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.
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
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
2. We prefer
capturing suspected terrorists.
"Whenever it is
possible to capture a suspected terrorist, it is the unqualified preference of
the administration to take custody of that individual so we can obtain
information that is vital to the safety and security of the American people." ("Strengthening Our Security by Adhering to Our Values and Laws," speech, Sept.
By the time Obama entered office, the United
States had basically quit capturing terrorists in non-battlefield situations. This
was not always the case. Although it may be difficult to recall, in the 14
months after the 9/11 attacks, more than 3,000 al Qaeda operatives and affiliates were detained
in over 100 countries. Most were eventually released, but hundreds of others
(plus additional suspected terrorists captured in the subsequent half-decade)
were transferred to CIA black sites, Guantánamo Bay, or U.S.-controlled prisons
in Afghanistan and Iraq. By no later than 2006, however, the Bush
administration stopped detentions because the White House and Congress could
not reach an agreement over the legal jurisdiction of captured suspected
In late 2009, this was made plain when Gen. James
Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly
told Obama, "We do not have a plausible capture strategy." According
to Daniel Klaidman in his book, Kill or Capture,
"The inability to detain terror suspects was creating perverse incentives
that favored killing or releasing suspected terrorists over capturing them." And in the words of
an anonymous "top counterterrorism adviser": "We never talked
about this openly, but it was always a back-of-the-mind thing for us.… Anyone who says it wasn't
is not being straight."
This reality was recently echoed
by Sen. Lindsey Graham, who serves on the Armed Services and Judiciary
committees: "We lack, as a nation, a place to
put terrorists if we catch them.… I can tell you that the operators are in a bad spot out there. They know that if they
capture a guy, it creates a nightmare. And it's just easier to kill 'em."
This perverse incentive remains in place today and largely explains why around
3,000 suspected terrorists and militants have been killed by drone strikes
under Obama and only a handful have been captured.
don't kill civilians.
Stephanopoulos: "Do you stand by the statement you have made
in the past that, as effective as they have been, they have not killed a single
civilian? That seems hard to believe."
Brennan: "What I said was that over a period of time before
my public remarks that we had no information about a single civilian, a
noncombatant being killed. Unfortunately, in war, there are casualties,
including among the civilian population.… And unfortunately, sometimes you have
to take life to save lives." (This
Week with George Stephanopoulos, April 29, 2012)
In his public comments, Brennan is clear that the Obama
administration endorses a drone-first eliminationist strategy for dealing with al
Qaeda -- and any "military-age males" nearby. This requires a tremendous amount of killing. In June 2011, Brennan claimed: "There hasn't been a
single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of
the capabilities we've been able to develop." He later, however, provided
a statement to the New York Times that the newspaper said "adjusted the wording of his earlier comment": "Fortunately, for more than a
year, due to our discretion and precision, the U.S. government has not found credible
evidence of collateral deaths resulting from U.S. counterterrorism operations
outside of Afghanistan or Iraq."
Brennan did not clarify what constituted
"credible evidence," but as Justin
Elliott and I myself
quickly pointed out, there were many public reports -- from Pakistani and Yemeni
reporters and anonymous administration officials -- of civilians killed by U.S.
drone strikes. Either Brennan did not receive the same reports of civilian
casualties as other administration officials did (an implausible notion), he lacks
Internet access to read these anonymous comments (equally implausible because
Brennan closely responds to critics of targeted killings in his following media
appearances), or he was lying. Regardless, his belief in the infallibility of
the find-fix-finish cycle defies an understanding of the inherent flaws and
limitations of even the most precise uses of lethal force.
love U.S. drone strikes.
"Contrary to conventional
wisdom, we see little evidence that [drone strikes] are generating widespread
anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP. In fact, we see the opposite: Our
Yemeni partners are more eager to work with us.… In short, targeted strikes
against the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists are not the problem --
they are part of the solution." ("U.S.
Policy Toward Yemen," speech, Aug. 8, 2012)
Based on his education and deployments with the CIA, Brennan
is said to have a deep knowledge of the Middle East; he speaks Arabic; and he enjoys
contact with many senior officials in foreign intelligence and interior
ministries -- which explains his de facto role as White House liaison to Yemen.
As Brennan says,
"I find the Arab world a
Although he might have unique insights into the Arab mind,
actual Yemenis and journalists reporting from the country (see here,
say that Yemenis hate
drones strikes. There is also a strong correlation between targeted killings in
Yemen since December 2009 -- primarily conducted by U.S. drones -- and
increased anger toward the United States and sympathy or allegiance
to AQAP. In 2010, the Obama administration described AQAP as "several
hundred al Qaeda members"; two years later, it increased to "more
than a thousand members." Now, AQAP has a "few thousand
members." After a drone strike reportedly killed 13 civilians in early September, Yemeni activist Nasr Abdullah noted:
"I would not be surprised if a
hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al Qaeda as a result of the latest drone
mistake." Let's hope Brennan and Abdullah can agree to disagree.
citizens are acceptable collateral damage.
Wallace: "Are U.S. citizens in Yemen in danger?"
are doing everything possible to make sure that all U.S. citizens, as well as Westerners and the Yemenis themselves, are protected from the scourge of al Qaeda."
(Fox News Sunday
with Chris Wallace, Jan. 3, 2010)
According to the State Department, five U.S. citizens have
been killed in terrorist attacks in Yemen: in December 2002 three
hospital workers by a lone gunman at a Baptist hospital in Jibla; in September 2008 one
American (and 17 others) in an attack on the U.S. Embassy by seven assailants
dressed in government security-service uniforms; and this March one
U.S. citizen in Taiz, a murder that AQAP claimed responsibility for. These five Americans were killed by various Islamist
groups in brutal acts of terrorism, defined under U.S. law as "premeditated,
politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by
subnational groups or clandestine agents."
Over that same period, four U.S. citizens were killed
in Yemen by U.S. drones, only one of them intentionally:
- November 2002: Ahmed Hijazi (aka Kamal Derwish) was killed while in an SUV by a CIA drone whose intended target was Abu Ali al-Harithi. U.S. officials acknowledged that the CIA did not know Hijazi was in the vehicle, though one later claimed his death was justifiable because he "was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
- September 2011: Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were killed in a single attack, though Awlaki was the only target. Khan reportedly produced propaganda videos for AQAP. Awlaki was a senior member of AQAP. Before his death, U.S. officials had described him as "inspirational," "charismatic," and an "effective communicator"; after his death, they described him as "the most operational affiliate," "very operational," and "the leader of external operations."
- October 2011: Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed by a drone along with a number of suspected militants. U.S. officials initially fudged the details, saying that he was in his mid-20s and of "military age." (In response, the Awlaki family released his birth certificate, which shows he was born on Aug. 26, 1995.) The State Department has refused to discuss or acknowledge his death because it has "not received confirmation of his death from the government of Yemen," though that has never stopped U.S. officials before. Anonymous U.S. officials later stated, "The U.S. government did not know that Mr. Awlaki's son was there."
Attorney General Eric Holder argues
that the Fifth Amendment right to due process is determined solely by the
executive branch and that only with "robust oversight" can the United States target
its citizens. Similarly, Brennan claimed
that the Obama administration engages in "additional review if the
al Qaeda terrorist is a U.S. citizen." None of these reviews
mattered, however, for the three U.S. citizens killed by U.S. drones who were not intended
targets, but collateral damage. At the same time, the United States has never
provided public evidence that they were involved with terrorist groups in Yemen.
are just a part of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
"[Obama] has insisted that
our policy emphasize governance and development as much as security and focus
on a clear goal to facilitate a democratic transition while helping Yemen
advance political, economic, and security reforms so it can support its citizens
and counter AQAP.… This year alone, U.S. assistance to Yemen is more than $337
million. Over half this money, $178 million, is for political transition,
humanitarian assistance, and development. Let me repeat that. More than half of
the assistance we provide to Yemen is for political transition, humanitarian
assistance, and development.… Any suggestion that our policy toward Yemen is
dominated by our security and counterterrorism efforts is simply not true." ("U.S.
Policy Toward Yemen," speech, Aug. 8, 2012)
There are a couple of problems with Brennan's math. First, he
excludes the vast costs of maintaining the manned and unmanned aerial
platforms, nearby naval assets, and U.S. military targeters and trainers
stationed in growing numbers at the al-Anad Air Base. It also does not include
the covert aid funneled to members of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi's regime and others who support U.S.
interests in Yemen. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh carefully manipulated
the presence of suspected international terrorists within his country in order
to maintain Western support crucial for his survival, and he reportedly
received hundreds of millions of dollars in covert assistance. Some Yemeni
officials, analysts, and journalists such as Sam Kimball now claim
that under Hadi, "the Yemeni government is fully
aware of a number of al Qaeda cells -- and their existence is tolerated and
their crimes covered up."
Finally, Brennan's boasts that U.S. civilian and military
assistance is evenly split is nothing new. Between 2007 and 2011, U.S. (overt) aid to Yemen was $642 million: $326 million in security assistance
primarily for counterterrorism and border security, and $316 million in civilian assistance for development
and humanitarian work. If this alleged 50-50 foreign aid to Yemen strategy led
to the collapse of the Saleh regime, widespread anti-American sentiment, and
the tripling of al Qaeda, why would it work this time around?
United States isn't involved in an insurgency in Yemen, or maybe it is.
"So while we have aided Yemen, the Yemeni government, in building their capacity to deal with an AQAP insurgency that exists on the ground there, we're not involved in working with the Yemeni government in terms of direct action or lethal
action as part of that insurgency.… A lot of these, you know, Yemenis in [AQAP] are not
determined, you know, only to carry out attacks against the Americans wherever they may
be. A lot of them are trying to gain ground. And unlike in a place like the
FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan] or somewhere else, they
actually put up their flags, you know, controlling the territory. You know, they're
trying to unseat the government of Sanaa. So we're trying to help the Yemenis, you know, thwart
that insurgency and push it back because that certainly is counter to our
Policy Toward Yemen," speech, Aug. 8, 2012)
This puzzling contradiction
gets to the faulty premise that underscores the low threshold for who can be
targeted by U.S. lethal force. Brennan initially claims, "We're not involved"
with lethal action against an insurgency, but, seconds later, says, "We're
trying to help the Yemenis … thwart that insurgency." What exactly is the core
mission of U.S. drone strikes: counterterrorism or counterinsurgency? As is
true in Pakistan, the vast majority of individuals killed by U.S. drones were
seeking to impose some degree of sharia law, fight a defensive jihad against
the security services of the central government, or ultimately unseat what they
perceived as an apostate regime running the country.
After militants were killed
in a drone strike on Aug. 31, Reuters reported, citing a Yemeni Defense Ministry without evidence: "The men were heavily armed,
carrying machine guns and explosives.… [They] were thought to have been on the
way to carry out an attack." Unless they were boarding a flight to the United
States to conduct this attack, they did not pose direct threats to the U.S.
homeland, which is the threshold Brennan has repeatedly stated. Nor did they
meet the implausible standard that Obama claimed in early September: "Our goal has been to focus on al Qaeda and to focus narrowly on those who
would pose an imminent threat to the United States of America."
So why would America bother to kill them?
Soon after Obama entered office, Brennan proclaimed,
"We will harness perhaps our greatest asset of all -- the power of
America's moral example.… We will uphold the values of justice, liberty, dignity,
and rule of law." It would be hard to conceive of a U.S. moral example that the
rest of the world has so strongly rejected as targeted killings. In a Pew
Global Attitudes Project public opinion poll
released in June, the overwhelming majority of respondents opposed drone
strikes, including those among America's allies and partners: Greece (90 percent), Egypt (89 percent), Jordan (85 percent), Pakistan
(83 percent), Turkey (81 percent), Spain (76 percent), Brazil (76
percent), and Japan (75 percent). The
same people, including Obama, Brennan, and Holder, who decried the Bush
administration for perverting America's morals for the detention and questioning
of suspected terrorists now implement and defend the practice of how they are
killed -- at seven
times the rate that they were killed under Bush.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images