Analysis: John Brennan Offers Few Details on 'Targeted Killings'

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Maybe it’s the difference between New Jersey and Nebraska, or the blunt talk of a hardnosed terrorism expert and ruminations from a foreign-policy think-tanker. Maybe John Brennan just looked good because Chuck Hagel, nominated as defense secretary, seemed so hapless and hesitant during his confirmation interrogation last week.

The optics were, in any case, a startling 180-degree contrast. At Thursday's hearing on his nomination to head the CIA, Brennan radiated authority, talking fast, never at a loss for an explanation of his actions or views. “Maybe Brennan could be CIA director AND defense secretary?” I tweeted about an hour into the hearing.

Certainly the subjects senators raised with Brennan were contentious, from drones to torture to transparency. But if his hearing had a hashtag, it would be #winning. “John Brennan is so tough it looks like he chews his water,” tweeted Nathan Gonzales, an analyst at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. He conveys the sense that “he has never met a person he could not arm wrestle to the ground,” tweeted Time’s Michael Scherer.

And that was before Brennan’s confident, borderline-indignant takedown of two senators’ suggestions that he was the source of a leak being investigated by the Justice Department. “I am a witness,” he said. Not a suspect.

Is it true, he was asked, that he had opposed a late 1990s operation to capture Osama bin Laden? Yup, he said, because it had minimal chances of success and it was likely that “other individuals were going to be killed.” He even conveyed certainty when he told senators that he didn’t know yet whether torture elicited valuable information from captives – that a massive Senate report had raised questions in his mind. 

Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, a leading critic of the way the Obama administration has handled the drone program, was expected to be the pit bull of the hearing. As recently as Wednesday he was hinting that he might filibuster Brennan’s nomination. But he seemed pleased with Brennan’s answers, at least after his first round.

Public conversation about drones? The nominee is all for it, so administration officials can explain that “we’ve been very disciplined, very judicious. We only use these capabilities and these authorities as a last resort.” Public disclosure when the wrong people are killed? Yes to that, too. Full list of past CIA-authorized strikes killing people in other countries, beyond bin Laden? He’ll try. Future instances? “I would damn well make sure” the Intelligence Committee knows what’s going on.

“That’s a good start,” Wyden said, smiling.

Brennan misread the Code Pink protestors who were ejected at the start of the hearing when he said they “really have a misunderstanding of the care that we take, what we go through as a government” before authorizing a strike. “People are reacting to a lot of falsehoods out there,” he said.

Code Pink opposes any and all drone strikes, no matter how carefully they’re targeted; the group’s view was summed up by a hand-lettered placard that said “Stop CIA Murder.” But polls show a large majority of Americans support the use of drones on foreign citizens abroad. They’re not going away, nor should they.

Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein said she plans to work on a way to increase the transparency and accountability of the drone program, and make sure it is conducted “consistent with our values.” That’s about the best we can hope for when it comes to a tactic that’s necessary in an era of wars no longer defined by nations, armies and battlefronts, but is uncomfortable just the same.

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