Five tough questions for President Obama’s would-be CIA director

The Globe and Mail

In this Oct. 29, 2010 file photo, Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan briefs reporters at the White House in Washington. Brennan, now President Barack Obama's nominee to be CIA director, withdrew from consideration for the job in 2008 amid criticism over the agency's use of harsh interrogation techniques, like waterboarding, against terrorist suspects. This time, in 2013, he's making it clear he strongly opposes such practices. Former and current U.S. intelligence officials say Brennan wasn't so vocal a decade ago. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Grilling John Brennan on the U.S. administration’s counter-terrorism policy – and specifically the controversial drones program – is the next best thing to having President Barack Obama himself appear before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee today in Washington, D.C. at 2:30 p.m. ET

The reason: Mr. Brennan, who is the President’s nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, has single-handedly shaped Mr. Obama’s thinking on the use of drones.

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Mr. Brennan is the “high priest of targeted killings,” as Foreign Policy magazine called him – a “priest whose blessing has become indispensible” to the President, according to Obama administration officials who spoke to the New York Times last year.

So it is no surprise, then, that so many observers have lined up with questions – from drones policy to torture to language training at the CIA – which they think U.S. senators should put to Mr. Brennan at his confirmation hearing today. Here are just five.

Did Bush-era “enhanced interrogation techniques” actually work?

Much of the focus has been on the ramped-up drones policy in the Obama administration and Mr. Brennan’s role in codifying the policy and maintaining the “kill list” – the names of suspected terrorists that are being targeted by U.S. drones.

But it was Mr. Brennan’s job at the CIA during the George W. Bush years that derailed his candidacy for the top job at the agency four years ago.

Republican Senator John McCain is not a member of the committee that is holding today’s confirmation hearing. But the Vietnam war veteran who was tortured while he was held as a prisoner of war, has this question he would like to ask: "Do you believe that intelligence gained from detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques while in CIA custody was directly responsible for the disruption of active terrorist plots?"

After leaving the CIA in 2005, Mr. Brennan spoke out against waterboarding – calling it torture. But he also argued in a CBS News interview in 2007 that the CIA interrogation program saved lives.

“Even if Brennan played no direct role in the torture program, it's fair to assume that he knew something about it,” writes Andrea J. Prasow, senior senior counter-terrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. “So, before voting for his nomination to become CIA director, the Senate should at least determine how much he knew and whether he made any attempt to object.”

How many civilians have been killed as a direct result of drone strikes targeting terrorists?

According to the New America Foundation, drone strikes have killed between 1,934 and 3,239 people since 2004. That is a non-militant casualty rate of up to 23 per cent. Drone strikes and civilian casualties have hardened anti-U.S. opinion in Pakistan and Yemen.

As evidence of civilian casualties resulting from drone strikes mounted, Mr. Brennan told an audience in 2011 that there had not been a “single collateral death” because of counter-terrorism operations.

Mr. Brennan has consistently played down the impact of drone strikes on civilians – an impact that has been reported widely by journalists in Pakistan and Yemen. His comments have angered liberal activists and critics of the Obama administration’s drone policy.

Those activists and critics will be looking to the senators to ask Mr. Brennan some pointed questions.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK: Women for Peace, put her question this way: “Have you reviewed the photographic evidence of death and injury presented by residents of the drone strike areas? If so, what is your response?”

The likelihood of Mr. Brennan answering questions about national security and counter-terrorism in any great detail? Low – given the classified nature of information. “Spoiler: John Brennan is probably not going to answer your questions today,” tweeted Foreign Policy magazine’s Blake Hounshell.

Who is ‘green lighting’ U.S. operations targeting Americans?

In a week that saw NBC News reporting on a U.S. Department of Justice white paper that it had obtained, outlining the legal rationale for U.S. strikes targeting Americans, senators will no doubt be putting questions to Mr. Brennan.

The United States has carried out drone strikes in Yemen that resulted in the deaths of three Americans, including U.S.-born citizen and Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki.

The white paper offers a legal opinion on when it is acceptable to target U.S. citizens. Essentially, the document states that a strike is allowed if a “high level official” has determined that the threat of a violent attack against the U.S. is “imminent.”

U.S. senators will be looking for clarification. So will liberal columnists like the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, who posed his questions in a column this week: “What are the criteria for determining that the threat of violent attack is “imminent?” Who is making the decision to green light killings of this sort based on these criteria, other than the president himself?”

Should the CIA be operating drones?

The CIA is currently responsible for all drone operations in Pakistan and some in Yemen, according Micah Zenko, who studies the Obama administration’s drone policy at the Council of Foreign Relations. The U.S. Department of Defense is responsible for the remainder of the drone operations in Yemen and all in Somalia, he adds.

At time of Mr. Brennan’s nomination, Mr. Zenko told The Globe and Mail that it was not likely that Mr. Brennan would retain oversight of the entire drone program.

But one question is whether Mr. Brennan believes that that the future of the CIA involves using more drones.

Observes are picking up on Mr. Brennan’s answers to advance questions from the Senate committee and released on the eve of the hearing. In one question about the militarization of the CIA – or the increasing use of drone technology for surveillance and targeted strikes – Mr. Brennan responded: "In my view, the CIA is the nation's premier 'intelligence' agency and needs to remain so... the CIA should not be used, in my view, to carry out traditional military activities."

As Josh Gerstein of Politico points out, there are those who would make a case for the CIA to go back to traditional intelligence-gathering: “One proposal out there: The CIA should get out of the drone business and leave it to the military, not so much for cost reasons, but for efficiency and because it could distract the spy agency.”

What exactly did Pakistan know about the movements and whereabouts of Osama bin Laden?

“The chances of Pakistan’s normally efficient – at least to some degree – intelligence services being entirely ignorant about Bin Laden’s presence are zero to none. So, how high did such knowledge go?” asks former CIA field office Robert B. Baer.

A fair question. But Mr. Brennan is unlikely to offer any new information. Pakistan and the U.S. remain key allies – even if that alliance is strained. Naming names would not go down well in Islamabad.

The Pakistan question could embarrass the would-be CIA director, but so could this question Mr. Baer hopes senator put to Mr. Brennan: “How many Bambara speakers does the CIA have?”

Strong language training results in good intelligence work – and here, the CIA is lagging, says Mr. Baer.

“I would imagine that things haven’t improved since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. How many fluent Pashto and Urdu speakers does the CIA currently have working in the Af-Pak theater?” asks Mr. Baer. “Or how many operatives speak Bambara and Touareg, right now the most useful languages in Mali? Or do we simply rely on the locals to keep us current?”

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