THE BLOG
04/12/2013 03:07 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2013

The Choice of Brennan Offers Rare Glimpse Into America's Clandestine War Abroad

In a prepared statement at his Senate intelligence committee confirmation hearing in February, John Brennan spoke of his parents' inspirational immigrant story, his love for the CIA and defiantly defended his record as White House counterterrorism advisor. Brennan, who President Obama nominated in early January to be the next CIA director and who was confirmed last month after much heated debate on Capitol Hill, became most impassioned when directing his attention to al Qaeda who he said remained "at war" with the United States.

For Brennan, who continues to face a barrage of questions from increasingly outspoken critics within Congress on everything from his role in Bush-era torture cases to the U.S. drone program he now oversees, "The CIA's mission is as important to our nation's security today as at any time in our nation's history."

But, despite the media blitz of late, Brennan remains an unknown figure to most Americans. Numerous interviews with Brennan's former colleagues and adversaries offer a rare glimpse into the character of the man who advisors label as one of the president's closest confidantes in the White House. They described an individual who carries a steel demeanor wherever he goes, whether it is in a high-level meeting at Langley or at one of the many security conferences across the country where he is often an invited speaker. His cerebral approach to decision-making appears reminiscent to the president's own reserved style that, at times, has been at odds with those within his own party.

From his small, windowless office in the basement of the White House, Brennan has overseen a largely clandestine CIA drone program, which began under President Bush in November 2002 and has greatly intensified under President Obama's tenure. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent UK-based government watchdog whose series "The Covert Drone War" tracks every U.S. drone attack, Brennan has authorized roughly 400 attacks across Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since he assumed his post in 2009, which have killed upwards of 2,000 people, including roughly 500 civilians, approximately 200 of them children. The overwhelming majority of these attacks have occurred in Pakistan, a key American ally in the region, which has distanced itself from Washington in recent years, partly due to the drone program. But, the most striking aspect of the statistics revealed by the Bureau, critics say, are when they are compared to those of President Bush, who presided over approximately 51 predator drone attacks during his eight-year term.

"Certainly, until the very end of his presidency, George W. Bush used his power for targeted killings very sparingly," said Chris Woods, who leads the "Covert Drone War" project at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. "We're talking about a significant killing program now [under President Obama]. 2,000 targeted killings."

The president's kill list, which the New York Times exposed last spring, includes the names of suspected al-Qaeda operatives, foreign civilians accused of having corroborated with the organization and even American citizens abroad who are classified as senior-level al-Qaeda operational leaders that pose "an imminent threat" to the nation's security. It is this targeted killing of American citizens overseas without trial that Brennan refused to address in his hearing and that has drawn the most ire of certain members from both parties in Congress. The most outspoken has been Sen. Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, an anti-war Republican and son of former Libertarian and Republican party presidential candidate Ron Paul, who shortly after the hearing wrote a letter to Brennan warning him that he would "use every procedural option" at his disposal to delay his confirmation process if Brennan refused to provide concrete answers on the issue of presidential authority to order lethal force against Americans abroad.

He did ultimately deliver on his threat, taking to the Senate floor for 13 straight hours to block Brennan's confirmation, once it was evident that Brennan had the necessary votes for confirmation. He would later come out in support of Brennan after receiving a much-publicized letter from Attorney General Eric Holder confirming that the president would not have the legal authority to use a drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil.

The attacks Paul initially denounced would not require congressional approval and would be legal on constitutional grounds because the Fifth Amendment's "due process" clause would not apply, according to the Justice Department's White Paper Memo, which was obtained by NBC News only days before Brennan appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee. According to the document, any use of force against these individuals would be justified as an "act of national defense" and would remain in adherence to international law under the presumption that the United States is engaged in an international conflict with al-Qaeda, as Brennan claims.

"What the Obama administration is doing through drones by labeling the victims as 'militants', is reminiscent of what the Bush administration did in relation to torture: fabricating new terminology to create an allusion of legality," said Notre Dame Law School Professor Mary O'Connell, who is an expert in international law on the use of force and one of the nation's fiercest legal critics of the drone program." There's no category of a person known as a 'militant' in international law."

O'Connell, who has on several occasions testified before Congress asserting the illegality of drone strikes outside of designated war zones, routinely travels the country appearing before human rights and civil liberties groups in an effort to highlight what she says is the administration's "unlawful killing" of civilians abroad, Americans or otherwise. As one of the first legal scholars to denounce drone attacks in 2002, she has become the face of a small, but growing resistance amongst international law experts, both in the U.S. and abroad. Their exhaustive research and findings pressured the U.N. to address these violations, which it finally agreed to last fall, announcing a formal investigation of drone attacks, led by the UN Special Rapporteur's Office for Counterterrorism and Human Rights.

"A lot of the top international lawyers in the world are now speaking out; until now the pressure from the media has not been there," said O'Connell. "The US will face tough criticisms from the UN rapporteur."

Brennan knows of O'Connell, not only because he met her at a March 2010 conference at the American Society of International Law in Washington where he was an invited speaker, more so because aides say he meticulously tracks media coverage of the drone program and has become very wary of the program shaping his legacy. While described by some as a voice of restraint amongst more hawkish members of the president's national security team, Brennan has institutionalized killing, says Medea Benjamin, founder of the national women's grassroots peace and justice movement, Code Pink. Benjamin, whose group protested at Brennan's confirmation with large pink placards with the names of victims of drone strikes before being escorted out, might be the activist who Brennan most respects and most scorns.

"They have a very peculiar relationship, she's been to his home and protested outside on his street," said Woods of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. " Brennan often has acknowledged her in public appearances he's made on the drone program so you can see there is a mutual level of respect there."

For Benjamin, who admits she does not recall just how many anti-drone protests she has led throughout the country but estimates it to be "in the hundreds", the choice of Brennan was appalling but predictable, given the Democratic majority in the Senate.

"The issues around John Brennan seem to be more concerns of Democrats: torture, killing people without due process," said Benjamin. "But, these individuals are and have been less apt to speak out against a Democratic president. When Democrats commit these types of abuses, they can get away with it far more than Republicans can."

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Democrats weren't always so supportive of the drone program. Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, together with Senator Diane Feinstein, Democrat of California, often condemned the Bush administration's targeted killings abroad in Pakistan from the Senate floor. Both senators have not spoken out as fervently against the Obama administration, despite the massive escalation in drone attacks in recent years.

At the Senate Intelligence Confirmation hearing, Senator Wyden grew frustrated with Brennan saying that the CIA had never provided critical information on the drone program, such as where attacks had taken place and how many civilian casualties had resulted from those operations. In response, Brennan acknowledged there had been civilian casualties "in the single digits" and Senator Feinstein, who is the committee Chairman, concurred that she trusted those statistics, despite outside organizations like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism claiming such numbers were entirely inaccurate.

"I am confident of those figures until I am not confident of them," said Senator Feinstein, when pressured by a reporter after the hearing.

It was a remarkable turnaround for Senator Feinstein, who for years has accused the CIA for lying to Congress about its interrogation program. As the hearing concluded, she told Brennan " I actually think you're going to be a fine and strong leader for the CIA."

After several attempts to reach Senator Feinstein, her spokesman refused questions on Brennan or on the drone program, instead referring back to the transcription of the hearing.

" It was a show, all of this, they don't ask the important questions like how many civilians have been killed? What is the backlash against the United States? When has our government been lying to us about the number of people being killed?" said Benjamin. "Feinstein expressed her support for Brennan and was even satisfied with the white papers and she certainly didn't say anything substantial at the hearing."

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For President Obama, the 2009 Nobel peace prize recipient, the choice of John Brennan to lead the nation's intelligence agency represents a quandary for Democrats and for his own legacy. Brennan shares President Bush's worldview on what should be the United States' role in the "global war on terror" and he has unapologetically defended that view in public appearances and in media interviews. Obama, who campaigned in 2008 on an anti-war platform pledging to lead America on a different course abroad, is arguably not the same president he was four years ago. His most ardent critics, many of whom fervently supported his candidacy in 2008, contend that Obama the hardened president has replaced the values of Obama the freshman Senator with pragmatist, combative policies abroad.

If the Brennan nomination can reveal any clue into how the president will confront foreign policy challenges in the next four years, it may be precisely that.

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