John Brennan’s Outdated Drone Speech

The speech John Brennan gave today–purportedly offering a new level of transparency about our drone strikes–would have been more effective coming from someone else, delivered at a different time.

It would have been better for someone else to deliver this speech, because Brennan, a notable sieve of classified information, has no credibility talking about secrecy.

Again, there are some lines we simply will not and cannot cross because, at times, our national security demands secrecy. But we are a democracy. The people are sovereign. And our counterterrorism tools do not exist in a vacuum. They are stronger and more sustainable when the American people understand and support them. They are weaker and less sustainable when the American people do not. As a result of my remarks today, I hope the American people have a better understanding of this critical tool—why we use it, what we do, how carefully we use it, and why it is absolutely essential to protecting our country and our citizens.

All the past times when Brennan happily leaked classified information made it clear the Administration politicizes such claims to secrecy. So there’s no reason for any person to take John Brennan’s claims to secrecy seriously–he’s not a credible messenger on that front. (But hell, at this point every invocation of secrecy might just be a reference to the Wizard of Oz.)

The timing undermines the message too. Brennan made it clear that his comments addressed only strikes targeted at known individuals.

Broadly speaking, the debate over strikes targeted at individual members of al-Qa’ida has centered on their legality, their ethics, the wisdom of using them, and the standards by which they are approved.

[snip]

For example, when considering lethal force we ask ourselves whether the individual poses a significant threat to U.S. interests. This is absolutely critical, and it goes to the very essence of why we take this kind of exceptional action. We do not engage in lethal action in order to eliminate every single member of al-Qa’ida in the world. Most times, and as we have done for more than a decade, we rely on cooperation with other countries that are also interested in removing these terrorists with their own capabilities and within their own laws. Nor is lethal action about punishing terrorists for past crimes; we are not seeking vengeance. Rather, we conduct targeted strikes because they are necessary to mitigate an actual ongoing threat — to stop plots, prevent future attacks, and save American lives.

And what do we mean by a significant threat? I am not referring to some hypothetical threat—the mere possibility that a member of al-Qa’ida might try to attack us at some point in the future. A significant threat might be posed by an individual who is an operational leader of al-Qa’ida or one of its associated forces. Or perhaps the individual is himself an operative—in the midst of actually training for or planning to carry out attacks against U.S. interests. Or perhaps the individual possesses unique operational skills that are being leveraged in a planned attack. The purpose of a strike against a particular individual is to stop him before he can carry out his attack and kill innocents. The purpose is to disrupt his plots and plans before they come to fruition.

Indeed, he was even asked how about signature strikes, to which Brennan responded he was only addressing targeted strikes.

But the government just resumed its practice of targeting patterns, rather than individuals. Why, if we just decided to stop showing this caution again, should we take comfort that we show this caution some of the time?

Though perhaps the detail that most discredited Brennan’s claims came from a remarkably well timed outburst from a protestor, who interrupted Brennan to ask about the women and children our drones have killed; she named Abdulrahman al-Awlaki specifically. Once they had forcibly removed her, Brennan kept reading from his script where he had left off, reading these words:

More broadly, al-Qa’ida’s killing of innocents—mostly Muslim men, women and children—has badly tarnished its image and appeal in the eyes of Muslims around the world. Even bin Laden and his lieutenants knew this. His propagandist, Adam Gadahn, admitted that they were now seen “as a group that does not hesitate to take people’s money by falsehood, detonating mosques, [and] spilling the blood of scores of people.” Bin Laden agreed that “a large portion” of Muslims around the world “have lost their trust” in al-Qa’ida.

Killing women, children, and American teenagers seems to discredit everyone, whether they be terrorists or big powerful countries purportedly exercising a lot of caution when killing those women, children, and American teenagers.

This speech shows the Administration is trying to do something about the trust such behavior has caused us to lose. But given that they’ve just re-upped signature strikes, it’s not clear whether our government–as distinct from bin Laden–plan to address the underlying problem.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

10 replies
  1. SpanishInquisition says:

    “Nor is lethal action about punishing terrorists for past crimes; we are not seeking vengeance. Rather, we conduct targeted strikes because they are necessary to mitigate an actual ongoing threat — to stop plots, prevent future attacks, and save American lives.”

    So the Obama administration must have a few precogs stashed way in some DC basement in a department run by John Anderton.

  2. bmaz says:

    For example, when considering lethal force we ask ourselves whether the individual poses a significant threat to U.S. interests. This is absolutely critical, and it goes to the very essence of why we take this kind of exceptional action.

    Well, except for, of course, when that is not the case – such as the “signature strikes” Brennan specifically stated he was not discussing. Strikes where they do not necessarily even know who/what they are striking, but it seems suspicious so heave ho.

    As a result of my remarks today, I hope the American people have a better understanding of this critical tool—why we use it, what we do, how carefully we use it, and why it is absolutely essential to protecting our country and our citizens.

    Uh, no. Which is the answer to the question posed in your last sentence.

  3. What Constitution? says:

    At what point is somebody within the Obama Administration going to just step up to a microphone and acknowledge that the sheer nonsensical gibberish surrounding our “War on Terra” has collapsed on itself?

    The US government “cannot affirm or deny the existence” of a drone program, while the President jokes about it before the assembled press corps and on national TV and there is an open debate about “expanding” the program to non-specific strikes and no less an “informed” personage as Brennan gives an extensive interview about the prior iteration of the non-program to bolster “public admiration” for that which is neither the current parameters just approved nor, presumably, what the government would acknowledge in any “official” capacity?

    The US Department of Justice somehow just can’t seem to find anything wrong with dozens of torture session videotapes being destroyed, and not even the judge who ordered their preservation is interested enough to follow through — but when the statute of limitations runs and the bad guy in charge publishes a book (with CIA consent) that both acknowledges and brags about the intentional criminality he orchestrated, he gets put on 60 Minutes and nobody puts a microphone in front of the DOJ “public watchdogs” who covered their eyes to permit this?

    And Janice Rodgers Brown invokes The Wizard of Oz in a viscerally wretch-worthy and thoroughly snide railroading of a person seeking to get a fair hearing on a habeas petition — and the DOJ seeks to classify the rant on the apparent theory that if people knew how compliant some of our judiciary is here, they’d likely be pissed. If the standard for “classified” is bad literary allusion, the Rule of Law is in as much trouble as we think it is.

    It isn’t The Wizard of Oz that is the point of departure. It’s Through the Looking Glass.

    Oh, and David Ignatius has the President’s back for us, thank God for that. What’s left to leak to him for spinning?

  4. W says:

    The protestor was activist Medea Benjamin. Coincidentally, she’s releasing a book, “Drone Warfare” on the US’ use of drones this month. The outburst *should* have been a boon for her book sales, if only the reporters hadn’t been so lazy to not even bother to identify her. Surely, there was some sort of record of those in attendance?

    If you want to check out the book go here: http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/drone-warfare/

  5. emptywheel says:

    @W: Thanks. I was wondering if it was her, particularly since she did her conference this weekend. Very well executed on her part.

  6. MadDog says:

    “…Though perhaps the detail that most discredited Brennan’s claims came from a remarkably well timed outburst from a protestor, who interrupted Brennan to ask about the women and children our drones have killed; she named Abdulrahman al-Awlaki specifically…”

    I like watching the BBC News (channel 187 on Comcast in my area) and its general availability almost every hour of the day and night. They lead with Brennan’s speech this evening as well as video of the protester. Brennan’s speech itself is also the top story on their website.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Mr. Brennan bragging about the “transparency” of US government drone strikes – extra-judicial killings on an international scale – like his president’s dedication to being a hopey-changey guy, ought to be taken seriously only by those who want to work for them, to help them dress for dinner, and to wash their underwear in the manner of a competent valet in Downtown Abbey.

  8. jawbone says:

    Whoa! That was one big bruiser they brought in to literally carry her out! Video at link in MadDog’s comment.

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