How Can We Say John Brennan “Kept Us Safe”?

I was struck when I read this line in Dexter Filkin’s article on John Brennan and drones:

None of the above is intended as an attack on Brennan, who has spent the past four years as President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor. He has a hard job. He is almost always forced to act on the basis of incomplete information. His job is to keep Americans safe, and he’s done that.

How are we supposed to measure Brennan’s success in the White House?

His title, after all, is not just “Counterterrorism Advisor.” It is “Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.” Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.

As Counterterrorism Advisory Brennan deserves credit, I guess, as terrorism has declined from 2009 levels (2009 was a spike year). Though it’s unclear how much of that is organic, and how much a result of Brennan’s efforts. In any case, I’m certainly willing to give him credit on that front.

But say his Homeland Security mandate includes cyberdefense? If that’s true — and it was for Richard Clarke when he was in that job — then Brennan has most assuredly not kept us safe. We’re getting hacked more than ever and we have yet to implement a comprehensive program that will keep critical infrastructure owned by corporations adequately defended.

Domestic terrorism is sort of included in Homeland Security. Indeed, Brennan has been involved in responses to mass shootings of both the domestic terrorist and non-terrorist varieties. If that’s part of Brennan’s mandate, than isn’t the spiraling rate of mass gun shootings proof he has failed? How can Filkins say Brennan “kept us safe” after Newtown?

And then there are things that should be included under any Homeland Security mandate but aren’t. Chief among them would be, at the very least, increasing resilience to extreme weather events, but preferably even efforts to minimize the risk of climate change. Hurricane response is included, and there are still people in NYC who lack heat from Hurricane Sandy. Drought badly damaged the navigability of the Mississippi this year; does our failure to resolve that problem count?

Infrastructure safety is another; some of the very same corporations that refuse to implement cybersecurity defenses have had major catastrophes caused simply by neglect (which suggests the push to get them to shore up only their cybersecurity defenses is a mistaken approach). How do we measure that?

Honestly, I’m as critical of Brennan as anyone, and I’m not sure it’s fair to hold him accountable for all the Homeland Security lapses on his watch. After all (as this Congressional Research Service paper makes clear), we don’t have a solid definition of what’s included in Homeland Security. So until we define it clearly, no one can be held accountable to that fuzzy definition.

That said, we ought to, at least, be cognizant of the definitions those executing the mission use. This is actually even relevant assuming (as is almost certain) that Brennan is confirmed; there has been debate, after all, whether or not CIA should be collecting intelligence on climate change. John Brennan prioritized his own work at the White House, and he appears not to have prioritized keeping first graders and Sikhs in their temple safe from crazy gunmen.

The point is, we as a country need to get better about defining what security for the “homeland” means, particularly because it is intended to include non-military defense. We need to shift our resources and emphasis accordingly based on what the greatest threats are. The fact that we don’t even know how Brennan defined that part of his job — and whether he was successful or not — tells us we’ve lost the big picture on our security.

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. PeasantParty says:


    How can Americans know anything when the laws are secret to us?

    Usually when I have questions about laws I go to the Thomas site. As in the NDAA of 2012, signed into law late 2011 which includes drone warfare and spying, indefinite detention. Both the House and Senate worked on these bills, but now claim stupidity of their contents.

    The drafts that are now coming out for us to see are mere placaters for what the actual reasoning is for placing a law upon a nation in which nobody knows what the hell it actually says, and we are to follow as law. While the bills clearly show the sponsor and co-sponsors, it should give us cause to actually put those persons in a series of question/answer sessions.

    Lets get real here. EW, works herself to shreds to bring out these items that should be known and understood by every US citizen. How can these Homeland Security, National Defense, Drone policy, and indefinite detention laws be reviewed, processed, voted upon, passed to the President to sign into law without the Senate and House as whole not aware of every line?

    How does the white paper memo, draft that it is reflect the LAW of the land? Who exactly derived the legal and constitutional justification to remove the rights of all US citizens in order to promote these Laws?

    In the beginning, there was the Patriot Act. Look where we are now!

  2. What Constitution? says:

    I have a charm on my keychain that keeps rhinocerouses away. Haven’t been attacked by, or even seen, a rhinocerous since I got it. I trust it. Don’t know how it works, don’t need to know. But rhinocerouses are pretty scary, so I wouldn’t want to be without my little charm. And I don’t need to hear anybody question whether it is actually doing anything — it’s what I rely on to keep the rhinocerouses away, and the proof is in the pudding.

    The only difference between my charm and Brennan is my charm doesn’t take up much of the federal budget and it doesn’t, to my knowledge, kill anybody.

  3. PeasantParty says:

    @What Constitution?: Ha! I’m sure it doesn’t have to figure out ways to word a National Defense Authorization Act bill in order to get money to cover the private corporations that are mostly owned by ex-military personnel to keep Rhinos at bay. Oh, Let’s not forget about the “Grand Area Plan”, Kissinger’s political Rhino protection, and all those things Wes Clark said he heard from his Pentagon friends about Rhino romps!

  4. GKJames says:

    It’s also an opportune time to refresh our understanding of “national security.” That a disclosure causing embarrassment jeopardizes the security of the US stretches the concept beyond usefulness.

    As for the citation to Filkins, it’s notable for his two uncritical conclusions: (1) Brennan [single-handedly?] has succeeded in “keep[ing] Americans safe;” and (2) in connection with Al Majalah, it was “the cameras [that] missed the women and children.”

    The first contention is pure flab, not least because it fails to provide cause-and-effect between drone killings and the absence of repeat 9/11s (which, presumably, is his equally flabby standard of measure). The second, all too easily exculpates the people by blaming the cameras. This ignores what was the more likely reality: Keeping in mind that our concern for civilian casualties is always seen, as DOJ admits, IN RELATION to whatever “military advantage” the US seeks to obtain, the chance to get 14 bad guys at one time was too good to pass up.

  5. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    The real issue is not whether Brennen has kept anyone safe but the loss of freedom that has entailed, and I might add, the escalation of paranoia and fear to what can only be described as bordering on psychosis that makes the McCarthy era look completely rational.

    I hope in a few years we can look back on this whole era with equal disgust as we do McCarthy’s time.

  6. P J Evans says:

    Really? Their cameras only see adult male terrorists?
    Who builds these super-smart cameras?
    Why do we need real people running the drones, if the cameras are able to pick out just the adult male terrorists?

  7. Peterr says:

    Listening to Brennan talk to Mikulsky and others about his honesty makes me all the more disappointed that no one has yet asked Marcy’s first question on the earlier thread.

  8. please says:

    Watched a part of the series and I’m frankly confounded. The person to lead the CIA cannot formulate a personal opinion with regards to water boarding? This is what passes for a hearing?

    This confirmation is a foregone conclusion.

  9. Kathleen says:

    Brennan hearing Senator Carl Levin really digging into whether any actionable intelligence was extracted during EIT/torture sessions. Zeroed in on comments made by Mukasey, Gonzales and can’t remember the third

  10. jo6pac says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): Right that’s was my late Father thought as a vet. he didn’t want to give his rights he fought for but find better good guys to do the job. Amerikan govt hasn’t done that it’s gone the other way and removing anyone in disagreement. It’s only down hill from here.

    Everything is on schedule, please move along.

  11. joanneleon says:

    Wow, that Senate committee really grilled ’em, huh? DiFi was so tough, falling all over herself.


    I believe that there is an inverse relationship between the seriousness of the issue and the length and severity of the hearing in this insane, corrupt Senate. There should be fully televised Watergate-like hearings on this stuff.

    Brennan will surely protect everyone who did anything or knew about anything. Hagel might not honor the Omerta. So he gets the grilling, even though he hasn’t been assassinating people, including American citizens, for the past four years. He’s too big a risk. I wonder what kind of pledges are being extracted from him right now, or if he will withdraw from the nomination.

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