deaths of people, the United States should take responsibility for that." Putting the program in the military’s hands would go a long way toward achieving that goal.

Indeed, Brennan, a 25-year veteran of the CIA, has pushed for the agency to focus more on intelligence activities and less on the paramilitary operations that have increasingly defined its mandate since 9/11. As CIA director, Brennan will certainly have more opportunity to implement such a shift than he does now from inside the White House. And as one of Obama’s most trusted advisers, he will likely have the juice to see it through.

The cynical might argue that Brennan’s desire to reform the drone program is born out of a larger desire to ensure that it remains a crucial part of the U.S. counterterrorism toolbox — greater transparency now will defuse criticisms and guarantee that the program endures. Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Brennan has soured on drones. But so what? Even most critics of the administration’s drone strikes recognize they can be a necessary tool of war-fighting; better for there to be greater clarity about their use.

Indeed, here’s another positive to Brennan’s selection. He’ll have to go before Congress and answer questions about the program that he built. This has been one of the most nettlesome elements of Brennan’s standing over the past four years: He is the architect of the U.S. targeted killing program, and yet he is unaccountable to anyone besides the president. Congress does not approve his position as counterterrorism czar, and he can’t be forced to answer a congressional subpoena. But in being nominated as the head of the CIA, Brennan can be forced by Congress to come clean about the drone war, the targeting of suspected militants, and the cooperation of key allies. In short, confirmation hearings can increase transparency. Moreover, if Brennan is confirmed — and assuming he remains involved in the drone program — it will only increase the amount of sunshine shed on U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

None of this is to say that there aren’t reasons for concern about Brennan’s selection. In 2008, his nomination for the CIA was derailed because of liberal fury about his alleged involvement in the Bush administration’s torture and rendition programs. (Brennan claimed at the time that he opposed such policies.) Those apprehensions still exist, and he should be forced to provide more detail about the nature of his opposition at confirmation hearings.

In addition, Brennan’s public statements on the drone program and U.S. policy toward Yemen have, for lack of a better term, not always passed the smell test. His assertion last year that he could not confirm the death of a single civilian from U.S. drones hardly seems credible. Moreover, if Brennan was so serious about reforming drone use, why hasn’t he done it already?

I will grant there is something perverse about promoting the person who built an unaccountable targeted killing program so that he can reform it. But that doesn’t mean it might not produce the best result for drone critics.

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