But in the hot seat today was the White House’s drone warfare program against al-Qaida.
Brennan is a career intelligence officer and a close adviser of President Obama. He was a strong contender for CIA director in the first Obama administration, but his connection to the agency’s Bush-era enhanced interrogation techniques gave the White House pause. Instead he assumed enormous influence as the president’s chief counter-terrorism adviser and is considered by many to be the chief architect of the government’s remote-control drone wars in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and North Africa.
It took more than three years of drone strikes before President Obama would even publicly acknowledge the existence of the CIA and Pentagon drone programs. And the ACLU and The New York Times have sued the White House for more information on the rapidly expanding drone program.
Questions reached a fever pitch this week with Monday’s leak of a confidential Justice Department memo concluding that the U.S. could order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or “an associated force.” The white paper spells out the playbook for killing Americans overseas thought to have ties to al-Qaida. The criteria contain a loose definition of an imminent threat, arguing that an attack doesn’t have to be in progress or even actively planned at the time of the attack.
Critics, like Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., say the criteria are so vague that having them is virtually meaningless, and closer consideration is needed to determine the limitations of executive war power overseas. With these remote-controlled weapons operating in remote and lawless zones like Pakistan’s Tribal Territories and the Yemeni Desert, oversight of the CIA’s activities is difficult, if not impossible. On Wednesday, the administration let the Senate Intelligence Committee see the long-sought 2010 memo from the Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel that justified the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who joined al-Qaida and was killed in Yemen in a 2011 CIA drone strike.
Brennan’s hearing got off to a rocky start with four protesters disrupting Brennan’s opening remarks and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chair of the committee, ordering the room emptied of the viewing public before questions got under way. But today’s hearing presents a new opportunity to shed some light on the government’s drone program. Here are five we hope the committee asks:
1. You’ve said the drone program is a precise weapon of war with only a handful of civilian causalities. But the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates as many as 891 civilian casualties in Pakistan alone, including 176 reported deaths of children from drones. How many civilians deaths have you recorded and in what countries? How are civilian deaths avoided, and how does the agency verify whether civilians deaths have actually occurred?
2. Monday’s memo says that an “imminent” threat does not require clear evidence that a specific attack on persons or interests will take place in the immediate future. How broadly can an unspecified threat be defined? Do you concede any geographic limitations to the president’s authority?
3. It has been reported that you assist the White House in selecting targets using a “disposition matrix,” otherwise known as a “kill list.” Please describe how a person’s name is entered into the matrix and how their risks are vetted. Is there an age criteria?
4. Since 9/11, some individuals captured abroad and incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay have been found to be innocent and subsequently released. Are you concerned that the intelligence used in a targeted drone strike may be as faulty as that which put innocent individuals in Guantanamo? What steps are in place to admit the error and also to prevent such mistakes in the future?
5. Former General Stanley McChrystal has admitted that the U.S. risks a blowback from Afghans, Pakistanis and Yemenis stemming from locals’ “visceral hatred” of U.S. drone activities. Yet you have stated that there is little evidence drone strikes are causing widespread anti-American sentiment or recruiting new extremists. Do you stand by this statement now, despite the fact that al-Qaida affiliates continue challenging our allies in South Asia,and the Arabian peninsula and are now spreading in North Africa? How should the U.S. counteract the risk of “blowback” caused by our ability to target and attack at will?
Tonight Jennifer Granholm, Stephanie Miller, host of “Talking Liberally,” and syndicated columnist Karl Frisch will talk about Brennan’s day in the Senate, drones and much more. Tune in to Current TV at 6E/3P for the discussion.