Obama & Brennan Brought GOP Filibuster on themselves by Extreme Secrecy on Drones

John O. Brennan was confirmed as head of the Central Intelligence Agency yesterday, after the confirmation was held up for 13 hours by a filibuster by Rand Paul and other Senate libertarians or tea partiers. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas gave as his reason for the attempt to delay the vote his concerns that the Obama administration has a secret doctrine that it can kill Americans by drone at will, asking if there was a precedent

“for the proposition that this administration seems willing to embrace, or at least unwilling to renounce explicitly and emphatically, that the Constitution somehow permits, or at least does not foreclose on, the U.S. government killing a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil who is not flying a plane into a building, who is not robbing a bank, who is not pointing a bazooka at the Pentagon, but who is simply sitting quietly at a cafe, peaceably enjoying breakfast?”

Attorney General Eric Holder sent over to Paul a statement that the president does not have the authority to drone to death an innocent noncombatant, which ended the filibuster.

It is alarming that Cruz appears to have thought that there are circumstances in which a US citizen *could* legitimately be droned to death on American soil.

Obama and Brennan brought this kind of humiliation on themselves by their extreme secrecy about the drone program, a secrecy that even a federal judge castigated as paradoxical. As a classified endeavor handled in large part by the CIA, it cannot be discussed publicly, cannot be probed by the public. It is a policy for insiders with a high security clearance (apparently the 15 senators on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence are among the few public officials who are kept in the loop. Two of them, Marco Rubio and Saxby Chambliss, joined the filibuster of Brennan, so even they seem not to feel that the Obama administration is leveling with them.

Ironically, Brennan in the past was a severe critic of the kind of secrecy about covert operations that the Obama administration has championed with regard to the drone program. In a 2008 interview while in the private sector, he said:

“What is needed is a “fair and open discussion” about US counterterrorism policy, Brennan concludes. While some aspects are too classified to be discussed openly, many are not. But when ‘you stifle discussion— and
make decisions in secrecy and vacuums— you run the risk of alienating portions
of the US population and triggering questions about what else may
be going on.'”

Indeed.

To be fair, in his confirmation hearing, Brennan advocated turning the drone program over to the Department of Defense (which is under civilian authority), and he admitted that as it has been practiced up till now it may well contravene international law. Maybe Brennan the CIA head can undo some of the damage to American democracy and to international law he admits the drone policy has done.

41 Responses

  1. There is a huge difference between targeting a Hellfire on an American citizen in, say, Yemen, who is an operational leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) planning attacks on the US; and targeting a Hellfire on an American citizen “on U.S. soil who is not flying a plane into a building, who is not robbing a bank, who is not pointing a bazooka at the Pentagon, but who is simply sitting quietly at a cafe, peaceably enjoying breakfast.” Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and their ilk obviously are incapable of making such distinctions.

    No doubt, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and the rest of their crowd are convinced that the United Nations is trying to take over the US as well. They, no doubt, have “friends of friends” who have actually “seen” the Black Helicopters that are the instruments of control. Oh, and let’s not forget the “Chemtrails” (chemical trails) that jets leave behind them while flying. We ordinary folk always thought they were Contrails (condensation trails), but the extreme right-wing lunatics have corrected our misperception: They are actually chemicals spread to cause drought, and to induce population control as a result, among other things.

    It is really a source of wonder how the extreme Right and the extreme Left both meet on issues when it comes to their belief that the US Government is the source of all our problems.

    • Bill, the problem is that you are willing to assign someone the death penalty based merely on an assertion by the executive branch. You might not remember this but in the old days (1215-2002) such behavior was frowned upon and instead we insisted on a quaint mechanism called a “trial” to weigh the evidence and determine whether or not the claim had merit. I hope you can see that if you shortcut this process you allow the president to kill anyone they please as long as they also say the phrase “al Qaeda leader” while pushing the button. You don’t have to be a chemtrail wacko to see, in light of history,that the power of arbitrary execution might not always be used for the purest of motives and might in fact be a “bad thing”. The fact that I have to even explain this is depressing in the extreme. How did we become such a weak and servile people?

      • “You might not remember this but in the old days (1215-2002) such behavior was frowned upon and instead we insisted on a quaint mechanism called a “trial” to weigh the evidence and determine whether or not the claim had merit.”

        I assume you are referring to the targeted killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki and others in Yemen and the FATA of Pakistan. They are Unlawful Enemy Combatants planning and executing attacks against the United States. They have declared war against the US, and they operate in areas that are inaccessable to the US for capture. They are no different than a German fighting against the US in World War II, for example, who also happened to hold US citizenship, except under the Geneva Conventions the German was a Lawful Enemy Combatant, while members of Al-Qaeda and affiliated forces are Unlawful Enemy Combatants. In both cases they are Enemy Combatants, not criminals knocking off Seven-Eleven convenience stores, and there is no requirement to read them their “Miranda Rights” if the only alternative to capture is to kill them.

        • Timothy McVeigh got a trial.

          Maybe if one says that stuff about AUMF and Article 51 and all that over and over often enough, it somehow becomes “true,” or at least most folks get bored enough and move on to some other issue, leaving the people who live for that idiot Gamery to keep on playing, with the lives and money of others as the game pieces.

          Of course, the Great Game is like a combination of Calvinball link to lynch.foreignpolicy.com and a Monster Truck Jam, link to youtube.com

        • “Timothy McVeigh got a trial.”

          Timothy McVeigh was in the United States and easily captured.

      • You might not remember this but in the old days (1215-2002) such behavior was frowned upon and instead we insisted on a quaint mechanism called a “trial” to weigh the evidence and determine whether or not the claim had merit.

        Between 1215 and 2002, people who were fighting for the other side in a war were given trials before being shot at?

        Are you sure about that? Or is it “weak and servile” of me to ask?

  2. I wish there was an actual — rather than just theoretical or fanciful — way that we, the people could end the impunity which those waging the “war on terror” in the U.S. enjoy.

  3. The answer was that the President did not have the authority to use a “weaponized drone” to kill an American “not engaged in combat” on American soil.

    Has this left open the possibility that an American who is deemed to be an enemy combatant (possibly because of an alleged “association”), is “engaged in combat” when on American soil?

    In other words, I’m not sure “No” really meant “no” as some of us would like to believe.

    • I suppose the American Indian Movement members who defied the FBI at Wounded Knee in 1973 could have fit as potential targets under the current drone program. So could the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, the Branch Davidians, the MOVE activists in Philadelphia and various other groups.

    • In a civil war or rebellion the US government would have the authority to use military force, including drones. Otherwise it would seem not.

    • Has this left open the possibility that an American who is deemed to be an enemy combatant (possibly because of an alleged “association”), is “engaged in combat” when on American soil?

      I really don’t see how it does. “Engaged in combat” is not a category or identity; it refers to current, ongoing action. An enemy combatant who is not, at that moment, fighting is not “engaged in combat.”

      An enemy combatant is something you are; engaged in combat is something you are doing.

      • “An enemy combatant is something you are; engaged in combat is something you are doing.” What fluff. Do you claim that Atta and his guys who were learning to fly were one, or the other, or both? Where’s the limit to “engaged in combat?” Are the sh_ts in the Pentagon who are procuring F-35s “engaged in combat?” (Yeah, maybe not, since that whole device is unlikely ever to be used.) How ’bout US contractors abusing people in Far Away prisons?

        And you can just bet the “authorities” will be very careful about that semantic nicety. They’ve shown such dedicated skill, so far, in distinguishing between guys with guns (who gee, might not be even a tiny bit interested in “attacking the United States” at all, or only interested in attacking a bunch of INVADING FORCES, forces hiding behind a nice shifting “legal” pretext of what, having been “invited” by “the government,” conveniently made up of Our Guys who won’t even stay bought — see Karzai — or what’s the justification for Iraq, again?), distinguishing “insurgents” from guys with telephoto lenses, wedding parties, two children and other Bug Splat. And of course “the government” would never, like, outright MURDER people, would it/they? Fred Hampton, that bunch of wackos at Waco, Ruby Ridge, I know, you have convenient explanations for all of that, that “explain” nothing because one would have to either be simply stupid to expect that the same impulses that motivate the state-security people everywhere and in every time would be “constrained” by a bit of sophistry as the weapons get more sexy and the accountability becomes even more remote, or you would have to be part of, or an apologist for, the apparatus.

        We should enjoy our freedom to post while we can. It’s not a given that it will last.

  4. Over the past decade the Pentagon has always reported on the state of the war as “we are making steady progress but it is reversible”. The Pentagon has blown their credibility. Does anyone believe the Pentagon? We, the American public, need an antidote to the war happy talk. We need a source of information that does not have an iron in the fire. We need an independent source of intelligence. That should be the CIA.

    However the CIA seems to be operating as a secret army. They run drones, black ops, and God knows what else. They have become operational rather than an unbiased gatherer of information. This of course makes their information suspect as well.

    You might remember that before the Iraq war the CIA issued a report suggesting that the Iraqis did not have weapons of mass destructions. Well, the Bush administration soon fixed that. There would be no more reports questioning the need for war from the CIA.

    Now that the CIA is “operational” and with damaged credibility is there anything Brennan can do? I am not so sure. I think that we need a full investigation of the CIA like the Church Committee after the Vietnam war. We need to return the CIA to being a CIA.

  5. While the Senators , and even Juan, seem satisfied with Holder’s statement, I find it appalling and very scary indeed. Saying that the President “does not have the authority to drone to death an innocent noncombatant,” he leaves all American citizens vulnerable. All the President apparently needs to do is to secretly declare some citizen an unlawful combatant based on secret information with no Due Process and no Judicial, Congressional or public oversight, and then the President does have the authority to drone him to death while he is sitting peacefully in a cafe eating breakfast. That is the clear import of Holder’s carefully worded statement. We should all feel endangered, since Al Awaki’s killing , and that of his nephew show that action is not required to make the kill list, only speech considered to be inciting by some anonymous government official in secret.

    • Holder’s follow-up, that the government cannot do so against someone who is “not engaged in combat,” addresses the gap you bring up.

      Also, Awlaki was not killed merely for speech. According to Abdulmuttallab, the would-be Christmas Day bomber, he was an operational commander.

      The son was not targeted at all, and was killed in a strike aimed at an al Qaeda figure named Ibrahim al-Bana. He went to the wrong place at the wrong time.

  6. Call me naive, and I admit some ambivalence about “flying a plane into a building”, but I would like to still live in a country where someone who IS robbing a bank, IS pointing a bazooka at the Pentagon, IS also ineligible to be killed outright without so much as an attempt to arrest him or her, and try that person in a court of law. Those “exceptions” seem to imply that those crimes are okay for the drones to be called in. I don’t like the implication.

  7. I also meant to say I agree with you, QM, 100%. The “not engaged in combat” is a weasly sort of distinction that I can easily see being applied to someone sitting in a coffee shop, if, say, that person has done anti-U.S. videos or runs an anti-U.S. blog or has been supposedly seen at an “Al Qaeda training camp” or something like that. Due process seems to still be missing in action when it comes to the hallowed drone program. We get “trust us” instead.

    • That is not what “engaged in combat” means.

      Engaged in combat is a category based on current behavior, not past behavior or group membership. Compare to “enemy combatant.”

  8. I believe the timing was this:
    Sen. Paul, in deference to Sens. McConnell and Durbin, who spoke just minutes earlier, endeed the filibuster just after Midnight, Thursday Morning.
    At 10 AM, the Senate took up the matter of cloture.
    At about 3 PM, AG Holder sent over his missive, which didn’t actually answer the question, but at least acknowledged it.
    After Sen. Paul said the response was adequate, cloture was invoked and Brennan was confirmed.

  9. Dr. Cole,
    I believe you when you say you are alarmed that a US Senator might have thought that there are circumstances in which a US citizen *could* legitimately be droned to death on American soil.
    I think I must be more familiar with the 2013 NDAA, arguments at the Lawfare blog, and the rants of other Senators, because that isn’t alarming to me at all.
    Sen. Graham, for example, seems to believe that the entire universe is a “battlefield.”

  10. The criteria for initiating a drone strike on a target is “imminent threat”, however many of the actual targets are far from being imminent threats.

    One target in Yemen had served time in a Yemeni prison for complicity in bombing of the Ameriican Embassy and occaisionally recruited for al-Qaeda after his release – no other asserted factual basis for beng an “imminent threat” before a Hellfire missile killed him.

    Another target in Somalia was killed based on faulty information supplied by a competing warlord who had every motivation for seeing the other person targeted.

    There are hundreds of non-targets who have been killed -many of them children – who were innocent bystanders.

    These senators who were engaged in the filibuster correctly see a dangerous precedent in allowing targeted killings of individuals with vague evidentiary criteria and procedures devoid of due process. It could be only a matter of time when other groups are declared an “enemy of the people” and will be open to drone killings. Potential future targets could be Mexican drug traffickers, Marxist rebels in Latin American countries or even militia movement members within the United States.

    After the hearings of the Church Committee and the revelations of the CIA’s “Executive Action” assasination program, most observers believed that the U.S. government would never publically condone assasinations by the U.S. government. Senators like Rand Raul and Ted Cruz are seeing the abuses inherent in these targeted extrajudicial killings.

    • These senators who were engaged in the filibuster correctly see a dangerous precedent in allowing targeted killings of individuals with vague evidentiary criteria and procedures devoid of due process.

      Actually, Mark, these senators who were engaged in the filibuster have explicitly endorses the use of drone strikes overseas.

      You are projecting your own beliefs onto them. You might as well write that the Tea Party people carrying “Keep the Government’s Hands Off My Medicare” are raising an important point, because you’re against cuts to Medicare benefits.

  11. There are many reasons Democrats, liberals, and progressives wanted to protest the Brennan nomination. However, there was one unstated but overriding reason for the Republicans who filibustered Brennan’s confirmation: President Obama is a Democrat.

    Do recall that we heard none of this from the right during the Bush presidency.

    • Paul assumed his position in ’11, Rubio in ’11, and Cruz in ’13. So the most vocal supporters of the filibuster weren’t around during the Bush years.

      Let’s stop this partisan bickering and give credit where credit is due. Paul had the courage to stand up for our Bill of Rights while most Senators, the supposed representatives of We the People, remained silent.

  12. Brennan easily accepted, Jacob Lew easily accepted, John Kerry, ditto, Mary Jo White, even a Walmart executive. It is obvious that Obama’s poor judgment will have calamitous effects on the lives of working (or hoping to work, or retired) Mercans.

  13. “does not foreclose on, the U.S. government killing a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil who is not flying a plane into a building, who is not robbing a bank, who is not pointing a bazooka at the Pentagon, but who is simply sitting quietly at a cafe, peaceably enjoying breakfast?”

    To bad there was no discussion about the vulnerability of the other some 6 billion,600 million earth inhabitants. Might have lead to an enlightening discourse on an interesting element of American exceptionalism.

    My gut feeling is that the CIA and DoD have disrupted more than a few peaceful breakfasts in several countries that happen not to be the USA.

  14. Important appointments in DC are like a dam in a river. As the pressure builds among all the interest groups and stakeholders on the upstream side, it all comes to a simple binary decision: Confirm the appointment, open the sluice gates and let off the pressure and get that power moving downstream again, or let the head build until the dam fails or the water finds its own way around the obstruction. And minutely or hugely, the dam is changed by all that, so that it never quite fits as well and is just a little less safe against some washout that gives us “Johnstown” residents down in the Valley an experience that like a failure of the “Jesus nut” on a helicopter way up in the air, link to youtube.com, will “spoil our whole day.”

    Once someone like Brennan is in place, he of course is going to find that there’s a whole lot of water upstream, with a lot of turbulence and currents that are all seeking to move the whole mass in one direction or another. Thinking that he will, what, “democratize” the CIA, with all its directorates and Secret Squirrel subdivisions and multifarious momentums and stashes of cash and caches of weapons, is something of a durn fool notion. The chance for that to happen died when Wild Bill Donovan ruled the roost, and chose the channel for the river to flow in. So now we have any number of “interests,” with all kinds of little and large stratagems in play, freed of any moral constraints thanks to the imperialization of the executive and the militarization of everything else. Brennan, and Hagel, will find that even if they come in with intentions to undo centuries of Stupid that demarcates the playing board of the Great Game, they are “pwned” from the git-go by the people who put them there and who already “pwn” the institutions.

    And any number of Serious and Well-Informed People with sheaves of 4 x 6 cards and PowerPoint slides, link to guardian.co.uk , just full of dishonest and seductive and seemingly wise exemplars and false syllogisms and misprisions of fallacy, all happy to obscure the larger picture of what’s in play, and working on silencing anyone who holds up a lamp to show any of what’s going on in the Darkness.

    And every moment, the pentwaters undermine the seemingly well engineered construction, and wash away a little more of the ground that restrains that Deluge…

  15. To my mind this discussion aims at the wrong questions entirely,

    If a man is sitting at a cafe drinking coffee and planning an act of war, then he is little different from his brother doing the same thing in Yemen. An act of war is an act of war, and planning is planning. (I am assuming the degree of destruction being planned is the same in each case and has the same likelihood of occurring if not stiffled.)

    The BIG ISSUE in my mind is the issue of who determines the dangerousness of the thoughts of guys sitting at cafe’s drinkling coffee — and surrounded by innocent civilians.

    If our police departments are not allowed to do preventive arrests (to say nothing of preventive assassinations), then either our rules for police are wrong or our rules for drones are wrong.

    Which is it? These are the q

    • It’s a bit spooky, er I mean sad, reading how people rationalize their government’s killing of people for thought crimes. Using words like “preventive assassination”. I long for the days when thoughts could either be acted upon or not, without governmental interference ending the thinker’s life, and those of people who happen to be near him or her.

    • Mohammed Atta and his 9/11 team spent many months in Germany and the US working on the plan, or a host of plans. They traveled freely and lived openly. Their physical arrest would have been a peace of cake for any law enforcement agency. However all the king’s horses, and all the king’s men did not discover what these men were up to until after 9/11.

      Yet, we are expected to accept that the same agencies now have a perfect knowledge of who is planning an attack on the US, no matter how remotely they are located, and how obscure they are. Put em on the list.

      • Nobody assumes that anyone has a “perfect” knowledge of anything, but that’s not the biggest problem with your argument.

        The biggest problem is that no one was actually looking for Atta and his party before 9/11, while the majority of the resources of the CIA and FBI have been committed for years to looking for al Qaeda. That’s why we know a great deal more about al Qaeda operatives in Yemen in 2013 than we knew about al Qaeda operatives in Hamburg in 2001.

    • Conspiracy to commit murder is already a crime. Belonging to al Qaeda – the enemy against whom Congress declared war – is also a crime. If there is solid evidence that a man sitting at a cafe is engaged in such a conspiracy, he can be arrested.

      Also, we aren’t shooting at people in Yemen just for thinking about things, but for being commanders of an enemy force.

      • “We aren’t shooting at people in Yemen just for thinking about things, but for being commanders of an enemy force.”
        In a comment above, Mark Koroi mentions a case of a Yemeni targeted despite evedince of him being an immenent threat to the US or of being an enemy commander. This case was reported in the LA Times. You constantly ignore facts that don’t fit your narrative- a narrative that is based on uncritical acceptance of every said by the President.

  16. Why the emphasis on killing US citizens without due process of law? Surely killing anyone, anywhere, without due process is a crime?

  17. At least Brennan remembers that US Army soldier SGT Bowe Bergdahl is held as a POW.
    That’s a redeeming quality.

  18. So Holder says “an innocent non-combatant”, OK in Afghanistan that has been defined as ANY MALE OF MILITARY AGE!!! So – look out! What kind of answer is that to Paul’s question?

    • This misstatement again.

      Nobody as asserted that any male of military age is a legitimate target in Afghanistan. What you are referring to is a description of the bomb damage assessments done after strikes, in which the government tries to figure out who it killed.

  19. The extreme secrecy with which the war against al Qaeda has been fought has served to give the conspiracy theorists cover for their rantings, and undermine the democratic legitimacy of a perfectly appropriate, legal, necessary policy. Now we have cranks like Paul and Cruz tying their black helicopter theories in with the drones (and, unfortunately, some lefties gullibly going along with them).

    The drone strikes should migrate over to the Pentagon, where they can be subject to the same level of Congressional oversight as ordinary military operations.

    • Joe, every single one of your retorts resemble the standard line we get from the administration and the supporters of the current national security policies and practices.

      Over the past 12 years “trust me” has lost its edge. And, with all due respect, “trust Joe” is not a more convincing alternative.

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