John Brennan is going to be the next director of the CIA. And many of Obama’s supporters are hopping mad. The same panel of human rights advocates that opposed Brennan as director in 2008 is making limp overtures to stop him a second time, but it is almost certain that they will be disappointed.
Brennan is the architect of President Obama’s drone program. In a speech published on NPR last May, Brennan gave an extended defense of drone warfare and argued that it was safe and consistent with America’s strategic goals in the Middle East.
This probably won’t save Brennan from being the lightning rod of the administration — their version of Darth Vader. Nonetheless, he is just an architect. The program itself is very much the legacy of the Obama administration and is entirely consistent with its agenda.
A lot of the opposition to Brennan in 2008 was based on the fact that he allegedly supported enhanced interrogation techniques, or at least he didn’t oppose them vociferously enough. Now, most of the opposition is focused on his association with the drone program. Because his confirmation seems so likely, many of the human rights activists who opposed his nomination originally are saying that it reflects their declining influence with the Obama administration.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The president’s drone program is, in fact, part of these activists’ legacy. This is because Obama has not done much to close prisons like Gitmo, but he has made efforts to ensure that they do not grow any larger. Since Obama became president, inflow of detainees has trickled to more or less zero. This, nonetheless, puts the administration in a bind when it has to find alternative means of keeping America safe.
While the detention and interrogation programs that existed under President George W. Bush raised serious human rights concerns, they did one thing for human rights that the Obama administration’s kill list does not: They prioritized capturing terrorist leaders rather than killing them. As CIA counselors from that time have pointed out, there were other considerations besides eliminating terrorists. The most pressing concern was to obtain actionable information from Al-Qaeda leadership and middlemen. This was why detaining them was considered a preferable option. After all, dead men tell no tales.
But Obama was elected, policy changed. The Justice Department devoted months to a cavalier effort to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a civilian court in Manhattan, a move which even Michael Bloomberg opposed. Shaikh Mohammed was captured in 2003, but for the trouble that the administration went through to ensure that he was given a transparent trial, it probably would have been more convenient for them if he had not been captured at all.
Though architects of the drone program like Brennan would probably not admit it, this actually is a large part of the logic behind the program. A corpse does not hire an attorney; a corpse does not complain of being mistreated by captors; a corpse rarely appears in viral pictures. This is not to say that the drone program is illegal or even wrong. When Franklin Roosevelt gave the order to “Get Yamamoto” he didn’t say “... but give him a chance to surrender first.”
But Obama’s supporters should keep this fact under consideration when they call the drones program a human rights atrocity and attempt to pin it on “corrupting” influences within the administration like Brennan. It may be easy to scapegoat architects like John Brennan, but in reality Obama’s supporters have no one to thank for the drones program but themselves.