The One Question Congress Must Ask Before Confirming Obama’s CIA Director

The Senate Intelligence Committee will hold a hearing tomorrow on the confirmation of President Obama’s nominee for Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan. There are a number of questions Brennan should and needs to answer but the hearing presents the perfect opportunity to get the current top Obama administration counterterrorism official perhaps most closely involved in the targeted killing program against al Qaeda to answer the fundamental question about it: when does it end?

Since his first bid to direct the Agency fizzled in 2008 after questions were raised about his role in the CIA torture program during the Bush years, Brennan has filled an at times more vital role in the Obama administration. Acting as the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, serving under the National Security Adviser, Brennan has advised the President on counterterrorism for the past four years. As such, his access to the President to weigh in on security matters domestic and international has been almost unparalleled. In the aftermath of the failed Christmas Day bombing in 2009, Brennan authored a scathing review of what was then U.S. counterterrorism policy. While the Newtown tragedy was still ongoing last December, it was Brennan who first briefed Obama about the school shooting.

Brennan’s most controversial role has been his front-and-center position in the Administration’s military campaign against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The use of targeted killings — most famously executed with drones — against individuals and groups suspect of connection to terrorist groups off the battlefield is by far the most visible outcome of those discussions. In a profile written in the Washington Post, Brennan is identified as the primary supporter of codifying the rules regarding when and where armed drone strikes could be carried out into what’s now called “the playbook” and the benign-sounding disposition matrix that identifies targets for strikes.

So Brennan, then, is ideally positioned to answer the fundamental question that needs to be answered to get a hold on America’s targeted killing program:

What role do targeted killings play in the broader U.S. counter-terrorism strategy and under what circumstances might we cease to employ them?

The question goes beyond the tactic of drone strikes to the conditions that cause them to be used in the first place. As a tactic, drone strikes have garnered significant opposition due to the potential for blowback among the populations where they are utilized, as well as the secrecy that surrounds the CIA’s classified program in Pakistan and moral questions about the serious harm cost in civilian lives the program carries with it. However, whether the program is achieving the ends that the Obama administration seeks, or even an explanation of what those ends are, is often left out of the debate and questioning of government officials.

Getting Brennan to explain what the Administration’s end game is is the most important step towards getting a handle on the program. Were the program to continue indefinitely, without any clear guidelines as to what sufficient success to cease killings might look like, all of the associated problems — blowback, civilian casualties, and undermining international law — would likely be exacerbated, as even a tightly regulated program would invariably carry the risks of unintended consequences. Moreover, a failure to give a clear account of the reasons why the Administration believes targeted killings are effectively degrading al-Qaeda and integrating that strategy into a legal understanding of when that degradation is enough to justify ending the program risks allowing targeted killings to continue well after they’ve become counterproductive. There’s also something intrinsically dangerous about a war without a clearly defined endpoint.

Defining what strategic victory looks like would also help get a handle on the thorny legal problems surrounding killing suspected American al-Qaeda members. According to the Department of Justice white paper released Monday night, much of the Administration’s justification for the killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki stemmed from the Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda after 9/11. An account of when the AUMF might no longer permit targeted killings would also provide a basic benchmark for judging when the Administration’s claimed power to kill Americans would expire on its own terms.

The Administration has clearly thought about these matters. Former Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson hinted that there was “a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al-Qaeda and its affiliates have been killed or captured…that al-Qaeda as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed.” Retiring Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta similarly said that targeted killings are “not something that we’re going to have to continue to use forever.” Getting Brennan to clarify Johnson and Panetta’s remarks would go a long way towards providing some needed oversight for the targeted killing program.