Brennan’s confirmation and where CIA drones go from here

Feb 6, 2013 19:09 UTC

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.

Mali and the Afghanistan comparison

Jan 17, 2013 18:31 UTC
A Malian soldie

A Malian soldier stands guard as Mali’s President Dioncounda Traore visits French troops at an air base in Bamako, Mali January 16, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney

The French intervention in Mali this week raises the specter of another first-world nation’s rather recent mission to weed out Islamic militants. As France’s jets pummel the desert and its troops face ground battles against al Qaeda-linked rebels, a troubling analogy has presented itself in media reports and analyses: Will Mali become France’s Afghanistan?

France’s mission in Mali is to prevent the Sahel region from becoming a terrorist planning and training ground, particularly for al Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM. The BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera explains the situation in terms of the conditions in Afghanistan before the U.S. intervention in 2001.