Top Ten Surprises of the Brennan Hearing on CIA Torture and Drones

The confirmation hearing for John Brennan allowed the country to grapple with many issues that had been swept under the rug and seldom discussed in public. While few to none of them were thus resolved, it does seem to me positive that they were brought up in public.


1. The LAT reports that “Republicans largely focused on whether the CIA should be capturing more terrorists, rather than just killing them.” Let’s get this straight. The GOP is pressuring a Democratic administration to be less bloodthirsty?

2. It turns out the John Brennan wants to turn the drone program over to the Department of Defense. I have long advocated this step (not that it matters much what I think about these matters). As Brennan and his aides point out, having it under the Central Intelligence Agency makes it automatically covert and removed from public inquiry or discussion. While the special operations forces in the US military do not have has much bureaucratic oversight as the CIA, the Department of Defense in general is in the nature of the case more under civilian oversight than the CIA. And, its programs are open to public discussion.

3. The National Journal reports that Brennan also says he recognizes that the drone program as now carried out has the potential to undermine international law, and that the US risks setting precedents that e.g. China and Russia might themselves use for their own purposes in the near future. While the paternalistic assumption that the US is responsible but lesser races are not is problematic, to say the least, the point– that US policy is often cited in justification for controversial actions by other countries– is correct. The problem is that Brennan and Obama seem to be in the position of the young St. Augustine, who is alleged to have prayed that God make him virtuous, but “not yet.”

4. Brennan alleges that he objected to the use of waterboarding when he was deputy executive director of the CIA, but did not pursue the matter because it was being done in a different section of the agency. Hunh? Is it that he was in the Directorate of Intelligence and it was the Directorate of Operations guys who were waterboarding? Isn’t he implying that there are black ops being run by rogue parts of the agency that aren’t open to influence from even deputy executive directors?

5. The LAT says that Brennan has now concluded, after a 6,000 page review distilled into a 300-page summary, that stress positions, humiliations such as nudity, and waterboarding (which I will call torture even though he would not) produced no useful intelligence. I would go further and argue that actually the torture produced key disinformation for which Washington often fell, sending it off on wild goose chases like invading Iraq.

6. Likewise, LAT notes that “Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said the interrogation program was ‘corrupted by personnel with pecuniary conflicts of interest.'” Hunh? Somebody was making money off the torture? Who, how and why? You can’t just leave us hanging with that tidbit, Sen. Rockefeller!

7. The CIA is telling Sen. Diane Feinstein that the number of innocent civilians killed by US drone strikes annually has typically been in single digits, but also forbade her to say that publicly because everything about drones is classified. If this allegation is true, the CIA is not as good at counting as the young British journalists at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (scroll down).

8. It turns out that Americans, when asked, think that droning American citizens is illegal, and that they don’t support the drone program if it means killing innocent civilians along with militants. As usual, Americans turn out to be mostly center-left on policy when anyone bothers actually to ask their opinion. Sen. Ron Wyden, among our foremost exponents of the rule of law in these matters, turns out to have an enormous constituency!

9. When senators pressed Brennan to have judicial oversight of drone strike decisions where they concerned Americans, he said it could be considered but doubted whether a court could evaluate intelligence on whether a militant posed a threat. Why can intelligence bureaucrats make that evaluation but judges cannot? Occasionally the arrogance of the intelligence aristocracy peaked out at the hearing.

10. Administration officials are admitting that the drone program, which is allegedly authorized by the 2001 congressional authorization for the use of military force, would be brought into legal question if al-Qaeda were declared defeated, thus putting an ending parenthesis around the AUMF. But I argue that the AUMF is itself unconstitutional, since it went beyond calling for hunting down and punishing the plotters of 9/11 to creating a class of persons (“al-Qaeda members”) who are objects of a Bill of Attainder. You can’t actually declare war on a small civilian organization that is spread over the world. There is no formal definition of an al-Qaeda member, there is no real way to decide who is ‘operational’ and who isn’t, and there is a tendency in the US government to use ‘al-Qaeda’ to describe all militant and/or inconvenient Muslim movements. In fact, the NYT revealed that the US routinely ex post facto puts all young men killed in a drone strike in the category of ‘militants,’ even if it has no idea who they are. Most living actual al-Qaeda members had nothing to do with 9/11 and many are critics of it. The hypocrisy of all this is obvious in Libya, where the US cooperated with Abdel Hakim Belhadj, who became the security director for post-revolutionary Tripoli, even though he could be droned at will by President Obama any day of the week according to current US policy. The entire thing is a definitional, constitutional and legal mess, and Obama should end it all before going out of office.

34 Responses

    • Obama should end it all before going out of office.


      But let’s note that this is not merely an administrative step; it involves actually finishing the job.

      I sincerely hope that Obama ends this war, in the manner described in the post below (decimating core al Qaeda), and then closes the door on this chapter of history.

        • Ultimately, RBTL, that’s a political decision.

          We can talk about what the metrics should be, but it’s not like counting beans.

        • I agree, it is a political question. I think the politics are working against us now.

      • Step #1 to ending it…….STOP calling occupations “wars”….remove the fig leaf and watch it crumble.

      • Every time a drone kills somebody, the US acquires ~10 more enemies that the CIA can call “supporters of al-Qaeda”. If all you genuinely wanted is for al-Qaeda to be decimated (one out of every ten of its members killed) then the job was done within a month of the first US forces entering Afghanistan, probably within a week.

        If you want al-Qaeda wiped out, killing them with drones is actually counter-productive.

        • I agree with your comment 100% . Drones create generations of hatred toward us. Iti s sad, but I think this is actually what our ,il/ind suppliers want; new demand for the weapons they are making. Without conflict there is no need for their services.

        • I also notice the weasel-wording: enemies that the CIA can call “supporters of al-Qaeda”

          Note that he won’t come out and say that these people are actually al Qaeda and actually generate a threat to the United States, because he doesn’t want to acknowledge that al Qaeda amounts to a legitimate threat. And yet, he doesn’t want to commit to the opposite position, either.

          This whole argument is based upon asserting that there is a threat produced that it is in America’s interest to avoid, and yet Realist doesn’t want to acknowledge that threat, while still using it to threaten.

  1. “There is a tendency in the US government to use ‘al-Qaeda’ to describe all militant and/or inconvenient Muslim movements.”

    No kidding. The is evidenced by a paragraph in Michael Hastings book The Operators a great read about Gen. McChrystal and his staff. Before testifying at a senate committee hearing on Afghanistan, Sen. Lindsey Graham pulled McChrystal aside and whispered to him…”Keep mentioning al-Qaeda in your testimony.” At the time of the hearing there was reported to be less than a handful of al-Qaeda members in the entire country of Afghanistan.

    Graham, or as we refer to him in SC…Joe Lieberman’s poodle, knows the benefits of waving the bloody shirt of 9-11 by simply mentioning the name of al-Qaeda, therefore insuring continued funding of the fiasco known as the war in Afghanistan.

  2. Great post: Re #7-civilian casualties in single digits? Isn’t DiFi excluding Af-Pak? And aren’t insurgent aged males excluded along with household members and guests of targets? That’s why we have lawyers redefining words like civilian.

  3. For some time these wars have devolved into body count wars. The notion of who actually is the enemy is getting ever more vague. Any notion of victory has long since evaporated. Strategy, what strategy? When will it be over? God knows.

    The purpose of the drones is to make the war safer for us. We can ramp up the ratio of them killed to us killed. If we can’t win then we can at least make it more efficient!

    • It was like Israel trying to kill off the P.L.O all during the 1970s and 80s. Targeted killings in Operation Wrath of God did little to prevent ongoing armed struggle.

      By the late 1980s, the Yitzhak Shamir government was actually trying to negotiate with the P.L.O to end the First Intifada. Eventually the Oslo Accords came and the P.L.O was largely absorbed into the Palestinian Authority.

      The “war” gainst Al-Qaeda could go on forever. America now sees the Taliban as some group that can be negotiated with. The only way I see Al-Qaeda going away permanently is if some global amnesty offer occurs under which Al-Qaeda disbands in exchange for terminating its terror operations and being absorbed into other Islamic or even secular groups or governments in the region – such as the Syrian National Coalition is attempting to do with Jabhat al-Nusra.

  4. Drones are a tactic. The problem is not drones, both the neocon kind and the liberal internationalist kind the author approves.

    The point is to get over American exceptionalism and the urge to police the world.

    • Poison gas and germ warfare are tactics too, as are nuclear weapons. As are covert assassinations and decapitations. There are reasons why some tactics don’t get used, unless you think you can get away with them, have “legal cover” and are arrogant enough to not care about that stupid thing, “public opinion.” Or the eyes are on short-term advantages, or mythical notions of “policy.”

  5. Regarding #s 4 and 6:

    Is it that he was in the Directorate of Intelligence and it was the Directorate of Operations guys who were waterboarding? Isn’t he implying that there are black ops being run by rogue parts of the agency that aren’t open to influence from even deputy executive directors?

    Likewise, LAT notes that “Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said the interrogation program was ‘corrupted by personnel with pecuniary conflicts of interest.’” Hunh? Somebody was making money off the torture?

    We’ve known since the OLC memos, if not before, that the waterboarding was conducted by private contractors, not CIA employees. The picture that seems to be emerging is that it was, in fact, a rogue operation run out of the DCI’s office that bypassed the Directorates, and was answerable only to the Director and the White House.

  6. But I argue that the AUMF is itself unconstitutional, since it went beyond calling for hunting down and punishing the plotters of 9/11 to creating a class of persons (“al-Qaeda members”) who are objects of a Bill of Attainder.

    Every war declaration does this. When we declared war on Japan, it wasn’t just the forces who took part in the Pearl Harbor attack who were covered, but any member of their armed forces, including people who didn’t join until 1945.

    The difficulties in identifying in practice who belongs in the category are an important policy point, but they don’t really raise any constitutional issue. In every war, there have been people who were not unformed front-line troops, people who acted in a covert manner, who posed identification issues, but who were nonetheless legitimately covered by the declaration of war (or force authorization). It is novel that this war consists almost entirely of that sort of enemy, but that category of person, and the practical difficulties they raise, are nothing new.

    • The AUMF is not a declaration of war….it was a convenient way to avoid actually declaring war…..and facilitating immoral and illegitimate invasions and occupations. This society seems to have lost the ability to tell right from wrong….and the ability to feel shame.

      • The AUMF is not a declaration of war

        Under American law (the War Powers Act) passed by Congress, and according to every President who has ever acted under one, and according to the U.S. Supreme Court, and under international law, an AUMF is a declaration of war.

        It’s true that passing an AUMF instead of an old-fashioned war declaration is intended to allow members of Congress to avoid political responsibility, but that really has nothing to do with the constitutional or legal question. An AUMF creates exactly the same legal state of war as a war declaration.

        As for the rest of your comment, none of it really has anything to do with the question at hand. You just sort of went into a stream of consciousness anti-counter-terrorism riff.

    • I think that when a large bomber force, consisting of Japanese airplanes and Japanese crews, bombed Pearl Harbor, there was a high degree of certainty who the the enemy was.

      When an Egyptian led a force of 15 Saudis, 2 UAE’s, and 1 Lebanese, in the 9/11 attack, I don’t think it is quite so obvious that an invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq were the proper military responses. And the fact that most of the planning was done in Germany and the US, seems to make the situation even more ambiguous.

      I suppose that some very naive Americans might even conclude that we were attacked by Saudi Arabia, when told of the nationalities involved.

  7. Re number 7. I guess it depends on the definition of “few”

    “Living under drones”

    “This report is the result of nine months of research by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School (Stanford Clinic) and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law (NYU Clinic).

    The best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization. TBIJ reports that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.

    TBIJ reports that these strikes also injured an additional 1,228-1,362 individuals. Where media accounts do report civilian casualties, rarely is any information provided about the victims or the communities they leave behind.

    This report includes the harrowing narratives of many survivors, witnesses, and family members who provided evidence of civilian injuries and deaths in drone strikes to our research team.

    It also presents detailed accounts of three separate strikes, for which there is evidence of civilian deaths and injuries, including a March 2011 strike on a meeting of tribal elders that killed some 40 individuals.”

    link to

  8. Re #6, Hersh and other journalists described an employment pipeline from private prisons to military prisons to CIA torture sessions. There are numerous examples of a guard in a public prison losing his job for using excessive force, then hiring on with a private prison, then contracting with the military or CIA as a prison guard.

    There was also an employment pipeline through Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq where early abuses of prisoners took place.

    I believe Rockefeller was referring to those sorts of “pecuniary conflicts,” run-of-the-mill patronage. Torture meant contracts and jobs for firms like Blackwater, Corrections Corp and Halliburton. Grotesque backdrop, mundane corruption.

    • And of course the drone program may not produce trillions in wealth transfers to the neoKrupps who produce the MQhardware and software, but it’s in the hundreds of billions, what used to be called “real money,” and there are floods of side businesses that get wealthy off the entire war industry, so everyone in it is looking for excuses and reasons to continue the Game, and of course they would NEVER manufacture those reasons out of comfortable whole cloth, now would they?…

      • Plus all the contractors who retired from government.

        Regardless of all the administrative and other issues with the Washington establishment, When a Goverment employee quits his security clearance ought to be shredded. If the future employer wants the guy let them run an ab inito background check. (that could mean that Gen Petraeus might not even make confidential this time around).

        If col/gen Great Guy is so great why is the government not retaining him?

  9. Looks like the only one who accused Abdel Hakim Belhadj of being in al-Qaeda was Gaddafi while Belhadj was trying to overthrow him. If he is not part of al-Qaeda, Obama can drone him.

    But keep up the good work. Your blog is great!

  10. Seems they want us to be quite comfortable with a never ending state of war, a never ending state of killing each and every day. Perhaps they guess that the public will just eventually get used to this and accept that behavior,, and sadly, they just might be correct. Sad.

    • Civil war involved war taxes.
      Spanish American war involved special taxes.
      WW I involved special taxes.
      WW II involved very high special taxes.
      Global War on Terror lets not tax the people who are most at risk, and the greatest beneficiaries.

      Just like Johnson wanted Guns and Butter without raising taxes during Viet Nam and the end result was an economic mess with no real exit.

      Apply a war tax of 70-90% on the top dollar of the wealthy and the war would be over in record time.

  11. “torture produced key disinformation for which Washington often fell, sending it off on wild goose chases like invading Iraq.”

    It was only ever a “wild goose chase” if one believed that the primary motivation for the Iraq war was WMD’s. If however you believed it’s primary purpose was to remove an ‘enemy’ of Israel and obtain control of Iraq oil, it never was or has been a “wild goose chase”, more a “mission accomplished” !

  12. I am glad that there is a large review of the torture program, and hope that it will become public. The question of how effective the program was in gaining information is still a little beside the point.

    Neocon ideology holds that the Executive can allot itself “exceptional” status to violate the Consitution. Torture is the most undeniable violation of limited government. Hence, the torture regime was imposed top down, without regard to its practicality, in order to establish a precedent of authoritarian power, and incriminate as many participants as possible.

    In short, the American torture regime was a matter of authoritarian principle, unrelated to its real or imagined information value;

  13. Isn’t it strange that we have this super perfect knowledge of exactly who the bad guys are when they are located in remote locations, where our presence (and that of investigative media) is virtually non-existent?

    Yet where our forces are or were ubiquitous, Afghanistan and Iraq, we accidentally bomb weddings, funerals, people going to market, etc., and imprison 26,000 people without charge because they are the right age and religion.

  14. Terror is being manufactured by CIA the world over in order to keep the military industrial complex in business, provide an excuse for USA forces to station in foreign countries & capture the natural resources of weak & poor countries, it also keeps china in check.

  15. “ also keeps china(sic)in check.

    Phoenix Television reported that in an online poll of 500,000 residents of the People’s Republic of China, 60% were “sad” over the death of Osama Bin Laden because he was anti-American.

    Several global government leaders also denounced the killing of Bin Laden, including ex-Cuban President Fidel Castro, a high-ranking official of the Venezuelan government, and Hamas Gazan prime minister Ismail Haniyeh (who openly mourned his death) and a host of others.

Comments are closed.