John Brennan, Liar

Since Jo Becker co-wrote the Angler series in the WaPo with Barton Gellman, her long piece today with Scott Shane will be seen as the Obama version of that story: how he evades the law to pursue ruthless counterterrorism policies.

I’ll have more to say about the story later. But for now, let me note how it proves, pretty definitively, that John Brennan is a liar.

The story describes Obama being informed, just days after his confirmation, that a drone strike had killed civilians.

Just days after taking office, the president got word that the first strike under his administration had killed a number of innocent Pakistanis. “The president was very sharp on the thing, and said, ‘I want to know how this happened,’ “ a top White House adviser recounted.

Now, who do you suppose informed Obama of this (see update below–it was Michael Hayden)? And who do you suppose was involved in discussions of it? I find it inconceivable to believe that John Brennan was out of the loop on that news, particularly as Obama responded by using less powerful missiles for drones to lessen collateral damage. John Brennan learned, in the first days of the Administration, that we had killed civilians.

And yet Brennan repeatedly and publicly has claimed there had been no civilian casualties.

The NYT story acknowledges Brennan’s comments (and probably quotes him again, anonymously, in this passage).

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

If Brennan is indeed that anonymous source, then it means NYT presented evidence he lied his ass off–though didn’t call him on it–and then went back to him for more bullshit lies.

The story seems to accept as serious the funny accounting the Administration uses to pretend civilian drone deaths didn’t happen.

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

But others (I’m guessing Dennis Blair is one of these) recognize this is all phony accounting.

The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

I guess it’s opposition like this that causes the White House to bring its drone war into the White House, to be overseen solely by John Brennan, so they can continue to pretend that all the dead teenage boys (including, of course, US citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who would also be counted as a fighter using these rules) were our enemies.

Update: Here’s TBIJ’s description of that strike.

The first Obama fatal strike killed between seven and twelve people, reported initially as ‘foreign militants’. In a later report personally given to Obama by his then-CIA chief General Hayden, the Agency admitted missing its high value target and killing ‘five al Qaeda militants’, but made no mention of civilian deaths (Bob Woodward). However Newsweek reported in May 2012 that the President was made aware that civilians had diedalmost immediately.

Between seven and eleven civilians, mostly of one family and including one child, reportedly died. Another boy survived with terrible injuries, as Der Spiegel reported at the time: ’14-year-old Fahim Qureshi, lost his left eye, suffered a fractured skull and was hit by several shards in the stomach.’ In February 2012 Pakistan lawyer Mirza Shahzad Akbar filed a case with the UN Human Rights Council citing this attack amongst others:

Ejaz Ahmad is a resident of Hasu Khel, North Wazir Ali, North Waziristan, Pakistan. On Friday, January 23, 2009, he was in the village of Hasu Khel. 3-4 kilometers away, in the village of Zeraki, his cousin, Faheem Qureshi, and a number of his other relatives were gathered at the house of Mohammad Khaleel, a retired school teacher. Also present were Khaleel’s son and Qureshi’s 8th grade classmate [14-year old] Azaz-ur-RehmanMansoor-ur-Rehman, a teacher at the boys’ school in Zeraki; and Kushdil Khan, Ahmad’s maternal uncle who owned a hardware store in Meer Ali. In addition, Ubaid Ullah, Rafiq Ullah, and Safat Ullah were also present [described elsewhere as farmers].

At around 5 PM that day, a missile struck the house, reducing it to rubble and killing everyone inside except Faheem Qureshi. Qureshi suffered the loss of an eye, and was struck in the stomach by shrapnel, requiring a major operation. He also suffered a skull fracture and damage to his ear drum, resulting in the loss of hearing in one ear. Upon hearing the blast from his nearby village Hasu Khel, Ahmad immediately went to the scene of the strike. He found only the bodies of those listed above. There were no foreign nationals at the house and none of his relatives had any connection to terrorism or terrorist activity; they were innocent villagers.

The Bureau’s researchers added a further four names identified as civilians and reportedly killed in the strike: ‘ShamsNoorMajid, and Siraj. They belonged to the Dawar tribe. Siraj was the nephew of former Member of Parliament, Maulana Muhammad Deendar, from North Waziristan . He belonged to the religious party, JUI-F.

Location: Zharki, Mir Ali, North Waziristan.

Was Woodward relying on that proven liar, John Brennan, 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.

18 replies
  1. JThomason says:

    The cannard with civilian drone kills that stikes me as the most non-sensical is that because the civilians are not the intended targets there is no moral culpability in these collateral casualties. And this in the face that civilian deaths are a known risk of these attacks.

    Though a secondary consequence the militarization of the White House strikes me as eqaully as troubling now where the Constitutional understanding of military command has always encompassed an idea of civilian control of the militaries. The erosion of civil mores is a clear degeneration. But the public discourse does not readily engage these discussions.

    And one can not hope that these topics will be broached in any kind of meaningful way until the suicide statistics within the military are understood.

    The two questions which strike me as pressing are 1) what about American values justifies the collateral killing of foreign civilians and 2)what is the moral dimension of a military command that engenders a force which suffers greater casualties at its own hand than at the hand of the enemy?

    And finally I wonder what about the facts that evoke these queries suggests modern enlightened democratic leadership?

    With leaders who spurn these foundational existential inquries not much is left to the People.

  2. allan says:

    Jefferson Morley has a piece at Salon this morning, which includes:

    “In a talk at Columbia University Law School last October, [CIA General Counsel Stephen] Preston insisted that all decisions in cases of lethal force complied with “the four basic principles in the law of armed conflict governing the use of force: Necessity, Distinction, Proportionality, and Humanity.” ”

    Perhaps some of these words have a different meaning under international law than they do in Webster’s.

  3. JTM says:

    I was beginning to worry that the trick of declaring all dead to be terrorists and/or combatants unless and until it is proven that they aren’t (afterwards) could backfire, since, as you and others have shown, it isn’t all that difficult to show that many of the dead were not terrorists and/or combatants. But then I remembered how things work these days and relaxed: those trying to show that the dead were innocent civilians will, obviously, not have standing, so their evidence can and will be ignored.

    (I wish I could append a “tee hee,” but I can’t.)

  4. Peterr says:

    From Becker and Shane’s piece:

    A few sharp-eyed observers inside and outside the government understood what the public did not. Without showing his hand, Mr. Obama had preserved three major policies — rendition, military commissions and indefinite detention — that have been targets of human rights groups since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

    I think they are talking about Marcy and the crew here at Emptywheel.

    Buried deep in the piece, under the heading “The Ultimate Test” comes this:

    The president “was very interested in obviously trying to understand how a guy like Awlaki developed,” said General Jones. The cleric’s fiery sermons had helped inspire a dozen plots, including the shootings at Fort Hood. Then he had gone “operational,” plotting with Mr. Abdulmutallab and coaching him to ignite his explosives only after the airliner was over the United States.

    That record, and Mr. Awlaki’s calls for more attacks, presented Mr. Obama with an urgent question: Could he order the targeted killing of an American citizen, in a country with which the United States was not at war, in secret and without the benefit of a trial?

    The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared a lengthy memo justifying that extraordinary step, asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.

    King George III must be spinning in his grave. “Why didn’t I think of that when those pesky colonials started getting all hot and bothered about lack of jury trials and such in all those endless petitions they sent me. Why didn’t I just say ‘You get due process through the internal deliberations of my royal advisers’?”

    And Michael Hayden (yes, that Michael Hayden) hit this one on the head:

    “This program rests on the personal legitimacy of the president, and that’s not sustainable,” Mr. Hayden said. “I have lived the life of someone taking action on the basis of secret O.L.C. memos, and it ain’t a good life. Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a D.O.J. safe.”

    If Michael Hayden, of all people, thinks this way . . .

  5. ondelette says:

    The problem stems from having a secretive civilian organization, the CIA, do military strikes in the first place. It changes the application of the law, it changes the applicable law, it changes who reviews the law, who applies the law, and to whom, if anyone, the participants are accountable. Nobody seems to want to listen to that complaint anymore, but it’s still, and will still be, the place from which the problems start.

  6. greengiant says:

    @ondelette: At least the CIA has a framework doesn’t it? I suspect the carve outs, the black budget, the black operations all under unique need to know secrecy classifications whether under the CIA or the JSOC and USSOCOM. Who would Chaney have turned to?

    Once the organization is captured, whether DOJ, CIA, DOD or whatever, then the treason is elementary to carry out.

    The carve outs seem to have been going on since before Amelia Earhart, with the infiltrations of China in the 50s sticking out more than most.

  7. kathleen says:

    @JThomason: “The cannard with civilian drone kills that stikes me as the most non-sensical is that because the civilians are not the intended targets there is no moral culpability in these collateral casualties. And this in the face that civilian deaths are a known risk of these attacks.”

    Seems like the U.S. and Israel use this way to slip out the accountability back door over and over again.

    Clearly “massacres” are not equal in the eyes of the U.S. and Israel In Iraq those killed were barely whispered about. In the Gaza the thousands of Palestinians killed was based on “national security.

  8. liberalrob says:

    @Peterr: It doesn’t matter what he thinks. It matters what he does. The dead civilians don’t care about Michael Hayden’s or anyone else’s moral agonizing as they continue to push the buttons to launch the missiles.

  9. ondelette says:


    No, they don’t have a framework, not in international law. That’s the point. They operate within international law the way wingnuts operate within Biblical law, kinda pick and choose, so does the DOJ. Generate an opinion that will let us do this. By contrast, the military is the party that is the main subject of the conventions, and was ordered by the Supreme Court in the 1940s to come up with a system of justice leading the Vanderbilt Commission and the UCMJ.

    The CIA doesn’t really implement the principles that Preston chirps about. They ask the DOJ to come up with substitutes for them.

    Do you recognize the criterion about the military age males? At Kohat and Haripur and at the border in 2001 after Tora Bora, the CIA was separating all such males with foreign (non-Pakistani or Afghan) passports off with the aid of the Pakistani security. If they were on a high-value list, they went to black sites, otherwise they went to Guantánamo. The logic was that if they were foreign born and military age and coming across the border from Afghanistan at that moment, they were al Qaeda or Taliban. If not, what were they doing there?

    That isn’t the principle of distinction at all. That’s Cheney’s one percent solution.

    Since they also are using a nexus of clues for their ‘signature’ strikes, and since the article kindly provided that the entire moral authority of the administration was tipped into the ash bin in favor of the health care initiative, they should take a clue from that health care initiative and use ‘evidence-based’ information.

    Those ‘one percent’ prisoners yielded 80 percent innocents. So arguing by induction, if they are using the same logic for their drone calculations for civilian casualties, one would assume that 80 percent of the casualties would qualify as civilians, since the CIA used the same logic and we have a previous test sample of 770 prisoners, giving a margin of error of about plus-minus 4 percent.

  10. SpanishInquisition says:

    @JThomason: “And this in the face that civilian deaths are a known risk of these attacks.”

    Actually it’s worse than that. The Obama administration is basically saying that a woman deserved to be raped – and in fact she’s the guilty one – because she was dressed provactively at a bar. The administration is basically saying its the civilians fault for having been born in these foreign countries, so they’re guilty because of where they live and where they shop – that’s Obama’s Due Process is Full Metal Jacket insanity.

  11. SpanishInquisition says:

    @Peterr: Obama should read the Declaration of Independence sometime, though he probably has just he simply doesn’t care:
    “He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.”
    “For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury”

  12. Bob Schacht says:

    “I guess it’s opposition like this that causes the White House to bring its drone war into the White House, to be overseen solely by John Brennan, so they can continue to pretend that all the dead teenage boys (including, of course, US citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who would also be counted as a fighter using these rules) were our enemies.”

    So Brennan serves simultaneously as prosecutor, Judge, and jury, while the objects of their ire have no defense whatsoever. This is one of the most disturbing pieces of the whole policy. There is NO ONE in the loop to refute any of Brennan’s indictments.

    I suspect that one of the things Bush and Obama talked about was, “forget the Constitution. All anyone cares about today is safety and security.” Wherever he is, Ben Franklin is weeping.

    Bob in AZ

  13. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Your title is redundant, but thanks for your work in pointing out examples of why.

    I do think that, in the end, these related stories are about Mr. Obama. Unlike Shrub, whom Cheney could easily dominate, Mr. Obama determines his agenda, his staffing, his priorities, and how they are carried out. He hired Brennan and uses him for specific purposes: for his expertise, his bureaucrat power, his ability to dominate and intimidate, his willingness to kill at a distance and lie about it effortlessly. There’s nothing about Mr. Obama that is overwhelmed or persuaded in this; this behavior is now a routine (and electorally popular) prerogative of American executive power, to which Mr. Obama has consistently aspired.

  14. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @Peterr: As Andrew Bacevich has often pointed out, Mr. Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech was a declaration that he took his imperial powers seriously and would not hesitate to use them against those who failed promptly to get with the program. That his hearers sat dumbfounded was testament to their lack of hearing, to their credulousness or to the Nobel committee’s.

  15. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @Bob Schacht: If Mr. Obama wanted others besides Brennan and his staff in the loop, we’d have them. This has the earmarks of Pilate washing his hands while congratulating his staff for doing their work so brutally, and for allowing him to appear to be in charge but not responsible for what they do.

  16. klynn says:

    Thank for the post EW.

    “…so they can continue to pretend…”

    Sadly, that is the motive of this negative sum game.

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