Today, nobody could say Brennan is not intimately and directly involved in the decision-making process for who America kills. According to Klaidman, he chairs the weekly "Terror Tuesday" inter-agency meetings, where national security threats are discussed and terrorist operatives are considered for adding to the kill lists. New York Times reporter David Sanger revealed earlier this year that Brennan has "pressed the case for the judicious use of drones.... His view carried considerable weight, because it was often Brennan who made the final call on authorizing specific drone strikes, from his cramped office in the basement of the West Wing." Finally, Associated Press reporter Kimberly Dozier reported a blockbuster story in May about how targeted killings were further concentrated under Brennan's watch:
John Brennan has seized the lead in guiding the debate on which terror leaders will be targeted for drone attacks or raids, establishing a new procedure to vet both military and CIA targets. The move concentrates power over the use of lethal U.S. force outside war zones at the White House....
The move gives Brennan greater input earlier in the process, before senior officials make the final recommendation to President Barack Obama. Officials outside the White House expressed concern that drawing more of the decision-making process to Brennan's office could turn it into a pseudo military headquarters, entrusting the fate of al-Qaida targets to a small number of senior officials...(S)ome of the officials carrying out the policy are equally leery of "how easy it has become to kill someone," one said.
It should be noted that all of the powers endowed within Brennan's cramped White House office were bestowed by Obama, who, as commander-in-chief, has shown unmatched enthusiasm for "broadening the aperture" of whom the United States will use lethal force against. Although both Clinton and Bush had their own under-reported kill lists, neither was nearly as willing to attempt to kill as many named and anonymous suspected militants or terrorists -- as well as innocent civilians. This is primarily due to the distinct capabilities that drones provide compared to other military tools to reduce many of the inherent political, diplomatic, and military risks of targeted killings. (Obama has roughly three times the number of armed drones Bush did.) Brennan has touted drones' "surgical precision, the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it." He also used this cancer metaphor at his first meeting with Obama, when they were finishing each other's sentences.
What is unique about Brennan's unprecedented role -- as compared to previous White House counterterrorism advisers, such as Richard Clarke and Frances Fragos Townsend -- is his responsibility in directing and implementing the vast targeted killing program that Obama has authorized. (It's also noteworthy that Brennan reportedly opposes the death penalty, presumably within the United States.) Despite Obama conducting nearly seven times the number of targeted killings than his predecessor, the administration has never provided a clear articulation of its policies and processes, nor answered challenging questions, such as whether legitimate targets include children, individuals attempting to rescue drone strike victims, and the funeral processions of deceased militants; each of these categories has been targeted by the United States on multiple occasions. The people killed in such lethal operations, were all the victims of signature strikes, which, when asked, Brennan refused to acknowledge even occur. Moreover, as an executive branch appointee, he is not the "lead executive authority" for drone strikes -- either the CIA director or the secretary of defense -- and will never be required to answer a congressional subpoena to explain the logic of signature strikes, or any aspect of his job.
In a 2006 interview, a then-retired Brennan offered some thoughtful comments about how to balance terrorist threats with American values:
It's a tough ethical question, and it's a question that really needs to be aired more publicly. The issue of the reported domestic spying -- these are very healthy debates that need to take place. They can't be stifled, because I think that we as a country and a society have to determine what is it we want to do, whether it be eavesdropping, whether it be taking actions against individuals who are either known or suspected to be terrorists. What length do we want to go to? What measures do we want to use? What tactics do we want to use?
Six years later, this sounds like an useful and long-overdue public debate worth having, and these would be excellent framing questions for President Obama's targeted killings, and John Brennan's role in seeing them to their execution.