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.