Brennan’s confirmation and where CIA drones go from here

February 6, 2013

If President Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor John Brennan is confirmed as director of the CIA on Thursday, he will take the role of the lead authority for CIA drone strikes, institutionalizing a program that has killed an unknown number of suspected militants and civilians since 2004. Although his confirmation is expected to help preserve the drone program while glossing over concerns about its transparency and effectiveness so far, his appointment leaves a bigger question about the CIA’s future role.

Brennan’s open hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday has been pegged as a time to demand answers about the highly secretive U.S. campaigns to target and kill al Qaeda militants using unmanned aerial vehicles in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. The administration is tight-lipped on the subject, and critics have assailed the campaign over its lack of public accountability. U.S. drone strikes have killed not just foreign militants, but also civilians and American citizens. Rights groups have lambasted the extrajudicial killings of American citizens, including the “Internet imam” Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son in Yemen. A New York Times report last May revealed that the government’s troubling definition of a “militant” suggests any military-age man in a strike zone is fair game. On Tuesday, a 16-page memo from the Justice Department published by NBC News further outlined the vague criteria for who can target and be targeted, as well as showed an expanded definition of conditions that the government can use to order strikes.

The effectiveness of the targeted killings remains unknown, and critics say the drone program serves as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda because it embitters local populations whose neighbors have been killed by drones.

John Brennan has been called the architect of this program, and placing him at the head of the CIA will help legitimize targeted killings as a counterterrorism tool. Yet history suggests there will be little, if any, discussion of drone strikes during his confirmation hearing.  Micah Zenko, a Council on Foreign Relations Douglas Dillon Fellow who wrote a 2013 special report on drones, notes drones did not come up in hearings for previous CIA directors Michael Hayden or Leon Panetta. When the subject arose during David Petraeus’ testimony in 2011, Senator Dianne Feinstein repeatedly interrupted the conversation. She will run the hearings this time, too. Brennan’s previous speeches outline the administration’s stance on drone strikes, and it’s unlikely that the hearings will cover anything he hasn’t spoken on before.

More interesting will be what Brennan does with the drone program if he is confirmed as director, and whether the CIA’s role in carrying out drone strikes will change. The CIA and Department of Defense currently work together, sharing drones and exchanging intelligence.

However, if the program were brought under the Pentagon’s control, it would provide slightly more oversight. In a call sponsored by Foreign Affairs magazine on Monday, Center for Civilians in Conflict Executive Director Sarah Holewinski pointed out the merits of taking the drone program away from the CIA. “One of the best ways we can do that is to have the drone program taken away from the CIA, which is inherently a clandestine organization and agency, and rather put it with the DOD, which, while not perfect, actually does have a system of lessons learned, of best practices and of being transparent with the American public to an extent,” Holewinski said. Former Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair told reporters in January that strikes should be controlled by the Pentagon, where they would be conducted “under normal procedures in the law of war.”

The administration’s options for the program could include not initiating any new drone campaigns using the CIA, such as at the newly-approved drone base in Niger, Zenko said. However, the agency could keep its hand in the game by retaining the right to conduct strikes in places where covertness is essential.

Zenko and Holewinski agree that it’s unclear what the administration will do with the drone program. According to Zenko, Brennan would be in a better position as CIA director to get the agency out of the business of drone strikes should they decide to move the program under control of the Department of Defense. Holewinski notes that although White House insiders have called Brennan a moderating voice on the drone program, “because everything is so classified, because everything is so secret, we actually don’t know what that moderating voice is.”

There’s little chance that CIA drone strikes in Pakistan will stop.  That too is thanks to Brennan, who, according to a Washington Post report in October 2012, developed a counterterrorism manual that served as a guide to targeted killings, leaving room for the CIA to continue attacks in Pakistan for years.


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