Angler 2.0: Brennan Wields His Puppet Strings Differently

As I said earlier, the parallel between the Jo Becker/Scott Shane Angler 2.0 story and the earlier series by Becker and Barton Gellman is hard to miss.

But I’m very interested in how the stories are structured differently. With Angler 1.0, the story was very clearly about Dick Cheney and the methods he used to manipulate Bush into following his advice. Here, the story is really about John Brennan, Obama’s Cheney, portrayed deep in thought and foregrounding Obama in the article’s picture. Indeed, halfway through, the story even gives biographical background on Brennan, the classic “son of Irish immigrants” story, along with Harold Koh’s dubious endorsement of Brennan’s “moral rectitude.”

But instead of telling the story of John Brennan, Obama’s Cheney, the story pitches Obama as the key decision-maker–a storyline Brennan has always been one of the most aggressive pitchmen for, including when he confirmed information on the Anwar al-Awlaki strike he shouldn’t have. In a sense, then, Brennan has done Cheney one better: seed a story of his own power, but sell it as a sign of the President’s steeliness.

The Silent Sources for the Story

I already pointed out how, after presenting unambiguous evidence of Brennan’s past on-the-record lies, the story backed off calling him on it.

But there are other ways in which this story shifts the focus away from Brennan.

A remarkable number of the sources for the story spoke on the record: Tom Donilon, Cameron Munter, Dennis Blair, Bill Daley, Jeh Johnson, Michael Hayden, Jim Jones, Harold Koh, Eric Holder, Michael Leiter, John Rizzo, and John Bellinger. But it’s not until roughly the 3,450th word of a 6,000 word article that Brennan is first quoted–and that’s to largely repeat the pre-emptive lies of his drone speech from last month.

“The purpose of these actions is to mitigate threats to U.S. persons’ lives,” Mr. Brennan said in an interview. “It is the option of last recourse. So the president, and I think all of us here, don’t like the fact that people have to die. And so he wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous checklist: The infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.”

That is the only on-the-record direct quote from Brennan in the entire article, in spite of the centrality of Brennan to the story.

And I would bet several of the sources quoted anonymously in the section describing Obama’s method of counting the dead (which still ignores the women and children) are Brennan: “a top White House adviser” describing how sharp Obama was in the face of the first civilian casualties; “a senior administration official” claiming, in the face of credible evidence to the contrary, that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan were in “single digits.”

Note, too, the reference to a memo his campaign national security advisors wrote him.

“Pragmatism over ideology,” his campaign national security team had advised in a memo in March 2008. It was counsel that only reinforced the president’s instincts.

The memo was written not long after Brennan started playing a more central role among Obama’s campaign advisors. But the story makes no mention of his presumed role in it. Further, in describing Jeh Johnson to introduce a quote, the piece notes that he was “a campaign adviser” (it doesn’t say Johnson was also focused on voter protection). But it does not note that Brennan, too, was a key campaign advisor, one with an exclusively national security focus.

Nor does the story note, when it describes how Obama “deployed his legal skills … to preserve trials in civilian courts” it was John Brennan making that case, not the Attorney General.

In other words, in several places in this story, Brennan plays a key role that is downplayed.

The Pro-Drone Narrator

Given that fact, I’m really interested in the several places where the story adopts a pro-drone viewpoint (it does adopt a more critical stance in the narrative voice at the end).

For example, the story claims, in the first part of the story, that the drone strikes “have eviscerated Al Qaeda” without presenting any basis for that claim. This, in spite of the fact that al Qaeda has expanded in Yemen since we’ve started hitting it with drones.

Later, the article uncritically accepts the claim that the drone–regardless of the targeting that goes into using it–is a “precision weapon” that constitutes a rejection of a “false choice between our safety and our ideals.”

The care that Mr. Obama and his counterterrorism chief take in choosing targets, and their reliance on a precision weapon, the drone, reflect his pledge at the outset of his presidency to reject what he called the Bush administration’s “false choice between our safety and our ideals.”

For fucks sake! This article describes how the White House has adopted a “guilt by association” approach to drone targeting. It describes renamed signature strikes (though presents what is almost certainly an outdated picture of the targeting review process). Yet it uncritically accepts this “precision” claim–which clearly reflects a source’s judgment–as true.

Finally, a potentially even bigger bias is in the presentation of the al-Majala strike on December 17, 2009.

It killed not only its intended target, but also two neighboring families, and left behind a trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more innocents. It was hardly the kind of precise operation that Mr. Obama favored. Videos of children’s bodies and angry tribesmen holding up American missile parts flooded You Tube, fueling a ferocious backlash that Yemeni officials said bolstered Al Qaeda.

The sloppy strike shook Mr. Obama and Mr. Brennan, officials said, and once again they tried to impose some discipline.

The story doesn’t name who the target was; it says only that the strike killed him, and the NYT repeats the claim without asking for such details.

As I have noted, though, sources speaking immediately after the strike explained the target struck where “an imminent attack against a U.S. asset was being planned.” (The quotes here are from the source, not the ABC report.) There was, of course, an imminent attack being planned at the time, one about which we had at least some advance intelligence. That was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attack. I’m pretty sure the strike on a Yemeni site 10 days after he left the country missed him, though.

These last two quotes–perhaps all three–look like comments a White House figure (and it’ll surprise no one that I suspect it’s Brennan) gave on deep background, such that his exact words are used, but without quotation marks or any indication of the source. Credible journalists would have no other reason to make such unsubstantiated claims, particularly the “precision” claim that they disprove elsewhere in the same article.

Who Okayed Killing Mehsud’s Wife?

Ultimately, the depiction of John Brennan as Obama’s puppetmaster is most interesting in the telling of Baitullah Mehsud’s killing. This version conflicts in key ways from the story that Joby Warrick told in his book, starting with the uranium claim that provided the excuse for targeting him. And while I’m working from memory, I believe Warrick portrayed the approval of that killing–which might kill Mehsud’s wife in addition to Mehsud–as involving Panetta alone. This version says Panetta consulted Obama–through Brennan.

Then, in August 2009, the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, told Mr. Brennan that the agency had Mr. Mehsud in its sights. But taking out the Pakistani Taliban leader, Mr. Panetta warned, did not meet Mr. Obama’s standard of “near certainty” of no innocents being killed. In fact, a strike would certainly result in such deaths: he was with his wife at his in-laws’ home.

“Many times,” General Jones said, in similar circumstances, “at the 11th hour we waved off a mission simply because the target had people around them and we were able to loiter on station until they didn’t.”

But not this time. Mr. Obama, through Mr. Brennan, told the C.I.A. to take the shot, and Mr. Mehsud was killed, along with his wife and, by some reports, other family members as well, said a senior intelligence official.

I’m not surprised by (or critical of) the conflict in the stories. It seems like Warrick relied primarily on CIA sources telling a packaged version of the strike, while this story tells another packaged version of it. (Note, curiously, Panetta is only named in this passage and never quoted.)

But I am struck by how obviously this story–whether filtered through Brennan as a direct source for this story, or filtered through Brennan for Panetta’s consumption at the time–depends on John Brennan to narrate Obama’s role. If he weren’t involved somehow, the NYT wouldn’t have included the “through Mr. Brennan.” And while the detail doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things–Mehsud’s wife’s death will weigh no more or less against Obama’s and Brennan’s record than Abdulrahman al-Awlaki or the Bedouin women and children at al-Majala–it is a testament to the degree to which this story, and so many of those cited in this article, depend on Brennan narrating Obama’s role.

As I’ll show in a later post, I think this story is an attempt to combat the picture of John Brennan’s private signature strike shop that has developed over the last month. Perhaps it’s even a way to protect himself by implicating the President, as Brennan’s old boss George Tenet did with torture. Perhaps, too, this article (which given the number of on-the-record quotes, must be sanctioned) is meant to add to the campaign’s portrayal of Obama as a fearless counterterrorism warrior.

But I’m just as fascinated by the way that Angler 2.0 managed to wield puppet strings for the story about himself, too.

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.

12 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    Like you EW, I got the sense that this NYT story was the product of a number of different motivations.

    There is clearly an attempt to sell the Team Obama Campaign 2012 political viewpoint of a steely-eyed leader astride his charging steed slaying the nation’s enemies left and right.

    There is clearly an attempt by Father John, Blabbermouth of Brennan to sanctify his patron Saint Obama (and no less sanctify himself).

    There are a number of attempts by lesser Doubting Thomases to question the sanctity of both Saint Obama and Father John.

    There is a certain amount of seemingly NYT editorial tut-tutting as well as cheerleading.

    In the end, it seems to me that Team Obama Campaign 2012 narrative was the overarching theme, and a somewhat defensive one at that.

    By that I mean, the campaign narrative seemed to say that even if Obama hasn’t done much of anything else, not much to get Americans back to work, not much to keep Americans in their homes, not much to calm the waters and heal the American political discourse, at least the American voting public can rest assured that he’s personally taken charge of the nation’s war on terrorism and has been slaying the dragons wherever they’ve appeared.

  2. MadDog says:

    In conjunction with today’s NYT piece, may I suggest also reading today’s Daniel Klaidman excerpt of his book Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency:

    Drones: How Obama Learned to Kill

    “…At the Pentagon even Johnson felt stressed by the institutional impulse to always do more, not less. Like Koh, he wondered whether he could withstand the heavy pressure exerted by the military to expand operations. After approving his first targeted killings one evening, he watched the digital images of the strike in real time—“Kill TV,” the military calls the live battlefield feed. Johnson could see the shadowy images of militants running drills in a training camp in Yemen. Then suddenly there was a bright flash. The figures that had been moving across the screen were gone. Johnson returned to his Georgetown home around midnight that evening, drained and exhausted. Later there were reports from human-rights groups that dozens of women and children had been killed in the attacks, reports that a military source involved in the operation termed “persuasive.” Johnson would confide to others, “If I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession…”

  3. joanneleon says:

    @MadDog: I got the same impression — an attempt to sanctify them both.

    I think it was an attempt to push back against memes like “Assassination Czar” which hit a little too close to home. In this article they attempt to say “It is not assassination and Brennan is not the czar”.

    The political image that we are supposed to hold is that the evidence and circumstances for each and every person targeted is carefully considered and the president labors over each decision. And that Brennan is the moral and loyal advisor with decades of experience in such matters, trusted and at his side giving him the information he needs to make these careful decisions but is not running the program himself. There is a huge conference held every week and everyone’s input is considered!

  4. MadDog says:

    @joanneleon: The Daniel Klaidman excerpt continues that same theme of “we try real hard not to kill the wrong folks” all the while killing a bunch of unknown folks.

  5. joanneleon says:

    New York Times:

    Judge Gives Taylor 50 Years for ‘Heinous’ Crimes in War

    The judge presiding over the sentencing in an international criminal court near The Hague said Mr. Taylor had been found guilty of “aiding and abetting, as well as planning, some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history” and that the lengthy prison term underscored his position at the top of government during that period.

    “Leadership must be carried out by example by the prosecution of crimes, not the commission of crimes,” the judge, Richard Lussick, said in a statement read before the court.

    Mr. Taylor was the first head of state convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

    BBC:

    Liberia ex-leader Charles Taylor get 50 years in jail

    Last month Taylor was found guilty of aiding and abetting rebels in Sierra Leone during the 1991-2002 civil war.

    [ … ]

    “While Mr Taylor never set foot in Sierra Leone, his heavy footprint is there,” the judge said.

    “The lives of many more innocent civilians in Sierra Leone were lost or destroyed as a direct result of his actions,” he said.

    In its landmark ruling in April, the court found Taylor guilty on 11 counts, relating to atrocities that included rape and murder.

  6. orionATL says:

    “pragmatism over ideology” =

    the end justifies the means =

    john brennan’s (or obama’s) public lying is o.k., even warranted, if it furthers “the cause”,

    which cause may be described as extinguishing every last molecule of al-q dna while simultaneously re-electing barrack, the terminator, obama.

  7. Ray Gonda says:

    Before I read any of the detailed articles referenced in this piece, I will simply state that I am an advocate of targeted assassinations – notwithstanding the international legality issue (legal of not) even though I see a contradiction in values in my aversion to torture as practiced under Bush/Cheney and Obama’s support for assassinations. But why?
    I support continued drone attacks though perhaps the decision-making process could be better worked out – hard to say – given the role that secrecy necessarily plays in such matters. We all saw how so few weer informed about the Osama take-out event and the reasons for it.

    I support the program because there are few ,if any, ways to bring those who are targeted to account. Courts would have an extremely difficult if not impossible task of “proving’ guilt – that is, if we could , in the first place, catch them alive – an unlikely happenstance. Also, there are not courts in existence that I am aware of that can even remotely deal with this issue except the International Court of Justice (which we have not signed up for for obvious reasons) and deals mainly with crimes against humanity such as genocide.
    targeted
    Yet these persons are are assumed to be enemies of our nation and are trying to do us fatal harm – that much is also obvious. So until a more perfect and more importantly, more effective system can be put in place (doubtful) I will support the drone attacks. It has been extraordinarily effective to date and if anything thing we should increase the effort where needed. I would rather see that rather than sending in special ops troops for capture operations, troops whose lives would be at very high risk as well as there being a chance of risking international incidents – then have little or no proof for a court conviction. And finally where would we house these persons if we captured them?

    The answer is Guantanamo – the only likely place, since the Republicans got their civilian troops out to protest housing them within our nation – in order to maintain Guantanamo as THE detention facility of choice.

    So until I hear some viable solutions coming our of these “left wing” writers I will tend to dismiss their arguments and sentiment as not being of any immediate practicality – even though they are idealistic sentiments.

    One could always posit that we simply withdraw from the world and become isolationist and start pulling all of our own oil out of the ground to continue functioning, or go almost fully renewable (which I would support but which the Republicans would never allow) – then we wouldn’t need all this foreign intrigue stuff. But we’ve already seen where such sentiments have gotten us so far. Joe Public would not allow this unless the price was less than oil.

    So all you hand-wringing souls who decry the program – what would do about these “terrorists”.

  8. emptywheel says:

    @Ray Gonda: Thanks for commenting.

    I would make a distinction you’re not making.

    There are legitimate targets. And then there are patterns we’re targeting. The latter is, contrary to your claims, not effective. So to start, I’d get rid of signature strikes, which are creating more terrorists than they’re killing.

    Also, I would both raise the standard for targets and show more respect for sovereignty. I’ve argued extensively that by demonstrating to citizens of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia that their governments don’t have sovereignty, we’ve made those governments weaker. Unsurprisingly.

    A drone is not itself the problem (though it is prone to such problems in a way other tools are not). It is the way our government is wielding them (without, as Dennis Blair noted, a larger strategy to use them in) that is a problem.

  9. klynn says:

    @emptywheel:

    Great analysis EW. And your point in the comment I am replying to is spot on.

    BTW,

    “As I’ll show in a later post, I think this story is an attempt to combat the picture of John Brennan’s private signature strike shop that has developed over the last month. Perhaps it’s even a way to protect himself by implicating the President, as Brennan’s old boss George Tenet did with torture. Perhaps, too, this article (which given the number of on-the-record quotes, must be sanctioned) is meant to add to the campaign’s portrayal of Obama as a fearless counterterrorism warrior.”

    Great point.

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