Exclusive: CIA Director-designate John Brennan stumbled through less-than-challenging questions at his Senate confirmation hearing, struggling to square the circle of his past ties to abuses in the “war on terror” with his future promises to be a force for openness and reform, as ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman notes.
By Melvin A. Goodman
In the New York Times, veteran intelligence writers Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane described Thursday’s confirmation hearing for John Brennan as “notably aggressive” and that it produced “intense questioning” for the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Washington Post’s Greg Miller, another intelligence veteran, said that there were “heated exchanges” as Brennan was “challenged in often blunt terms”
Nothing could be further from the truth as the feckless Senate Intelligence Committee and its chairman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, led Brennan on a virtual walk in the park on the way to confirmation next week.
Keep in mind that Brennan could not be nominated for CIA director four years ago because of the intense opposition to his approval of the agency’s policy of extraordinary renditions, which permitted the CIA to take people off the streets of Europe and the Middle East and transfer them to foreign intelligence services that routinely engaged in the most sadistic kinds of torture.
Also, keep in mind that Brennan is the architect of the U.S. policy of “targeted killings” that have made assassinations a routine part of U.S. foreign policy. And in a shocking statement that was never addressed by the committee, Brennan admitted that, after reading the summary of the committee’s secret report on torture and abuse, he could no longer maintain that torture actually saved American lives.
If Brennan was truly unaware of the sadistic nature of U.S. torture and its lack of favorable results, then this is the most significant case of willful ignorance since Robert Gates told the Senate Intelligence Committee 22 years ago that he was unaware of the true nature of Iran-Contra.
Sherlock Holmes maintained that the dog that doesn’t bark often provides the real clues. Well, the questions that were never asked pointed to a committee that did not want to engage in a genuine confirmation process of a controversial nominee. There were no questions about Brennan’s various press conferences that provided inaccurate information on the killing of Osama bin Laden, the capture of the Nigerian underwear bomber, and the number of innocent lives that were taken in Drone attacks.
Conversely, there was no discussion of press appearances that Brennan should have given in the wake of the attack on the Benghazi consulate that was oddly placed in the hands of UN Ambassador Susan Rice. All of these interviews were designed in part to put the best possible face on the national security policies of the Obama administration, hardly a standard for judging a future director of the CIA (or a Secretary of State).
The long list of uncovered topics included Iran, which has been the target of intense covert action; renditions that continue in the Obama administration; the huge number of foreign countries that participated in the program of extraordinary renditions; the virtual demise of the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General, which is the only serious oversight entity within the intelligence community; the placing of responsibility for targeted assassinations of American citizens in the hands of “informed, high-level” officials (whatever that may mean); or the CIA’s double standard that allows the operations officer who destroyed the torture tapes to write for the Washington Post while a CIA critic of torture and abuse goes to jail.
Since the end of the Cold War, the CIA has increasingly become a paramilitary organization, but there was no questioning of Brennan on what he will do to return the agency to its central role of collecting and analyzing intelligence.
As a result of this hearing, the American people have no idea of Brennan’s plans for an intelligence agency that has registered a series of regular intelligence and operational failures over the past two decades. Brennan merely explained that his job at CIA will involve “optimizing transparency and optimizing secrecy,” again whatever that means. He blithely assured the committee that he would do his best to share documents with its members, which was similar to Gates’s assurances to the committee in 1991 that were observed in the breach.
Brennan would not even call waterboarding an act of torture even though former CIA Director Leon Panetta and Attorney General Eric Holder have done so. Brennan had no idea that, under his stewardship as counter-terrorism adviser, only one high-value target had been captured.
The Bush administration at least tried to capture these targets and elicit intelligence; the Obama administration has resorted primarily to drone operations to kill them (although Brennan said some suspects end up in the hands of U.S. regional allies with Americans sometimes attending the interrogations or putting in their own questions).
No one on the committee appeared to understand that it was foreign intelligence liaison that produced the intelligence for past captures of “high-value” targets, but CIA practices of torture, renditions and secret prisons made liaison more difficult. And no one on the committee pursued the long-term consequences of Brennan’s “targeted killings,” which retired General Stanley McChrystal believes has increased the number of terrorists and the intensity of anti-Americanism.
Nevertheless, an editorial in the New York Times recommended the confirmation of Brennan, while expressing the hope that he would not “forget that heightened danger does not free the executive branch from oversight or the normal system of checks and balances.”
There was nothing in Thursday’s hearings that suggested the Senate Intelligence Committee is devoted to genuine oversight or that Brennan has a genuine understanding of checks and balances. In fact, in one of the most disturbing remarks of the day, Brennan closed out the session by actually asking the committee to be an “advocate” for the CIA. He doesn’t even understand that the committee was created three decades ago to be an advocate for the American people.
Melvin A. Goodman, a former CIA analyst, is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. His latest book is National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. Goodman’s recent speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco will be on CSPAN Sunday, Feb. 10, at 8 p.m. EST.