Senators on Thursday voted to 63–34 to elevate President Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser at the White House to lead the Central Intelligence Agency after Rand Paul (R-Ky.) dropped his opposition to a vote Thursday afternoon.
John Brennan had been cleared by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
So, ultimately, what will the ascendancy of John Brennan to the directorship of the CIA mean for the Obama administration? Probably not much in the way of principle. As I have argued before, John Brennan's defense of drone strikes is not as inconsistent with the ideals or objectives propounded by the Obama administration, as many would argue. That does not mean that Brennan's appointment is insignificant. It just isn't significant for any of the reasons that people are naming. Brennan's appointment marks the moment at which the Obama administration committed to making national defense unaccountable.
This might seem counter-intuitive. After all, Brennan was nominated to head up the CIA in the same week as Chuck Hagel was nominated to lead the Department of Defense. But these two appointments are not as inconsistent as many people think. The appointments actually complement each other and it is hardly a departure from the standard procedures of either the first term of the Obama administration or the either term of the Bush administration. Those who hoped that the nomination of Chuck Hagel meant that the executive branch was planning to abandon its more controversial policies should not keep their fingers crossed: controversial policies are almost always handled by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Pentagon used water boarding on its own personnel for training, but it was the CIA who used it on detainees.
The fact that Brennan was sent to head up the CIA indicates that the Obama administration is seeking the same counter-terrorist results that we have seen for the past four years, but that it wants a defense force with less transparency or visibility than the military. Everyone knows a soldier; very few know a CIA operative, and most of those who do probably think that their friends just work for the State Department anyway. Soldiers wear a uniform; CIA operatives don't, and drones or bounty hunters do most of the “dust up” work anyway. This new national defense apparatus will be a bit leaner, and probably quite a bit meaner. Basically, this means less manpower and more machines (read "drones"), less military and more paramilitary and contractors (think "Academi" aka "Blackwater") working under the aegis of American civil servants.
This isn't necessarily a bad plan. The punditocracy appears to approve. And in spite of the media's opinions on the matter, there is no bigger fan of drone warfare than the American public. The largest threat to America today is not a conventional army like the ones that China and Russia have. It is rogue organizations like Al Qaeda that, if it had a nuclear weapon, would probably use it. And there is a strong case to be made that a civilian organization like the CIA is more effective at killing the leadership of these organizations than the military. But I don't think that it will do much for American credibility in the world: using drones to kill off terrorist leadership is not the best way to collect intelligence from them and, as the CIA comes to rely more on private paramilitary operatives, they become more likely to hire unsavory characters like the ones who used to work for this regime or this one.
This is not inevitable. But the president's national security appointments indicate that the administration is flirting with this approach to national defense. Chuck Hagel's appointment was political. He may not have had any strong supporters, but appointing him accomplished the goal of angering the president's opposition. John Brennan's opponents, on the other hand, constituted a large part of the president's base. But his appointment had nothing to do with politics. Obama probably knew that his appointment would probably not be popular with progressives, but Brennan was nominated to get a job done. And that job is hunting terrorists, using almost any necessary measure. If nothing else, this is an indication of where the president's confidence for national defense lies. The Secretary of Defense may still work at the Pentagon, but for the next four years it is Langley where all the action will be.