The Brennan Hearing Raised More Questions About Drone Strikes Than It Answered

Military analysis.
Feb. 7 2013 6:43 PM

Missing the Mark

The Senate Intelligence Committee blew its chance for an important debate on drone strikes in the Brennan hearing.

John Brennan before his senate confirmation hearing.
Even in the face of this striking incuriosity, Brennan supplied a few intriguing nuggets

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Many expected John Brennan’s confirmation hearing would unleash a great debate on the wisdom, legality, and morality of U.S. drone strikes. In that sense, many should have come away from the hearings disappointed.

The panelists of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked Brennan plenty of questions about whether he’d give them documents about drone strikes and other practices if he’s confirmed as CIA director—but they asked very few about the practices themselves.

Even in the face of this striking incuriosity, Brennan supplied a few intriguing nuggets. For instance, he acknowledged once saying that “enhanced interrogation” had yielded useful information in finding and capturing terrorists, including Osama bin Laden—but, he added that, after reading the first volume of the Senate committee’s still-classified 6,000-page review of the subject, he now has doubts. He said he would await the CIA’s review of the report for final judgment, but for the moment he finds the report “very concerning and disturbing.”


The fact that Brennan has been President Obama’s senior adviser on counterterrorism these past four years, and yet found material in the Senate report that he had not known before, material that makes him now think he might have been wrong—this in itself is rather disturbing.

Brennan made several other interesting remarks—for instance, that waterboarding should have always been banned, that the CIA should not interrogate terrorists, and that the CIA “should not be doing traditional military actions and operations”—but the senators rarely followed up. For instance, they didn’t ask whether “traditional” operations included drone strikes—or much else about drone strikes, despite the issue’s prominence in recent debates. The Intelligence Committee itself has been demanding a copy of the Justice Department’s full legal justification for drone strikes—or, more specifically, for targeted assassination against al-Qaida operatives, even if they’re American citizens. An unclassified, 16-page summary of this document was leaked to the press earlier this week, and has been much-discussed since—yet the senators asked nothing about it.

This is too bad, for this “white paper”—as the summary is titled—is, in its own way, concerning and disturbing.

The white paper stresses that three conditions must be met before the United States launches a strike against an individual in a foreign country where we are not formally at war.

First, it states, “an informed, high-level” U.S. official must have “determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” Second, it must be concluded that capturing this targeted individual “is infeasible.” Third, “the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law-of-war principles,” that is, with particular attention to minimizing civilian casualties and assuring that the gains of the operation are proportionate to its risks.

Let’s ignore for a moment the ambiguity of “an informed, high-level official” (how informed, how high-level—the president, the CIA director, a commander in the field?). Instead, let us focus on the phrase “imminent threat of violent attack against the United States,” with special emphasis on “imminent.”


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