13 Questions for John O. Brennan

John O. Brennan
John O. Brennan; drawing by James Ferguson

President Obama’s nomination of his top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, to head the Central Intelligence Agency poses a genuine conundrum for those concerned about human rights.

On the one hand, Brennan is associated in one way or another with some of the most controversial and troubling aspects of US counterterrorism policies. He is the architect—and principal public defender—of President Obama’s expanded “targeted killing” policy, which has deployed unmanned drones to kill hundreds of suspected terrorists without charge or trial. He was deputy executive director of the CIA between 2001 and 2003, when the agency was engaged in “rendering” terror suspects to secret prisons, where they were “disappeared,” often for years, and subjected to torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and physical abuse.

In December 2005, he described President Bush’s rendition program as “an absolutely vital tool” on PBS. And when the Associated Press revealed in 2011, in a Pulitzer Prize–winning series of articles, that the New York City Police Department had orchestrated an intensive spying campaign directed at Muslims, without any basis for suspicion of criminal, much less terrorist, activity, Brennan defended the NYPD for striking the right balance between civil liberties and national security.*

On the other hand, credible accounts of the Obama White House’s internal workings describe Brennan as an influential defender of the rule of law and human rights. He has reportedly fought for greater transparency on the drone program, and has delivered some of the administration’s most revealing speeches about the program. He has sought to transfer implementation of the targeted killing program from the CIA to the military, which, unlike the CIA, has a culture of respect for the laws of war and the rules of engagement. He has argued forcefully for trying terrorists in civilian courts, and for closing Guantánamo. And he has been at the forefront of an effort to establish clear rules and procedures for targeted killing decisions—although it is surely disturbing if, as The New York Times reports, this effort only began in the past year, when the possibility emerged that a new president might take office, and has slowed in the wake of Obama’s election victory.

After leaving the CIA in August 2005, Brennan said that waterboarding “goes beyond the bounds of what a civilized society should employ.” In 2007, he told CBS News that the CIA interrogation program “saved lives,” but also that waterboarding is torture.

Who is the real John Brennan? The Senate’s confirmation power entails the responsibility to ensure that those nominated to the nation’s highest executive posts warrant our trust. That responsibility is nowhere more grave than in the case of the CIA. Because so much of what the agency does is necessarily hidden from public view, it is all the more essential that its director be rigorously vetted. In that spirit, here are thirteen questions Brennan should be…


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