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.