John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, faced the Senate Intelligence Committee today. This was a rare opportunity to have congressional discussion on drones and other aspects of counterterrorism policy. It came on the heels of a flurry of debate following the leaking of a Justice Department memo on targeted killings of American citizens.
There will surely be much more to pore over, but a few early observations from the hearing:
Sen. Wyden’s persistence pays off
Sen. Wyden has been vocal in pushing for more transparency and raising important questions about drone policy. Last night, his persistence paid off as the Obama administration agreed to show the committee the OLC memo used to justify targeted killings of American citizens (a more in-depth exploration than what was released this week).
Hopefully Wyden’s tenacity will continue to produce results. In the hearing, he pushed Brennan around evidentiary standards for killing Americans, as well as whether an American has the opportunity to surrender before being taken out in a strike. He also focused on the importance of giving the American people more information so we can know under what circumstances our government might kill us.
Secret drone strikes court?
Congress hasn’t offered many concrete oversight proposals on drone strikes thus far. But both Sens. Feinstein (D-CA) and King (I-ME) offered the idea of a FISA-like court to review drone strikes. While FISA has its own secrecy issues that we don’t necessarily want to see repeated with drones, it will be interesting to see if this idea picks up steam.
Brennan in denial about blowback
Brennan’s answers to questions about drone strikes reinforced some of the most troubling parts of his previous statements—making the dubious claim that civilian casualties in drone strikes are exceedingly rare.
The public should understand “the care we take, the agony we go through, to make sure we do not have any collateral injuries and deaths,” Brennan said. “People are reacting to a lot of falsehoods out there.”
Brennan believes public opposition (as manifested in protests during the hearing) is based on misinformation about the nature of strikes. But it’s hard to imagine the administration is agonizing over every drone strike when they have already more than septupled the number of strikes carried out under the Bush administration.
When questioned about the possibility of blowback by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Brennan disagreed with the statements she quoted and made the laughable claim that people welcome what the US is doing to rid them of the “Al Qaeda cancer.” Perhaps Brennan needs to read this excellent report to hear directly from people in Pakistan about the trauma caused by drones in their communities.
Favorite unintentional joke
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) said he “literally bludgeoned” people to get information on CIA activities (this came right after accidentally saying he supports enhanced interrogation techniques).
Least favorite intentional joke
Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) tried and failed miserably to make a waterboarding joke. Because torture is hilarious.