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Presumptive CIA Head: a look into the nominee's actions
John Brennan and America's Drones
by Jalel Harchaoui.
Assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism John Brennan, who sits in the White House, wields enormous power in shaping Barack Obama’s assassination lists. The article below—second in a series of five essays—addresses Brennan’s role in Washington’s latest form of off-shore violence. The CIA-head nominee, who since 2009 has become an institution unto himself, reassures the Senate Committee about the useful nature of what he refuses to divulge. Meanwhile, the publicly-available facts show an institutional behavior that is totalitarian and absolutist: “I […] do what I think is right.”
John Brennan and America\'s Drones

Since its creation in 1947, intelligence-gathering and espionage functions have constituted only a small part of what the CIA does. The civilian agency is a branch of the Executive, meant to carry out secret—often illegal—activities ordered by the Oval Office. The latter prefers those operations to be kept concealed. If they are acknowledged to the public, Americans might question them. Said differently, the CIA gives the White House some leeway of illegality. It is, by virtue of the very way it operates, undemocratic—abroad, and sometimes even domestically. Furthermore, contrary to popular beliefs, the CIA has never taken initiatives on its own.

As opposed to the Department of Defense, CIA actions offer the feature of plausible deniability. For instance, over half-a-century later, it is still unbecoming to say that Eisenhower ordered Lumumba murdered. That lasting hesitancy in the public mind has value. It allows the White House to keep on utilizing the CIA channel whenever it wishes to be protected from the risk of leaving a paper trail. No visibility to Congress or to the taxpayer. No historical record that shows the Executive perpetrating crimes. No implication that the President broke the law.

Over the last four years, the Obama administration has resorted to assassinations using hunter-killer drones in several countries on which the U.S. has not declared war. The Obama administration views this type of operations as “a more nimble, and less expensive, source of military power” (WSJ, 16-May-12).

So “nimble” and “inexpensive"[1], Obama and Brennan industrialized Bush’s assassination campaign. They rolled its scope out to a large number[2] of countries, on a scale without any historical precedent. Other clandestine-assassinations programs were conducted in the past by Washington and other governments; not one even comes close to Obama/Brennan’s however.

In Pakistan and Yemen alone, Obama/Brennan ordered 371 drone strikes in four years vs. 49 by Bush/Cheney in four years[3]. The sharp spike is entirely attributable to two men, Barack Obama and John Brennan[4].

As Obama’s reliance on illegal murdering without declaration of war swelled, his clandestine program lost its plausible-deniability character. The criminal campaign reached such a vast span, the entire world sees its brutality and horror in real time. The White House can hardly deny any of it.

From a legal, an accountability and a decision-making perspective, both the Department of Defense and the CIA are consequently inadequate forums for the President’s assassination program. Too lawless and clandestine for the DoD; too big and overt for the CIA.

To that problem, an official told the Washington Post, John Brennan reacted by “drawing [...] much [of the] decision-making directly into his own office,” inside the White House (WP, 24-Oct-12). The conspiracy to kill abroad in violation of all laws and international conventions is now entirely concentrated under Obama/Brennan’s umbrella. Simultaneously, the last four years have seen “the transformation of the CIA into a paramilitary entity” responsible for the strict execution of the assassinations determined unilaterally by the White House. The DoD and the CIA both are out of the decision-making process[5].

Thanks to Brennan’s efforts, the CIA now possesses its own fleet of armed aircraft in Saudi Arabia, independently of the Defense Department (London’s The First Post, 07-Oct-12). Although its name and location have been kept concealed from the public, the base likely commenced operations in 2011. The new infrastructure, utilized for the purpose of killing two U.S. citizens in Sep.-Oct. 2011, is Brennan’s doing. The presumptive head of CIA flew multiple times to Yemen and Saudi Arabia. He made use of his contacts from his stints in Riyadh in the 1990s. The joint U.S.-Saudi policy Obama/Brennan have engineered is meant to leverage off of Yemen’s so-called Arab Spring for the purpose of bringing to power a government, not more representative of the people’s will than Ali Abdullah Saleh, but more “cooperative” with Saudi Arabia’s Sunni family dictatorship and Washington[6] (WP, 24-Oct-12).

Thus far, according to Pullitzer Prize-winning Steve Coll’s New America Foundation, Washington’s unmanned drones have murdered at least 2,424 individuals in Pakistan-Yemen. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Washington’s unmanned drones have murdered at least 2,908 individuals in Pakistan-Yemen. This lower-bound 2,700 figure includes ~195 children[7]. Among the 2,700, not more than 51 suspected decision-makers were killed (New America’s “Leaders Killed” study as of 06-Jan-13). That represents an efficiency rate of 2%. I.e., John Brennan’s assurances to the Senate Intelligence Committee are not entirely devoid of fact.

Most analysts estimate that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, “perhaps the most dangerous of all the franchises of al-Qaeda right now” (Robert Gates, 22-Mar-11), is made of 300-500 core members. Assuming that U.S.-backed Qatari-Saudi aristocrats quit funding terror, assuming that new gangsters aren’t recruited, assuming that the massacred populations remain passive, and assuming that John Brennan continues his existing policy unhindred by the American public, approximately 20,000 will have to be slaughtered before AQAP is “finished.” Assuming that Africa has another four similar groups (Nigeria’s Boko Haram, South Sudan’s Lord’s Resistance Army, Mali’s AQIM, Somalia’s al-Shahab, etc.) and that Pakistan has perhaps another two, ~140,000 human beings will have to be exterminated until Washington’s self-defense drone policy is finally completed. All ideologies set aside, that is the only rational conclusion one can draw from publicly discoverable data.

The proportion of suspected decision-makers was greater than 6% in 2008, under Bush/Cheney. An independent study by Stanford and New York universities’ law schools (25-Sep-12) highlights the switch from Bush/Cheney’s practice of targeting high-profile al-Qaeda suspects to reliance, under Obama/Brennan, on computer programs, which analyze patterns of lifestyle on the ground to infer targets. In other words, Brennan moved from killing genuine suspects without due process to killing computer-generated suspects without due process. This guesstimate-based method might be what the presumptive CIA head had in mind when he told the panel that his drone strikes hit their targets with “astonishing precision” and thus “dramatically reduce the danger to U.S. personnel and innocent civilians.”

Owing to cultural idiosyncrasies, relatives of the above-mentioned harmless civilians fail to appreciate Washington’s effort apparently. As of Jun. 2012, “74% of Pakistanis consider[ed] the U.S. an enemy, up from 64%” as of Jun. 2009 (Pew Research Center Global Attitude Survey, 27-Jun-12). Many individuals from non-fundamentalist pockets of the Pakistani population have chosen a life of violence and hatred for the U.S. in response to being bereaved or maimed by Brennan’s “just war.” The Standford/NYU investigations found “evidence suggest[ing] that U.S. strikes have facilitated recruitment into violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks.” As Obama/Brennan persist in their “signature” illegal-killings campaign—as opposed to abiding by International and Domestic Laws—Washington is doing nothing but those murderous groups’ bidding.

Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have seen it fit to tarry on the above issue during the confirmation hearings. The most extreme, most challenging question asked was, “When is it okay to kill Americans?” By choosing to concentrate on that question, senators reinforce in Western minds the tacit, taken-for-granted legitimacy of Obama-Brennan’s assassination campaign. If an innocent Pakistani man is slaughtered by the United States, it is sad but it is not really an issue. That’s life.

On 05-Feb-13, NBC reporter Michael Isikoff received and released a 2012 Justice Department memorandum asserting the supposed legal justification enabling the U.S. government to carry out the assassination of American citizens on foreign land.

The white paper affirms that the U.S. government by no means violates the Constitution of the United States when it orders the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders of al-Qaeda or an associated force.” The memo acknowledges the existence of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. It circumvents it by presenting drone killing not as a cold-blooded execution, but as an attack conducted in self defense, within the context of an imminent threat against the United States—even when no intelligence indicates they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S. It relies upon law-of-war principles while outside the area of active hostilities.” Any commonsensical person can see the memo is built upon profound inconsistencies. Law-of-war principles cannot be invoked since no war has been declared. If an American is not involved in an active attempt to attack their own nation, then it follows that the threat they represent is not imminent. Abusive, meaningless reliance upon the word “imminent” sends us back to Sep. 2002 when the Cheney cabal substituted “preemptive” with “preventive"[8]. To prevent is to intervene when the attack is still at the stage of thought. If there is no evidence that an individual is involved in an active attempt to attack the United States, then the decision to kill amounts to an arbitrary judgment call as to that entity’s intent. The absurdity is rich. Such subjective evaluations aren’t verifiable by a third party. “The president—whoever it is—is the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner, all rolled into one,” observed accurately Independent Senator Angus S. King, of Maine (10-Feb-13, CNN’s State of the Union). In fact, any ordinary American at any moment in time can satisfy the four conditions presented in the DoJ white paper. An “informed, high-level official of the U.S. government” just has to decree that that person’s inner intent was nefarious. From there, the other criteria are loose enough so as to always fall into place and justify the murder after the fact.

Here the reader might wonder why Barack Obama, Eric Holder et al. had their legal-justification memo rely entirely on the name “al-Qaeda.” In fact, Obama, Holder et al. had no choice but to put all their eggs in the al-Qaeda basket. The sole legal means the administration possesses to conduct murder without declaration of war, “outside areas of active hostilities,” is Public Law 107-40, U.S.C. 23 1541 note, passed by Congress on 14-Sep-01 in the wake of the World Trade Center atrocity. The law’s key sentence is as follows. “The President has the authority to use all necessary and appropriate force during the current armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force.” In their 2012 memo, Obama, Holder, Brennan et al. chose to drop the keyword “Taliban” and are now left with the one-size-fits-all phrase “al-Qaeda and associated forces.”

American counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke demonstrated that, until the 07-Aug-98 bombings in East Africa, the U.S. intelligence community paid no special attention to al-Qaeda. The name was not referred to. The Sunni-terror group was then considered marginal—a now-neglected remnant from the 1980s, during which those terrorists were funded, trained and equipped by Washington. After the 11-Sep-01 bombings, al-Qaeda turned into a symbol more than anything else.

Over eleven years after 11-Sep-01, al-Qaeda is, at most, a vague nebula of very loosely affiliated, mostly independent organizations[9] that share a Saudi-inspired style of terror (corruption and venality; use of fanaticism; hatred for women; emphasis on enrollment of minors; no consistency in political demands; glorification of suicide; wide use of “martyrdom” bombers; all Muslim-majority lands “must be ruled by Islamic law or they must be destroyed"; willingness to act as mercenaries as in Syria now, on Qatari-Saudi payroll; etc.). Other than that, al-Qaeda is hardly a tangible or definable group. An “informed, high-level official of the U.S. government” can arbitrarily label almost any individual a force “associated” with al-Qaeda, if deemed desirable.

When John Brennan tells the Senate Intelligence Committee that whoever “joins al-Qaeda knows that we are at war with the organization,” the good-vs.-evil poesy is seductive but in the real world, the affirmation is meaningless and unverifiable (07-Feb-13). The name “al-Qaeda” is used like a rug under which much can be swept whenever the Executive branch wishes to.

Parodoxically, not all connections will come across as credible if looked at through the prism of Holder’s memo. For years, a great many American politicians in Washington have been adamant that Iran is “the world’s greatest exporter of terror” (Hillary Clinton, 11-Dec-09). That’s problematic. Iran is Shiite; al-Qaeda, at least in theory, is Sunni. What is more, cultivation of the violence between the two branches of Islam has been the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy in the greater Middle East since late 2006.

On 20-Jun-10, Pakistani intelligence sources told Deutsche Presse-Agentur that Hezbollah militant Mohammadi Ali Hammedei was killed in a U.S. drone strike in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. What would the Holder memorandum conclude if that particular Shiite terrorist had been a U.S. citizen? That Sunni extremist organization al-Qaeda is now receiving help from Shia, its most hated target?[10]. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder & team clearly haven’t put much thought into these considerations.

One of the criteria Holder’s memo is predicated upon is that of “imminent threat.” How does that particular criterion do in real life? On 11-Sep-12, in Benghazi, Libya, U.S. Ambassador Stevens was killed at ~9:40 p.m. local time. An unarmed drone had arrived from the U.S. military’s AfriCom at ~11:10 p.m., accomplishing nothing (WSJ, 01-Nov-12). Given that “U.S. drones have monitored those locations since [2011],” this specific fact is telling. It demonstrates that when “U.S. persons and U.S. interests” are under “imminent threat” or “direct attack,” current unmanned-drone technology is of no use whatsoever. Drones can only perform surveillance and, when armed, kill indiscriminately.

Eric Holder & team’s document collapses under the weight of the barest common sense. The DoJ no doubt put it together sloppily, as a bone meant to be thrown to Congress to smooth out Brennan’s confirmation hearings. The memorandum is just an attempt to produce the illusion that there is some legal method to Obama/Brennan’s drone-killings madness. On 06-Feb-13,

As of today, 56% of Americans are in favor of “United States conducting missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists” abroad (Pew Research Center, 10-Feb-13). One obvious element is the fact that, so far, Washington’s illegal attacks have been carried out solely in former European colonies. If Northern Ireland were still today what it was on 15-Aug-98, it is doubtful that 56% of Americans would be in favor of unmanned-drone killings there. Apart from the racism (alluded to by Desmond Tutu in the “Letters from Readers” section of the New York Times on 11-Feb-13), and apart from the Executive’s ruthless lying, the mainstream media contribute to the Western population’s equanimity. On 22-Apr-11, Reuters indicated that “the United States has been using drone attacks to target militants […] in Pakistan’s lawless ethnic Pashtun border areas […] The attacks are a source of concern for the Pakistani government.” The phrasing is guileful. The Pakistani government, after a U.S. drone strike killed 38 people attending a peaceful meeting of tribal elders near the Afghan border on 17-Mar-11, was past being concerned by the time Washington launched its 22-Apr-11 attack.

In 2008-09, Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s most powerful intelligence agency, unofficially and illegally greenlighted the drone assassinations by Washington. But—maybe—Islamabad’s “secret” opinion changed after several dozens Pakistani kids were torn to bits. Maybe the world is not static. Popular discontent always exerts weight, even under the most totalitarian of dictatorships. It’s the Western press’ job to keep its readership abreast of the facts as they evolve. Many of the publicly-available figures and facts pertaining to Obama/Brennan’s assassination campaign are avoided by the mainstream media. First, Islamabad strongly condemns Washington’s drone attacks as “not only unacceptable but also a flagrant violation of all humanitarian rules and norms.” Second, the sentiment of the Pakistani government or the sentiment of the Pakistani intelligence service is immaterial. Washington commits a crime against the Pakistani people regardless. To play the facts down by speculating about the underground sentiment of this or that subset of the Pakistani government is not journalism. For Beijing to launch drone attacks and kill civilians in Chechnya would be a crime even if it were the Russian Federal Security Service’s private sentiment that the Chechen population should be wiped out.

The Associated Press wrote that “a U.S. official familiar with the details of the strike […] denied innocent people were targeted.” That type of phrasing increases confusion in the ordinary population’s mind; it buys Obama/Brennan time. Of course innocent people are not targeted; the sentence carries no information. The question is whether innocent people were hit and how many.

The downplay is pervasive on the Left. Even the London Guardian, at the far liberal end, called Brennan a “drone apologist with the president’s ear” (06-Feb-13). That is like calling Paul Wolfowitz an apologist for the war on Iraq. Those people are the artichects of international violence; not “apologists.”

The corporate media have also been of great help to Washington by observing almost unanimous silence with regard to the following. Washington’s standard practice consists in “striking one area multiple times” within minutes. The Stanford/NYU investigators gathered “evidence that [Washington] has killed rescuers, mak[ing] both community members and humanitarian workers afraid […] to assist injured victims.” The press steers clear of those facts[11] because, if it didn’t, the American public might be tempted to perceive Obama/Brennan as barbaric murderers who spread terror and slaughter innocent civilians, as opposed to ethical leaders who make the U.S. safer by impleting surgically precise self-defense operations.


Washington’s multi-country assassinations campaign is in its ninth year now. Although vastly incomplete, a few undeniable facts associated with Brennan’s drone killings are publicly available. The last four years—the Obama/Brennan years—have corresponded to a sharp widening of its scope. Quite apart from Brennan’s support for torture, as one sifts through the available data associated with drone strikes, it becomes impossible to view the presumptive CIA head’s contribution as anything but what it is. Inserted between the President and the CIA, the assistant’s personal office has essentially turned into a brand-new agency during the Obama years. If the CIA was designed to be greatly unaccountable to Congress, John Brennan’s one-man agency is even more unaccountable. Commentators say that the man, deep down, means well. He probably does and that’s entirely irrelevant. The main issue is, Does the American public want the unhindered illegal-violence escalation Obama/Brennan have implemented to be pursued another four years and beyond? If they do, that is what is bound to happen by default, given the institutional inertia and the momentum gathered. If, on the contrary, Americans do not want Obama/Brennan’s illegal assassinations to flourish, they can protest and voice their opinion until the President has no option but to pay heed to the public will.

~ Jalel Harchaoui.

[1] San Diego-based, privately-held General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper, armed, costs roughly $40 million apiece. Lockheed-Martin’s F-22 Raptor and F-35 cost $300 million and $150 million respectively. Another important facet making unmanned drones attractive financially is the certainty of not having a single U.S. operative captured, wounded or killed.

[2] "Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, […] could not get the administration to even list the countries where lethal strikes had been carried out.” (NYT, 08-Feb-13)

[3] Source: New America Foundation.

[4] From 06-Sep-11 through 09-Nov-12, Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus “voiced a preference for smaller drone strikes” (WSJ, 04-Nov-11) and promoted “a moderation of the […] drone program” (WSJ, 11-Nov-12).

[5] Until 2011, discussions on targeting, strikes and intelligence had been coordinated by a committee set up by Admiral Michael G. Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Not anymore.

[6] The epithet, used by the Washington Post, is highly suggestive. It conjures up an abundant history of military coups orchestrated by the U.S. around the globe. On 11-Mar-65, when U.S.-backed Suharto forced Indonesia’s president Sukarno out of power and slaughtered half-a-million “Communists and pro-Communists” in 12 weeks, Johnson sent Djakarta 50,000 tons of rice in late Mar. 1965 as a first stride “on the road back to cooperative relations” (Foreign relations of the United States Diplomatic Papers, 1964-68, vol. 26). In Yemen, Saleh’s vice president, Lieutenant General Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, won the 24-Feb-12 ‘election,‘ with 99.8% of the vote (Le Figaro). Lieutenant General Hadi was the sole candidate. As of today, Yemen is grappling with a Shiite rebellion in the north; a secessionist movement; a Sunni-inspired insurgency in the south; armed tribes controlling substantial swaths of land. After Lieutenant General Hadi’s landslide victory, Obama/Brennan carried out one extrajudicial attack a week within Yemen, on average. Brennan told the press in Oct. 2012 that “there are aspects of the Yemen program that I think are a true model of what I think the U.S. countertorrism community should be doing.”

[7] No official casualty reporting is issued; Washington declines to publish any figures pertaining to its assassinations campaign. Jane M. Harman, Democrat of California, who served in Congress until Feb. 2011, asserted that civilian deaths from American drone strikes are “very rare” (Aspen Institute, 02-Jul-12). She added that her characterization was based on her access to classified information. Any male corpse is an insurgent—that seems to be the reporting policy of the Defense Department. Children’s corpses (those whole enough to see, that is) are recognized as innocent civilians. Among adult females, half tend to be classified as civilians. As far as reporting of civilians casualties, Washington has demonstrated in Afghanistan and Iraq its clear propensity to label most everyone it kills as enemy combatant. It is only after an additional cross-investigation, usually stimulated by the press or by competing military reporting on the same incident, that Washington, sometimes, concedes a pull-down from its original number. There is every reason to believe the DoD’s reporting culture is also the one prevailing when it comes to CIA-performed drone attacks, in classified documents. A number of serious peace-activist and independent-journalist organizations prepare independent, careful, thoroughly backed-up documents.

[8] In his written submissions to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committe, Mr. Brennan “said drone strikes were targeted ‘against specific al-Qaeda terrorists in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives.’” (Reuters, 06-Feb-13, emphasis added).

[9] Source: Jason Burke, 2004. Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam. I. B. Tauris, London.

[10] The real world is much too complex to fit into the DoJ’s Qaeda-centric language. In Oct. 2012, a group claiming to be “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” announced it had “suspended Mokthtar Belmokhtar from command” (WP, 22-Jan-13). It is only “possible that Mokhtar’s group [the Masked Brigade] has a separate, direct relationship with al-Qaeda central” (emphasis added). What does Washington do then, since there is no link between the one-eyed gangster and al-Qaeda any more.

[11] Glenn Greenwald documented said U.S. practice in the London Guardian on 20-Aug-12.