National Security

Tough Witness

John Brennan delivers a smart, but vague, performance.

"Mr. Brennan, congratulations on your nomination. As you can see, it's going to be lively." These were the opening words of Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein during John Brennan's confirmation hearing to be CIA director on Thursday. Coming just 72 hours after a controversial Obama administration legal paper on drone strikes was leaked to the press, Brennan's confirmation was expected to create some fireworks. And it did. Protests grew so disruptive that Feinstein had to order the hearing room cleared by Capitol police. And that was just the beginning.

Much of the hearing covered expected terrain: the legal foundations, secrecy, and political costs of targeted killing; Brennan's counsel against launching an operation to capture bin Laden back in the 1990s; his position on waterboarding and other Bush-era "enhanced interrogation techniques" when he was a senior CIA official; his views on intelligence reform and the CIA's role; whether he leaked classified information about a major counterterrorism operation; his commitment to transparency and cooperation with congressional overseers. The questions were surprisingly smart and tough: Only one senator, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, used his question time to invite Brennan to his home state for an intelligence play-date.

Brennan's performance was smarter and tougher -- a masterpiece of political maneuvering.

The whopper was Brennan's admission that the Senate Intelligence Committee's still-secret, 6,000 page report on Bush-era interrogations made him question what he thought he knew about the interrogation program and what was actually true. Did the CIA's enhanced interrogation methods provide valuable information? Back in 2007, Brennan thought, and said, that it did. Now? He's not so sure, and was stunned to learn that the program appears to have systemic management failures. But here's the backstory he didn't tell: Just days ago, word leaked that Brennan had angered committee members by not even reading the summary of their report, which took four years to produce and constitutes the longest and most-footnoted report in congressional history. So he came to the hearing prepared and deferential, vowing to give the report he ignored high priority. High priority, that is, without promising to declassify a single page. Secrecy still dies hard.

Brennan also eschewed the tried and true response officials in secret agencies usually use in public hearings: "I'd be happy to get into that in closed session." Instead, he was much, much craftier. I found myself wishing C-SPAN used those pop-up bubbles from old music videos -- the ones that tell you what people are really thinking. Because the gap between talk and truth was yawning.

Brennan started by currying favor, declaring that the existing "trust deficit" between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA would be "wholly unacceptable" if he were confirmed. He then promised cooperation without promising cooperation on a host of issues -- from getting more administration legal memos on drone strikes to allowing the committee to see raw intelligence when requested -- using words like "full consideration," "due consideration," and the need for "optimizing transparency and security." He claimed powerlessness -- saying "I am not a lawyer" and claiming he was not in the CIA chain of command for particular programs -- about unpopular decisions made when he held positions of power.

He agreed in principle to do things he has never done in practice, like publicly acknowledging if a drone strike mistakenly kills the wrong people (which the New York Times reported on Tuesday). And he used that careful phrasing they teach you at Langley. When Sen. Susan Collins, who knows the intel world cold, asked how exactly the Obama administration could say drone strikes are used only as a last resort when they seem to be the only resort these days, Brennan replied, with a straight face, that he could say "unequivocally" that when the United States had a chance to capture a terrorist, no drone strike was ordered. He was right. Because when drone strikes are ordered to kill a terrorist, there is no chance to capture him.

Brennan also fought back when he felt he had to, angrily rejecting Sen. Jim Risch's accusations that he had improperly leaked classified information about a terrorist plot to television commentators that may have exposed a U.S. asset in a terrorist cell. Did Brennan admit to saying the United States had "inside control" of a terrorist plot to blow up U.S.-bound airplanes? Yes. But, said Brennan, there are many types of "inside control" that wouldn't necessarily suggest the United States had a mole, including "environmental" inside control. Nobody seemed to know what the heck that meant. But Risch's time was up.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

The Three Most Dangerous Things About Threat Lists

What the pundits and analysts don't tell you.

The New Year is always a time for making lists, and presidential inaugurations crank the Beltway list-making machine into overdrive. We've got prediction lists, challenge lists, and even foreign-policy-problems-the-president-could-solve-right-now lists. The thing is, the most serious foreign policy challenges are often unlisted surprises.

In 1995, President Clinton issued a Presidential Decision Directive that demanded intelligence priorities be placed into tiers. They were, and Afghanistan was near the bottom. In 2000, a self-appointed bipartisan Commission on America's National Interests tried a similar drill. They ended up assigning counterterrorism and democracy promotion outside the Western hemisphere as second- and third-tier interests. In 2011, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told West Point cadets, "When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more -- we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged."

Why do these lists have such an abysmal track record? Because they tend to focus on hot spots and bad guys -- the places and adversaries that make headlines rather than the underlying forces that ignite and inflame conflict. Instead of lists of challenges, the Obama administration should think much more about drivers of challenges, understanding better the forces that are likely to amplify and multiply security threats now and over the longer-term. Think of these drivers as "threat multipliers." They don't make the threats. They make the threats more dangerous, numerous, and intractable. In my view, three threat multipliers are critical and deserve much more systematic thought in Obama's second term: institutional mismatch, climate change, and technology.

Institutional Mismatch

Within states and across them, institutions are slow to adapt to new global political realities. This matters. Effective governance is the key to both global economic development and security, tamping down instability, and responding quickly so that small crises stay small and big problems get the attention they need.

Governments and international organizations are changing. The problem is they aren't changing fast enough. At the state level, we are in the midst of three races. In the Middle East, the race is whether new democracies can be institutionalized fast enough to stave off instability. It doesn't look promising. History suggests that building and sustaining democracies takes time. Since 1950, only 22 countries in the world have been continuously democratic. In China, the adaptation race is whether the communist regime can deal with massive social disruption triggered by the country's breakneck economic development. For all the talk of China's rise, a weak China could be vastly more dangerous, stoking nationalist flames and adopting a more aggressive foreign posture to divert attention from domestic woes. In the United States, the race is to transform a creaky 1940s national security architecture to deal with a skyrocketing number of actors and crosscutting issues. So far the U.S. government has responded to this rising complexity by adding complexity, creating scores of coordinators, czars, and special envoys right alongside the existing bureaucracy. When policy coordination is so important, creating more offices to coordinate is not a winning design.

Multinational institutions are also showing their age. The European Union may be coming unstuck. NATO is struggling to find relevance. The U.N. Security Council and IMF are mired in governance schemes that are out of whack with current power realities. The G-20 is a new player but its aspirations exceed its capabilities. Improving and modernizing these organizational arrangements is vital because the United States cannot lead alone and because international security problems increasingly require collective action. When institutional arrangements don't reflect power realities, cooperation becomes more difficult. Coalitions become more fleeting, ad hoc, and time consuming. And problems are left to fester, often growing more difficult with time.

Climate Change

Climate change is a second threat multiplier that affects both traditionally stable places and exacerbates instability in some of the world's most volatile regions. The direct effects of global warming are well-known: more extreme weather events like hurricanes, prolonged drought, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and melting of the Arctic, which is already generating conflict over newly accessible shipping routes and natural resources.

The indirect effects of climate change are less discussed but equally severe. Climate change threatens to inflame social stresses and undermine governance in already fragile states, creating "ungoverned spaces" that are the breeding grounds for international terror, crime, and unrest. Consider this: Climate change is expected to produce up to a 30 percent drop in agricultural yields in Central and South Asia; severe water stress which will affect two billion people, including many in South Asian and African nations already on high alert for state failure; increases in disease outbreaks as water-deprived populations rely on unsafe sources of drinking water; and an estimated displacement of 200 million people living in low-lying coastal areas, particularly in Asia. Importantly, climate change also diminishes response capacity because its effects are regional, making neighbors less able to aid one another.

Technology

The third threat multiplier is technology. The one sure thing about technology is that nobody can predict just how it will be used or by whom. Facebook began as a Harvard student social site and ended up toppling regimes in the Arab spring. Drones used to be the surveillance and killing tools of advanced industrialized states. Now they are being used by rebel groups and built by teenagers. Will drones prolong civil conflict by enabling both sides to see who's around the corner and pick their battles more carefully? Or will they strengthen international peacekeeping by providing a low-risk substitute for "boots on the ground?" Nobody really knows.

What is known, however, is that we live in the early days of a profound new technological era that has three key attributes: lower costs of collective action, which gives civil society far more power against the state; diffuse, often unrecognized vulnerabilities as more systems -- from banks to dams to weapons -- become networked; and technical capabilities that have developed far faster than laws, policies, and international frameworks to manage their use.

In Washington, it is often said that the urgent crowds out the important. Unless the Obama administration does more serious thinking about how to handle these three threat multipliers, the White House's urgent list will only grow bigger.

STEEN ULRIK JOHANNESSEN/AFP/Getty Images