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Permanent War & John Brennan’s Nomination to Head the CIA

Screen shot of counterterrorism chief John Brennan at Council on Foreign Relations event on Yemen

(updated below) 

John Brennan, who served as President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism advisor throughout his first term, has been nominated to head the CIA. It not only signals Obama’s intent to continue to employ an extrajudicial targeted killing program, particularly in countries like Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, but also is further indication the global War on Terrorism has no end.

A Washington Post profile by Karen DeYoung in October of last year noted that Brennan was responsible for “compiling the rules for a war that the Obama administration believes will far outlast its own time in office, whether that is just a few more months or four more years.” He devised a “playbook”—the dystopian-sounding “disposition matrix“—that included the “administration’s  evolving procedures” for targeted killings against individuals the administration believes are members of Al Qaeda and its affiliates or at least have minimal ties.

The criteria for placing individuals in the “disposition matrix” is kept by the National Counterterrorism Center, which the Obama administration in July of last year granted the right to “to collect and ‘continually assess’ information on innocent Americans for up to five years.” This suggests a vast expansion of the Surveillance State and a detrimental erosion of due process for all people of the world, as “intelligence” is collected for the elimination of people presidential administrations decide pose threats and should no longer be permitted to live.

Though the Post profile suggested Brennan had argued internally the CIA “should focus on intelligence activities and leave lethal action to its more traditional home in the military, where the law requires greater transparency,” one wonders if Brennan will actually go ahead with such a move. The Post described Brennan as running “a policy so secret that it is impossible for outsiders to judge whether it complies with the laws of war or US values — or even determine the total number of people killed.” But, even if lethal actions were restored to their “home in the military,” that does not necessarily mean the president wouldn’t keep covert operations concealed by citing “national security concerns” if details were made public.

The CIA has fought all efforts at transparency by groups like the ACLU in court. In a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, it has refused to confirm or deny the existence of records on the targeted killing program.

This kind of secrecy should be expected if Brennan assumes the position of CIA chief not only because the CIA is known for conducting covert operations that the public does not get to know about but also because Obama has turned to the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to conduct secret operations that can be carried out free from the constraints of law and politics.

Former Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson recently appeared on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” for an “exclusive interview” to talk about his belief that there will be a “tipping point” in the not-so-distant future that will begin to wind down armed conflict and bring the War on Terror to an end. However, the “playbook,” according to the Post was developed to provide a “framework” to constrain “deployment of drones” while also expanding their use in “what has become the United States’ permanent war.” The very use of drones ensures America does not reach this metaphysical “tipping point” anytime soon and, with Brennan at the helm of the CIA, one can be certain it will not be reached during Obama’s second term.

Update 1 

Obama considered Brennan for the position of CIA chief in November 2008. Scott Horton of Harper’s explained then why his consideration was objectionable:

He was a career intelligence operative who gets consistently strong marks for his effectiveness and intelligence from people who have worked with him. But he has a critical shortcoming: his completely ambiguous and inconsistent views about the CIA’s use of torture and torture by proxy as techniques. As a company man, Brennan was quick to justify and support what was done. As an “independent” analyst for broadcast journalists, he also provided support and cover for practices from waterboarding to the use of psychotropic drugs. As an adviser to the Obama campaign, Brennan experienced an unconvincing epiphany and came to reject President Bush’s “program” along the same lines as his boss. The timing and circumstances of Brennan’s conversion suggest that it was dictated by political expedience and not ethics.

Brennan withdrew his name from consideration. That withdrawal was attributed to opposition among liberals.

Now, as the New York Times story indicates, “It is uncertain whether the torture issue will now cause any problems for Mr. Brennan. But he is a far more well-known figure than in 2009, having made many public appearances in the wake of terrorist plots and to explain the legal and policy arguments behind drone strikes.” Actually, one can be certain the “torture issue” will be no issue now.

Brennan has successfully re-branded himself by becoming the face of the Obama administration’s targeted killing program. The advocacy for torture is all in the past. This program—which enjoys support even among liberals—has been championed by both Republicans and Democrats. It has become entrenched further and further into the national security state while Obama has been president. And for this accomplishment, Brennan should have no problem becoming CIA chief.


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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."