Riyadh’s Station Chief, John Brennan, Takes JSOC’s Drone Keys Away

I think I’ve actually found a story in which John Brennan features but was probably not the original leaker: this one, describing how Brennan is centralizing all drone targeting decisions in the White House.

The Pentagon is likely to be sidelined from decisions on determining which terror leaders are targeted for attacks by drones. It’s a change that would concentrate the power to strike with lethal force outside war zones within one small team at the White House.

Let me make a few points about timing.

First, this leak comes on the same day the Obama Administration succeeded in hiding the “Gloves Come Off” Memorandum of Notification authorizing–in addition to torture–the targeted killing program. I suspect this means there will be less oversight from here on out.

In addition, the leak also comes just after the Administration asked for another month extension on their response to the drone FOIA. That’s funny, because the Administration was reportedly ready to start revealing details about military drone operations, but not CIA ones.

The changes considered most likely to win adoption would bring about greater openness regarding the military drone program, while keeping most or all details of CIA strikes classified, U.S. officials said. CIA officials are opposed to publicly acknowledging the details of drone programs under its control, for fear of setting precedents that could affect other covert programs.

Does this mean the Administration also wants to micromanage transparency, as well as targeting, in part by exerting more control over that part of the program that would be more transparent?

But the most interesting coincidence with this news is the expansion of signature strikes in Yemen. When Greg Miller first reported on the possibility of signature strikes in Yemen, he suggested that JSOC neither needed nor wanted that authority; it would be used with CIA alone.

The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed, U.S. officials said.


Some U.S. officials have voiced concern that such incidents could become more frequent if the CIA is given the authority to use signature strikes.

“How discriminating can they be?” asked a senior U.S. official familiar with the proposal. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen “is joined at the hip” with a local insurgency whose main goal is to oust the country’s government, the official said. “I think there is the potential that we would be perceived as taking sides in a civil war.”


The JSOC has broader authority than the CIA to pursue militants in Yemen and is not seeking permission to use signature strikes, U.S. officials said.

That was two days before the Saudis delivered us up an UndieBomb plot on April 20 to justify expanding our attacks in Yemen.

But when, five days after the Saudis delivered the UndieBomb plot (though still weeks before we’d learn about it), WSJ reported Obama had approved the signature strikes, the story said JSOC had asked for signature authority along with the CIA.

“This was an interagency decision made based on deliberations about the growing threat from AQAP and concerns about the safe haven,” a senior Obama administration official said. The White House is “broadening the aperture” for CIA and JSOC strikes, the official added.


The CIA and JSOC asked last year for broader targeting powers, however, which would include leeway to conduct what are known as “signature strikes,” in which targets are identified based on patterns of behavior, such as surveillance showing they are transporting weapons.


Recently the CIA and JSOC, citing the fears about an al Qaeda haven, renewed requests to the White House.

In other words, there have been conflicting reports about whether JSOC wanted to or would participate in signature strikes.

Since then, we’ve launched our big new assault on Yemen, including a drone strike that killed 8 civilians.

Then, just as our assault expands, John Brennan–perhaps along with his Saudi friends–decides we can’t exercise the level of caution that DOD has previously exercised.

Under the new plan, Brennan’s staff compiles the potential target list and runs the names past agencies such as the State Department at a weekly White House meeting, the officials said.Previously, targets were first discussed in meetings run by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen at the time, with Brennan being just one of the voices in the debate. Brennan ultimately would make the case to the president, but a larger number of officials would end up drawn into the discussion.


Some of the officials carrying out the policy are equally leery of “how easy it has become to kill someone,” one said. The U.S. is targeting al-Qaida operatives for reasons such as being heard in an intercepted conversation plotting to attack a U.S. ambassador overseas, the official said. Stateside, that conversation could trigger an investigation by the Secret Service or FBI.

The former Riyadh Station Chief, John Brennan, is now running an entire war out of the National Security Council.

I guess these guys are bored outdoing W, and are now aspiring to match Reagan’s level of hubris and abuse of power.

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.

16 replies
  1. bsbafflesbrains says:

    If the USA could not send an F-14 or an A-10 Warthog how can we send armed drones into any country without their permission?

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Team Obama has outdone Mr. Reagan’s patronage to the S&L Wunderkinder, by an order of magnitude, in patronizing Wall Street. I imagine that’s the least they aspire to do regarding outdoing Mr. Reagan’s team’s hubris and abuse of power. At least this administration would understand what the word means, not just what it is in practice.

  3. joanneleon says:

    The White House is “broadening the aperture” for CIA and JSOC strikes, the official added.

    Maybe this is a nitpick, but that is not at all like “broadening the aperture”. What a misleading euphemism. It’s more like changing the rules of the game altogether from making some kind of case against a particular person because of something they did because you have some kind of evidence, to saying that anyone wearing a purple shirt can be blown to bits.

  4. MadDog says:

    I was going to mention it at the time, but in the news of Brennan’s trip to meet with Yemen President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi a week ago, I was guessing that it was likely that since Brennan was in the neighborhood, he also met with the Saudis.

    Anyone want to bet that he didn’t?

    I didn’t think so.

  5. joanneleon says:

    Would I be displaying too much naivete if I expected that these authorizations are being documented and might be declassified someday?

  6. MadDog says:

    And to reaffirm Brennan is piloting everything in Yemen, from the White House today:

    Statement by the Press Secretary on John Brennan’s Call with President Hadi of Yemen

    “Today, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan called Yemeni President Abdo Rabu Mansour Hadi to convey President Obama’s deep condolences for the cowardly terrorist attack in Sana’a that brutally killed and injured more than 100 Yemeni soldiers. Mr. Brennan strongly condemned the despicable violence that struck as Yemen’s military forces were preparing to celebrate their country’s unity on Yemen’s National Day. Mr. Brennan offered U.S. assistance on the investigation into this tragic incident and said that the United States would stand by Yemen’s side at this difficult time. President Hadi thanked the United States for its support and vowed to continue his nation’s fight against al-Qa’ida so that the Yemeni people can live in a secure, stable, and prosperous environment that is free of terrorist violence. Mr. Brennan and President Hadi reaffirmed the unshakable partnership between Yemen and the United States, and President Hadi pledged not to let terrorist acts interfere with Yemen’s peaceful political transition.”

  7. joanneleon says:

    The guy was never elected to anything and never even confirmed by the Senate. He was appointed to a policy role. No military training or experience unless you count intel as military training. But from what little I know of the intel world, they don’t really have many rules for engaging in war.

    And now he is running wars. Remotely.

    Obama named him instead to be assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, a “policy role” — which conservative critics have condemned as one of the White House “czar” posts — that does not require Senate confirmation.

    It does have the feel of the Reagan years.

  8. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: Even AQAP recognizes that Brennan is in charge:

    “…In its statement Monday, al-Qaida said “our main battle is against America so don’t stand as a deterrent in the way or be tools or soldiers commanded by John Brennan and the American ambassador in Sanaa,” a reference to the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser who visited Yemen last week…”

  9. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And from Jeremy Scahill:

    “…The Nation‘s Jeremy Scahill, who’s been reporting on the escalating war in Yemen, told FRONTLINE the “boldness” and “scale” of today’s suicide attack was unprecedented. “This attack on the Yemeni military is clearly intended to send a message that the emperor has no clothes; that the US-backed Yemeni government is weak and unable to protect even its own forces,” he said. “It also reveals the strong autonomy AQAP sees itself as having, particularly after the death of bin Laden…”

    “…If it is AQAP behind the attacks, it’s their response to an intensifying U.S. war,” Scahill added. “The drones, the cruise missile attacks, and now the U.S. trainers, are a window into the future of U.S. policy in Yemen. And today’s suicide bomb and yesterday’s gun attack is a window into the future of AQAP’s policy.”

  10. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: Via UPI, the covert Military Assistance Command Yemen – MACY:

    “Yemeni forces can count on support from the U.S. military in its fight against al-Qaida in the country, a military official said.

    Salim Ali Qaten, head of Yemen’s southern military command, met in Aden with U.S. Gen. Kenneth Tovo, head of special operations for U.S. Central Command. Tovo, according to Yemen’s official Saba new agency, said Yemen’s military would get the support it needs to eliminate al-Qaida from the country.

    “Tovo said that the [cooperative] relations between the Yemeni and American armies would witness further development in the coming period,” the report stated…”

    (My Bold)

  11. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And via MSNBC:

    Stepped-up U.S. assistance for Yemen makes it an inviting terrorist target

    “A terror attack Monday on a Yemeni military parade that killed scores occurred amid increasing cooperation between the Yemen and U.S. governments, with the latter stepping up assistance to the Yemeni military and regularly targeting purported terrorist cells with drone strikes.

    The cooperation reflects a growing belief in U.S. national security circles that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni al-Qaida affiliate, is now a bigger and more dangerous threat than the central al-Qaida group in Pakistan.

    The cooperation is not limited to counter-terrorism. The U.S. is openly helping the new Yemeni government in counterinsurgency efforts against an AQAP-affiliated group, Ansar al-Sharia, in the south of the country. The assistance includes “a small contingent” of military trainers and intelligence officers assisting the Yemeni forces…

    …a senior U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity, said the AQAP’s successes in recent months give Washington little choice but to increase support for the new Yemeni government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

    “AQAP’s enhanced footprint in southern Yemen increases the chances that the group will establish a regional safe haven,” said the official. “This would be a dangerous development because AQAP’s anti-government fight and its terrorist plotting against the West are its two main goals. Unless its gains are reversed, AQAP will have more flexibility to conduct external attacks from a position of strength.”

    The Yemeni government position is about survival…”

  12. JThomason says:

    So taking this post with the last one I am gathering now the White House may now direct secret military operations without Constiutional scrutiny as a matter of policy. Not really sure about an appropriate way to respond to this development. American values have really shifted.

  13. Peterr says:

    Some U.S. officials have voiced concern that such incidents could become more frequent if the CIA is given the authority to use signature strikes.

    “How discriminating can they be?” asked a senior U.S. official familiar with the proposal. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen “is joined at the hip” with a local insurgency whose main goal is to oust the country’s government, the official said. “I think there is the potential that we would be perceived as taking sides in a civil war.”

    I can’t imagine why launching bombs at people would be potentially perceived as taking sides.

    There’s nothing potential about it — it’s 100% certain — and it’s not a question of perception, either.

  14. Peterr says:

    Oh, and speaking of Reagan . . .

    NATO leaders on Sunday gave the go-ahead for the new European missile shield, provoking anger in Russia. The US air base in Ramstein, western Germany, will host part of the system.

    The decision was made by 28 of the world’s most powerful leaders at the NATO summit in Chicago.

    Ah, Star Wars lives!

  15. emptywheel says:

    @Peterr: We’re also talking about a missile shield for the GCC in our new ramped up cooperation program with them.

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