Five Questions for John Brennan

I’m sure I could grill John Brennan for hours. But after a lot of thought, here are the five questions I believe most important that should be asked of him Today.

1) Do you plan to continue lying to Americans?

You have made a number of demonstrable lies to the American people, particularly regarding the drone program and the Osama bin Laden raid. Most egregiously in 2011, you claimed “there hasn’t been a single collateral death” in almost a year from drone strikes; when challenged, you revised that by saying, “the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths,” even in spite of a particularly egregious case of civilian deaths just months earlier. On what basis did you make these assertions? What definition of civilian were you using in each assertion? (More background)

In addition, in a speech purportedly offering transparency on the drone program, you falsely suggested we know the identities of all people targeted by drones. Why did you choose to misrepresent the kind of intelligence we use in some strikes?

2) What was the intelligence supporting the first attempt to kill Anwar al-Awlaki?

The US government’s first attempt to kill Anwar al-Awlaki with a drone strike was December 24, 2009. WikiLeaks cables make it clear that Awlaki was a primary target of that strike, not just intended collateral damage. Yet the Webster report makes clear that on that day — that is, until the Underwear Bomber attempt the next day — the Intelligence Community did not consider Awlaki to be operational. Thus, the strike seems to have been approved before he fulfilled the criteria of the white paper released the other day, which authorizes the targeting of senior operational leaders of groups like AQAP. What was the legal basis for targeting this American citizen at a time when the IC did not believe him to be operational? (More background)

3) Will your close friendships with Saudis cloud your focus on the US interest?

In a fawning profile the other day, Daniel Klaidman nevertheless laid out the following points:

  • You considered Yemen to be a “domestic conflict.”
  • You opposed signature strikes in the country.
  • You nevertheless approved signature strikes in Yemen because of personal entreaties from people you know from when you were stationed on the Arabian peninsula in the 1990s.

In addition, recent reports have confirmed that the drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki was launched from Saudi territory.

Were the personal entreaties you responded to from Yemenis or Saudis (or both)?

What role did the Saudis have in the Awlaki strike? Did they have an operational role?

As someone with such close ties to liaison sources, how have you and will you manage to prioritize the interests of the United States over the interests of friends you have from two decades ago?

To what degree is your intelligence sharing — especially with the Saudis — a stovepipe that creates the same risks of intelligence failures that got us into the Iraq War? (More background)

4) What role did you have in Bush’s illegal wiretap program?

The joint Inspector General report on the illegal wiretap program reported that entities you directed — the Terrorist Threat Integration Center in 2003 and 2004, and the National Counterterrorism Center in 2004 and 2005 — conducted the threat assessments for the program.

What role did you have, as the head of these entities, in the illegal wiretapping of Americans? To what extent did you know the program violated FISA? What role did you have in counseling Obama to give telecoms and other contractors immunity under the program? What influence did you have in DOJ decisions regarding suits about the illegal program, in particular the al-Haramain case that was thrown out even after the charity had proved it had been illegally wiretapped? Did you play any role in decisions to investigate and prosecute whistleblowers about this and other programs, notably Thomas Drake? (More background)

5) Did you help CIA bypass prohibitions on spying domestically with the NYPD intelligence (and other) programs?

In your additional prehearing questions, you admit to knowing about CIA’s role in setting up an intelligence program that profiled Muslims in New York City. What was your role in setting up the program? As someone with key oversight over personnel matters at the time, did you arrange Larry Sanchez’ temporary duty at the NYPD or CIA training for NYPD detectives?

Have you been involved in any similar effort to use CIA resources to conduct domestic spying on communities of faith? You said the CIA provides (among other things) expertise to local groups spying on Americans. How is this not a violation of the prohibition on CIA spying on Americans?  (More background)

Update: I realized that I have left out a caveat in Brennan’s drone lies — he was talking in the previous year. I’ve fixed that.

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.

20 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    A1: Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies.

    I’ve got Morning Joe on right now, and Andrea Mitchell is reporting that Obama made a personal phone call to Wyden last night, to try to calm things down and avoid a messy hearing today. Sounds like someone is scared.


  2. emptywheel says:

    @erichwwk: No. I believe these are all far more important, and suspect it is true that his role in torture involved providing tools and whatnot.

    In other words, he may have approved of BOTH the torture and illegal wiretap program. But we know he was involved in the latter, and no one has ever, AFAIK, asked him about it or whether an interest in protecting himself has direct OBama Admin decisions about the program.

  3. Peterr says:

    @Peterr: Just saw Wyden on the Today Show, where he said he spoke with Obama “last night, early this morning”. IOW, this was a *late* decision to call Wyden.

    On Today, Wyden confirmed his desire to continue pushing, and said that releasing the OLC memos was a good first step.

  4. emptywheel says:

    @Peterr: Yup. Good. They’ve been dicking Wyden around for a very long time. He warned that he would use Brennan’s confirmation to raise these issues and Brennan basically told him and Udall, at least (no one has reported on Levin’s take) to fuck off.

  5. Peterr says:

    @emptywheel: If Brennan told him that, that speaks volumes about Brennan’s approach to oversight.

    Q6: Prior to this hearing, you basically told Senators Udall and Wyden to fuck off. Is this typical of your views on Congressional oversight, or is this personal? If it is the former, are their other laws you intend to ignore, or only those involving oversight? If it is the latter, do you always let personal criticism cloud your professional judgment?

  6. erichwwk says:

    Also troubled a bit by the “in your face” approach of question #1. While agreeing that John Brennan as head of CIA would be deeply troubling, a better approach, eg to issue #1:

    1. How do you reconcile what you said with the facts as they became known? How are Americans to understand your allegiance to them and the Constitution in light of your statements? Where DO you think your allegiance lies? Some (me, eg, Garry Wills ) allege that the veil of secrecy, executive privilege, and national security interests are invoked, not to protect the American public, but to cover up malfeasance and empower favored politicians. What are your thoughts on this issue, and how would you address the conflict between secret information for the purpose of legitimate security concerns, and the abuse of empowering favored politicians and stifling assent?

    Perhaps use United States v. Reynolds { }, where a fluke declassification after 50 years was seen by a daughter of the survivor and revealed that secrecy was sought, not to avoid revealing security issues, but to cover criminal malfeasance.

    And Hedges vs Obama, Julian Assange, Tom Drake, Aaron Schwartz, William Binney, or John Kiriakou to address concerns of using information privilege to stifle dissent?

  7. Peterr says:

    @erichwwk: I have no problem calling a lie a lie.

    And there’s no need to go back over 50 years to look at someone else’s lies when Brennan’s are so much more recent. In addition, he is so much more acquainted with his own deeds and can speak to them more directly than he can to someone else’s from so long ago.

  8. emptywheel says:

    @erichwwk: For much of what Brennan says, I might do that. But in this case, his lies are so egregious that there’s no other accurate word for them.

    That’s why it was so foolish of him to try these lies. Even solid drone apologists accept it is an indefensible statement.

    If this is not a lie–and if we do not call it such–we are doing ourselves a huge disservice. We are treating our public SERVANTS as above very basic judgments out of some sense of politeness that only prevents us from truly judging their actions.

  9. DWBartoo says:

    EW, I wonder if someone might ask John Brennan if he recognizes any of these names, children’s names, which wendydavis made available on Firedoglake recently?

    It would be most interesting to hear him suggest something like, “That’s a lie! All those children very inconveniently died, it may well be true, yet it hardly can be assumed that they might have been contiguously collateral to any of our ‘legal, ethical, and wise’ actions, anywhere in the world … and frankly, we, Barack and I, don’t believe it for even an instant … and, as well, ‘most people’ have ‘better things to think about’, anyhow, according to the Great White Snark … and he is always much more believable than Marcy Wheeler and that bleeding-heart Gang of hers …”

    Thank you, as always, for insisting that the truth actually matters, and that those holding lofty and extremely powerful “positions” in the Security State, those who lie to the people, need to be exposed in those lies and held accountable to the Rule of Law. Your insightful voice, EW, your principled courage, and your unwavering, energetic conviction is not only much valued, it is essential.

    For, as MLK Jr. once said, about another time, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people but the appalling silence of the good people.”


  10. GKJames says:

    (1) Would you agree that the primary purpose of shrouding your killing program in secrecy is to prevent the US public’s questioning its legitimacy and efficacy?

    (2) How is the non-person-specific nature of “signature strikes” consistent with the government’s contention that it is lawful to execute “a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida … who poses an imminent theat of violent attack against the United States?” How do you determine that the target of a signature strike is in fact a “senior operational leader”?

    (3) On what grounds of operational and national security necessity do you justify “double taps?” Do you contend — and if so, on what facts do you contend — that first responders include “senior operational leaders of al-Qa’ida?”

    (4) On what legal basis do you believe that you and the US government are immune from liability for rendering suspects to countries where they are certain to be treated in ways prohibited under US law?

    (5) What are the principles on which you determine the “anticipated military advantage” of a drone execution to outweigh the “anticipated civilian casualties”? [DOJ memo, p. 8] Cite all of the instances in which you decided that the military advantage did NOT outweigh civilian casualties.

    (6) Provide a list — by date and location — of all US drone strikes, the facts on which you deemed their targets to represent an “imminent threat of violent attack against” the US, and civilian casualties.

  11. ess emm says:

    The hopes of every decent person rest with Ron Wyden today. I hope that phone call from teh Obama doesn’t deter him from seeking the truth.

  12. Hugh says:

    Brennan is Obama’s man. Brennan is a liar. This would actually be considered a plus by most of those involved, including most in Congress, if those lies were primarily directed at the American people or even at most other members of Congress. But there are various Congressional leaders and heavyweights on the Intelligence committees who would like to feel that they were getting the inside skivvy, if not fully or on everything (plausible deniability) at least on enough to satisfy their egos and cover their asses. With them, it is not what Brennan does or did that matters, but how comfortable their egos and asses feel with him.

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