The Moral Rectitude Assassination Czar

Back in April and May, when John Brennan seized control of the drone targeting process purportedly in the interest of “showing the American public that al-Qaida targets are chosen only after painstaking and exhaustive debate,” an extensive NYT articleproviding a picture of drone targeting as done before Brennan had consolidated control of it–described Brennan in religious terms. Among other descriptions offered of the guy in charge of drone assassinations, Harold Koh described him as a priest.

“If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude,” Mr. Koh said. “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”

That same formulation–moral rectitude–shows up in Karen DeYoung’s profile of John Brennan today.

Some White House aides describe him as a nearly priest-like presence in their midst, with a moral depth leavened by a dry, Irish wit.

One CIA colleague, former general counsel John Rizzo, recalled his rectitude surfacing in unexpected ways. Brennan once questioned Rizzo’s use of the “BCC” function in the agency’s e-mail system to send a blind copy of a message to a third party without the primary recipient’s knowledge.

“He wasn’t joking,” Rizzo said. “He regarded that as underhanded.”

That’s not all that surprising. After all, DeYoung may have talked to Koh for this article, or “moral rectitude” may just be a well rehearsed line inside the White House.

Having anyone question Rizzo’s ethics, however, is no evidence of moral rectitude.

Indeed, the article–and the last set of similar articles–suggests Brennan does not exercise the moral rectitude the anonymous White House sources claim. Last time around, after all, the articles told how Brennan shut down signature strikes and war in Yemen. But by the time the articles came out, he had approved them.

This time around, the article notes Brennan’s belief CIA shouldn’t be in the paramilitary business, but approved such activities operating out of Djibouti. He is about to approve more drones because Petraeus wants them rather than fixing our HUMINT weaknesses. Similarly, Brennan’s moral rectitude on Mali involvement has faded.

It’s in light of this false myth of Brennan’s moral rectitude that I want to look more closely at the most remarked lines of this story.

In them, an anonymous Administration official seemingly shows regret for the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki (as I noted at the time, the big profiles in May both were utterly silent about Abdulrahman).

Two administration officials said that CIA drones were responsible for two of the most controversial attacks in Yemen in 2011 — one that killed American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a prominent figure in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and a second a few days later that killed his 16-year-old son, also an American citizen. One of the officials called the second attack “an outrageous mistake. . . . They were going after the guy sitting next to him.”

Note, last year, Greg Miller reported JSOC carried out the Abdulrahman strike.

On Sept. 30, Awlaki was killed in a missile strike carried out by the CIA under Title 50 authorities — which govern covert intelligence operations — even though officials said it was initially unclear whether an agency or JSOC drone had delivered the fatal blow. A second U.S. citizen, an al-Qaeda propagandist who had lived in North Carolina, was among those killed.

The execution was nearly flawless, officials said. Nevertheless, when a similar strike was conducted just two weeks later, the entire protocol had changed. The second attack, which killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, was carried out by JSOC under Title 10 authorities that apply to the use of military force.

The detail matters, because ongoing FOIAs for information on Abdulrahman’s death face a higher bar if CIA carried out the attack than if JSOC did (Brennan’s laughable claim to want DOD to carry out these strikes so they will be transparent is another of the instances in the story where his moral rectitude proves infinitely flexible).

But it’s the statement itself–“an outrageous mistake. . . . They were going after the guy sitting next to him”–that I find even more laughable. Partly it’s word choice. Who says “outrageous mistake”? Normally, you’d expect someone to say “horrible mistake,” because if it’s a “mistake” then there’s no intent or poor judgment to get outraged about (unless the targeting here, overseen by Brennan personally, was particularly incompetent–but that’s the kind of thing these Kill List articles assure us could never happen).

Besides, according to the rules exposed in the last set of Kill List articles, Abdulrahman qualifies as a legitimate target. He’s a military aged male. Therefore, according to the rules of targeting, hitting him wasn’t a mistake at all. He was a militant considered an acceptable target by the moral rectitude Assassination Czar.

And all that’s before you consider that every other American killed by drones–Kamal Derwish, who purportedly died as “collateral damage” in the Abu Ali al-Harithi strike; Anwar al-Awlaki, who was first missed on December 24, 2009 in a strike purportedly targeting someone else, WikiLeaks evidence to the contrary notwithstanding (at a time when the Intelligence Community didn’t consider Awlaki operational); and Samir Khan, who died as collateral damage in the Awlaki strike–were or were going to be collateral damage at one point. That’s a lot of collaterally damaged inconvenient Americans.

Do people at the White House regret that they keep getting questions about the dead American teenager? Do they regret the almost nonexistent political fallout that has resulted? Do they feel a tinge of guilt that their rules make killing a teenager legal? Perhaps.

But the performance of morality in the Abdulrahman statement–like the moral rectitude rehearsed once again in a John Brennan article–is unconvincing.

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.

24 replies
  1. joanneleon says:

    Brennan’s moral rectitude also did not prevent him from lying his face off about precision drone strikes that have never killed an innocent civilian.

    Maybe his moral rectitude caused him to back pedal on that later after a lot of pushback in the media, but I’m not counting on that.

    This propaganda is f’ing ridiculous. A priest? And since when would that make people feel warm and fuzzy? These propaganda mongers need to get caught up on American culture and the news and get out from inside that bubble.

  2. Bart Hawkins Kreps says:

    By their rules, it’s not a mistake to blow up a teenage boy alongside the “target”, because he’s a “fighting age male” and therefore guilty by definition. But it might be a “mistake” to blow up an American teenager whose name is known and whose death might receive significant adverse publicity in the US.

  3. joanneleon says:

    In fact that meme is so bad that Brennan had to have done that all by his Irish Catholic self.

    (Disclaimer: I come from a very large extended and mostly Irish Catholic family.)

  4. joanneleon says:

    And… in the Warrior President article, it was reported that he found the Awlaki kill decision to be “an easy one”.

    When he applies his lawyering skills to counterterrorism, it is usually to enable, not constrain, his ferocious campaign against Al Qaeda — even when it comes to killing an American cleric in Yemen, a decision that Mr. Obama told colleagues was “an easy one.”

  5. Julie says:

    When the average American no longer has the capacity to accurately judge character, fascism is inevitable. Getting uppity over a bcc isn’t about “morals”, it is about being a control freak, which usually indicates a darker pathology beneath the surface. Someone who casually assassinates people outside the rule of law is on a whole different level of pathologically and incurably sick.

  6. Bart Hawkins Kreps says:

    A “priest” who not only has secret authoritative writings, his own staff of enhanced inquisitors, but also the world’s finest armaments — wow, we haven’t had that kind of moral authority for centuries.

  7. harpie says:


    Press Release: The Detainee Policies
    05:00am New York Time (EDT), (10:00am London time (BST)) Thursday, 25th October 2012

    Starting today, Thursday, 25th October 2012, WikiLeaks begins releasing the ’Detainee Policies’: more than 100 classified or otherwise restricted files from the United States Department of Defense covering the rules and procedures for detainees in U.S. military custody. Over the next month, WikiLeaks will release in chronological order the United States’ military detention policies followed for more than a decade. The documents include the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) of detention camps in Iraq and Cuba, interrogation manuals and Fragmentary Orders (FRAGOs) of changes to detainee policies and procedures. A number of the ’Detainee Policies’ relate to Camp Bucca in Iraq, but there are also Department of Defense-wide policies and documents relating to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and European U.S. Army Prison facilities. […]

  8. prostratedragon says:

    I wonder what Don Gaetano would think of Brennan’s priestliness.

    Don Gaetano is a self-described “bad priest” who presides over religious retreats for the most powerful in the 1976 film Todo Modo. In this brief scene he shows his charges how to extract all the spiritual energy in the room by doing Rosary wind sprints:

    Todo Modo — Il Sancto Rosario

    (The small man with the white coat is one of the retreat center’s cooks. The exercise for the next day of the retreat: Meditations on Hell.)

  9. What Constitution? says:

    “Moral rectitude” comes in handy when arrogating all power to one person, because it provides reassurance that the guy with all that moral recitudeness is going to always be right and therefore doesn’t need to explain. Of course, it may also tend to justify, in the morally rectitudinous fellow’s mind, why he doesn’t need to ask or disclose — it’s so much easier just knowing you’re right.

    Those Framer dudes were so freaking off base when they developed systems of “checks and balances” premised on the silly notion that “moral rectitude” was a dangerous premise for government. Heavens, they should have just required the Monarch to act in the best interests of the People, and left it at that.

    And it’s really, really encouraging to think about how this particular “morally rectitudinous” guy was at the center of the practical application of torture by the Bush White House and, for that, was recognized as unconfirmable by [that quaint institution] Congress if nominated for a high government position, and that he holds his current position in a post created for the purpose of avoiding public questions about this man. Nothing says “morally rectitude” like that kind of background.

    You just couldn’t make this stuff up.

  10. Mick Savage says:

    Robert Gibbs; how fitting for root words to describe current idiocy:

    from a dictionary:
    gib·bet (jbt)
    1. A device used for hanging a person until dead; a gallows.
    2. An upright post with a crosspiece, forming a T-shaped structure from which executed criminals were formerly hung for public viewing.
    tr.v. gib·bet·ed or gib·bet·ted, gib·bet·ing or gib·bet·ting, gib·bets
    1. To execute by hanging on a gibbet.
    a. To hang on a gibbet for public viewing.
    b. To expose to infamy or public ridicule.
    [Middle English gibet, from Old French, diminutive of gibe, staff, probably from Frankish *gibb, forked stick.]

  11. Mick Savage says:

    And furthermore :)
    Mr. Gibbs certainly bears a strong resemblance and eyeglasses to Robert McNamara, another felon and war criminal. Were they separated at birth or what?

  12. Jessica says:

    “One of the officials called the second attack “an outrageous mistake. . . . They were going after the guy sitting next to him.””

    We’re still to believe that’s how precise these strikes are? As if they could blow a guy to pieces while the one sitting next to him is safe?

  13. Jeff Kaye says:

    The CIA and its officials, past and present, will be able to be talked about using such words as “rectitude” when the last comet stops orbiting the sun.

  14. Gitcheegumee says:

    Among other descriptions offered of the guy in charge of drone assassinations, Harold Koh described him as a priest.

    “If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude,” Mr. Koh said. “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”

    A genuine, moral rectiDUDE…..???

  15. Kinan says:

    This Administration is devolving into a cult, now complete with its own priesthood. Of course these deceivers and warmongers would find something like BCCing someone as underhanded, while sending in their terminator machines to kill by the dozens from the skies.

    It is obvious – no matter who runs this government, they will be subservient to the donors. And for foreign policy, the primary donors are crooked defense companies reliant on government welfare, wicked autocratic regimes in the Middle East, belligerent Greater Israel fanatics and other assorted petty (and sometimes not so petty) monsters. A real debate about our foreign policy would not only focus on how to fight terrorism effectively, but also how to stop terrorism from originating. The second part of that equation would require that government officials and the media actually question some of our priorities and hold themselves accountable, so instead we only get the first part. And for that, all of us innocent Americans and Muslims will continue to bear the brunt of the violence.

  16. What Constitution says:

    Maybe he should be given an award for “Great Moral Rectitudiosityishness”. Big words exude confidence, the bigger the better.

  17. Capt Jenks says:


    The only thing “Irish” about Brennan is his last name. He is like all wealthy Irish Americans- a complete sellout and wishes he was English- like his real bosses.

  18. x174 says:

    priest might actually be the right word to describe brennan–the us death czar–if by “priest” they mean an Aztec high-priest who solemnizes the ritual act of tearing out the heart of the sacrificial victim before eating it in broad daylight before the assembled masses in order to appease the elite gods of the political media

  19. ess emm says:

    Brennan as a forceful leader and “a critical player in getting this president comfortable with the tools of the trade.”

    You need to be forceful; sort of like how Michael Hayden slapped David Shedd in front of Obama to get him comfortable with torture as a tool. [sarcasm] Because Obama is good at heart [/sarcasm]

    But Brennan was bypassed by the Bush administration a year later for two key jobs — head of the National Counterterrorism Center and deputy to the new director of national intelligence — largely because of his criticism of the Iraq war.

    Says who? Doubt is cast on this statement elsewhere in DeYoung’s story.

    “What is scary,” [a senior official] concluded, “is the apparatus set up without John to run it.”


  20. Eric Hodgdon says:

    @What Constitution?:
    The federal government was not close to a perfect creation, however, the rise in education throughout the country has decreased the ability of citizens to see AND act against this crap.

    Our over-educated folks here do not know what to do to counter these developments because somehow they think they might be too civilized to get their hands dirty.

    Concerns about pointless college sports rivalries take precedence over actual real problems of devising a MORE PERFECT UNION, one that would produce a more equal outcome and derived by higher moral standards.

    Too much education turns the brain too soft and malleable, unless kicked several times with a boot.


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