Opinion

David Rohde

Obama’s legacy of secrecy

By David Rohde
February 8, 2013

John Brennan’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday was a microcosm of the Obama administration’s approach to counterterrorism: The right assurances, with little transparency.

Brennan said the United States should publicly disclose when American drone attacks kill civilians. He called waterboarding “reprehensible” and vowed it would never occur under his watch. And he said that countering militancy should be “comprehensive,” not just  “kinetic,” and involve diplomatic and development efforts as well.

What any of that means in practice, though, remains unknown.

Brennan failed to clearly answer questions about the administration’s excessive embrace of drone strikes and secrecy. He flatly defended the quadrupling of drone strikes that has occurred on Obama’s watch. He gave no clear explanation for why  the public has been denied access to vital Justice Department legal opinions that give the president the power to kill U.S. citizens without judicial review. And his statement that the establishment of a special court to review the targeting of Americans was “worthy of discussion” was noncommittal.

Administration officials defended the career CIA officer, who has served as the president’s chief counter-terrorism adviser throughout his first term. The day before the hearing, a senior administration official who asked not be named said Brennan has actively worked to reduce drone attacks and increase transparency.

They described him as a traditionalist who would move the CIA away from the paramilitary attacks that have come to define its mission since 2001. Instead, the agency would move back to espionage and hand over lethal strikes, including drone attacks, to the military’s Special Operations Forces.

Over the last two years, drones strikes in Pakistan have, in fact, decreased by nearly two-thirds from a peak of 122 in 2010 to 48 last year, according to The New American Foundation. At the same time, strikes in Yemen have increased, killing an estimated 400 people — including 80 civilians — since 2002.

From his office in the basement of the White House,  Brennan has been at the center of it all. Daniel Benjamin, who recently stepped down as the State Department’s top counterterrorism official, told The New York Times this week that Brennan had sweeping authority.

“He’s probably had more power and influence than anyone in a comparable position in the last 20 years,” said Benjamin. “He’s had enormous sway over the intelligence community. He’s had a profound impact on how the military does counterterrorism.”

Some former military and intelligence officials have warned that the administration’s drone strikes have shifted from an attempt to only target senior militants to a de facto bombing campaign against low-level fighters. They say such a policy creates high levels of public animosity toward the U.S. for limited results.

In a recent interview with Reuters, General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of American forces in Afghanistan, said drones were useful tools but “they are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one,” and contribute to a “perception of American arrogance.”

In yesterday’s hearing, Brennan showed an awareness of how excessive use of force can be counterproductive. He also aggressively defended the need for the United States to abide by the rule of law, a vital practice if the US is ever going to gain popular support in the region.

In one of his strongest moments, Brennan flatly rejected suggestions by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida that U.S. officials should have pressured Tunisian officials to improperly detain a suspect in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  Brennan said Tunisian officials had no evidence linking the man to the incident.

“Senator, this country needs to make sure we are setting an example and a standard for the world,” Brennan said, adding that Washington had to “respect the rights of these governments to enforce their laws independently.”

In a less impressive moment, Brennan argued that opponents of the drone program misunderstood it. He said the United States only used drone strikes as a “last resort,”  and the administration goes through “agony” before launching strikes in order to avoid civilian casualties.

In truth, the administration’s insistence on keeping the drone program secret fuels public suspicion. Declaring a program “covert” when it is reported on by the global media on a daily basis is increasingly absurd. Joshua Foust, an analyst and former U.S. intelligence official,  correctly argues that keeping the program secret cedes the debate to militants who say the strikes only kill vast numbers of civilians.

The United States should continue to carry out drone strikes but keep them to a minimum and make them public. Details such as why an attack is carried out, who is killed and any civilian casualties should be publicly disclosed.

Brennan’s statement that drone strikes have decimated al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan’s tribal areas was largely accurate. But despite the increase in strikes under Obama, the attacks have failed to do the same to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban operating out of the same area. Drone strikes will never be a silver bullet. They have created a stalemate in Pakistan, weakening militant groups but not eliminating them.

After the hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she was considering drafting legislation that would create a special court to review requests by the president to target Americans under certain circumstances. The new body would be similar to the federal court that currently reviews government requests to wiretap citizens.

The creation of the court would be a step forward. The Obama administration has a long record of promising transparency and then embracing secrecy — from drone strikes to legal memos to unprecedented prosecutions of government officials for leaking to the news media.

Overall, Brennan impressed me yesterday. Let’s hope he will move the CIA and the administration toward greater transparency. What he and the president will actually do remains secret.

PHOTO: Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on his nomination to be the Director of the CIA, on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 7, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Comments
8 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Obama is an APE.

This worthless mass-murdering BABOON should be tried for war crimes and SHOT.

Posted by NeilMcGowan | Report as abusive
 

Hey David, I remember the openess of Reagan, Clinton, and GW Bush on these same type issues. LOL
Congress (and some members of the media) has been trying to give terrorists top secret infomration through these circus hearings for decades so they could attack the US again, give an excuse to take away all of our Constituional rights, and make big news stories $$$$.
We do not need to be helping terrorists attack and kill Americans.
It is patriotic to not help the enemy and not give out top secret information, give those Obama people medals.

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive
 

Come to Europe, Mr Brennan.

We’ve got a court of summary justice just ready and waiting for you.

Posted by NeilMcGowan | Report as abusive
 

Is anyone surprised? This President is a master of preaching one thing to the public and then doing the exact opposite. The media has failed to expose his overt lying and misrepresentation of the facts. The media has defended his tactic of supporting divisiveness both within the citizenry and in Congress.

Very few, unlike Mr. Rohde, raise the question of what is actually happening within the White House. It will take 20 years, if not 50, to unscrew the damage this President has done to this country. I surely hope all the young people who voted for him understand that they will pay a very significant price for the opportunities lost–as you (collectively) will be the first generation who will not ascend to a lifestyle better than that of your parents. And, more government in your lives will not translate to greater prosperity, only more involvement in your daily lives. You are getting the exact government you elect.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive
 

“Senator, this country needs to make sure we are setting an example and a standard for the world,” Brennan said, adding that Washington had to “respect the rights of these governments to enforce their laws independently.” – sure, that’s what Mr. Bush did in Iraq and Afghanistan, didn’t he?..
Re: secrecy… so Obama had to negotiate first and get permission from Pakistan, which was harboring Bin Laden for years, in order to kill him?..
Don’t be ridiculous people.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive
 

“Senator, this country needs to make sure we are setting an example and a standard for the world,” Brennan said, adding that Washington had to “respect the rights of these governments to enforce their laws independently.”

What a laugh. These countries, the few left with any real, effective government, either turn a blind eye or outright condone the activities of militant islamists. The president’s “license to kill” was written by the radical islamists when they decided to attack the World Trade Center and the pentagon. We need more drone attacks until not one of them is left standing.

Posted by Pete_Murphy | Report as abusive
 

“After the hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she was considering drafting legislation that would create a special court to review requests by the president to target Americans under certain circumstances. The new body would be similar to the federal court that currently reviews government requests to wiretap citizens.”

This is a step forward? Yes, I guess trying to legitimize the state’s right to execute U.S. citizen without at least giving them the opportunity to defend themselves from their accusations, it is a step forward… I just don’t think you and I share the same opinion which way we’re heading. But I guess its more important that we move forward not backwards… I guess that’s one promise we can count on Obama keeping. :)

Posted by ochun005 | Report as abusive
 

I guess the secrecy issue is all a part of the war on terror that started during Reagan’s era. Terrorists have not gone away, and our own citizens now take part every day in organized terror acts. So I guess it’s all just history.

Posted by susette | Report as abusive
 

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