Last week, I introduced readers to John Brennan, the U.S. president's closest advisor for intelligence and counterterrorism issues. Although Americans know little about Brennan, he plays an essential role in shaping and implementing the expansive, unprecedented targeted killing of suspected terrorists and militants. He is, the New York Times reported, citing administration officials, the "priest whose blessing has become indispensable" to Obama. After Brennan lost out on the nomination for CIA director, he became the White House's homeland security advisor and deputy national security advisor for counterterrorism. As Michael Hayden -- the holdover CIA director until Leon Panetta was confirmed -- once observed, "John Brennan's the actual national intelligence director."
Not only does Brennan oversee Obama's vision of targeted killings, but he is their public face, defending the policies in major speeches, appearing on Sunday morning talk shows, and providing on- and off-the-record interviews to journalists. According to current and former administration officials, Brennan has embraced this role because he believes that the United States must be more transparent about the legal and ethical foundations for targeted killings. Whereas George W. Bush's administration never discussed any aspects of its targeted-killing policies, Barack Obama's administration has been marginally more forthcoming, beginning with its first official acknowledgment of the practice of targeted killings by drones in a speech this April by Brennan.
Given that Obama authorized Brennan to play such an extraordinary role, it is useful to examine what Brennan has said, especially because, since he's a presidential advisor, Congress will never compel him to answer questions in a hearing. After a close reading, what emerge are seven half-truths and direct contradictions between stated U.S. policies and actual practices.
1. We will kill all of al Qaeda.
"We're not going to rest until al Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas. We're determined to do that." (This Week with George Stephanopoulos, April 29, 2012)
The mantra of U.S. military officials who oversee counterterrorism or counterinsurgency policies is "you can't capture or kill your way out" of problems caused by those using violence to achieve political objectives. It is a slogan based in the real-world experiences of many military commanders and much academic research. For example, a 2008 Rand Corp. study, How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa'ida, examined 268 terrorist groups that ended between 1968 and 2006. The authors -- including Seth Jones, former advisor to U.S. Special Operations Command -- found that the vast majority of terrorist groups were eliminated because they either were infiltrated by local police and intelligence agencies (40 percent) or reached a peaceful political agreement with the government (43 percent).
Meanwhile, military force -- think drones and Navy SEAL raids -- eliminated terrorist groups only 7 percent of the time. The reason? "[O]nce the situation in an area becomes untenable for terrorists, they will simply transfer their activity to another area, and the problem remains unresolved." This is certainly the case in Pakistan, where the CIA drone campaign has killed suspected senior al Qaeda officials, midtier operatives, and more than 1,000 low-level militants. The Associated Press reported on Sept. 3 that, according to two senior U.S. officials, drone strikes have made would-be militants "skittish, prompting some to leave Pakistan for other battlefields in Syria, Yemen, Iraq or their home countries." Reportedly, some 250 militants have fled in just the past month to fight in Syria, depressing the price of secondhand weapons in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Although drone strikes have arguably been effective at killing some senior al Qaeda members in Pakistan, the numbers elsewhere suggest there is a lot of killing yet ahead. The State Department's "Country Reports on Terrorism 2011" lists the following estimated strengths of al Qaeda franchises (outside Afghanistan and Pakistan): "1,000-2,000" in Iraq, "under a thousand fighters" in the Islamic Maghreb, "several thousand members" in Somalia, and "a few thousand members" in the Arabian Peninsula (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP). Can U.S. drone strikes really kill them all? Even so, it is exceedingly unlikely that all individuals affiliated with al Qaeda would be "destroyed and eliminated" without expanding the scope of the problem. As Sudarsan Raghavan reported from Yemen, "AQAP operatives killed in U.S. drone attacks are quickly replaced."