Brennan nomination should ignite debate about drones, torture

January 7, 2013

Several others have already made this point, but it’s telling that Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense is being widely described as the controversial one, while John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director is seen as thoroughly uncontroversial.

Hagel is getting pilloried because of his supposed anti-Israel bent, conservative criticism of which has hijacked the airwaves. Meanwhile, Brennan’s reported support for Bush-era torture programs — which he’s denied — and his oversight of Obama’s drone program is causing barely a ripple, save for in rarefied precincts on the civil liberties left.

But the Brennan appointment creates an opportunity. What if Senators use his confirmation hearings to force a public debate about the legality and transparency of Obama’s drone strike program and the need for meaningful Congressional oversight of the program? The hearings could also initiate a conversation about the legacy of Bush era torture, other aspects of the Bush war on terror, and the areas of continuity between the two administrations on civil liberties issues.

The Obama administration is reportedly in discussions about developing a clear and transparent rationale for drone strikes, and the failure to do this continues to draw sharp criticism from civil liberties advocates. At the hearings, Brennan will hopefully be pressed to explain this rationale, and more broadly, what the administration will do, if anything, to strive for some kind of international consensus around drones and the rules of war in the 21st Century.

“We absolutely should have this debate,” Steve Clemons, a foreign policy expert at the New America Foundation, tells me. “We still live with the legacy of the world that Dick Cheney and George Bush built — one that is not internationally sanctioned. One of the ways Obama and Brennan can restore America’s global leverage is to help lay out a blueprint for a new global social contract for a world with wars like those of today.”

Brennan, a career CIA official, will also be asked to detail the extent of his support for — or at least his failure to put a stop to — Bush era torture techniques. The extent of this support is disputed. Glenn Greenwald lays out the case for Brennan’s support for them, and for warrantless eavesdropping, right here; Scott Shane, meanwhile, reports that Brennan has denied these accusations and that he has since won some admiration from human rights advocates for arguing for the closing of Guantanamo. This will be hashed out at the hearings; John McCain, a longtime torture foe, said in a statement today that he intends to press Brennan to detail his role.

But beyond this, the hearings may be able to establish whether we see a real accounting into the legacy of Bush era torture programs. He’ll likely be pressed on how forthcoming he believes the agency should be when it comes to a massive report Senate Democrats have prepared examining those programs. The CIA needs to approve that report for release, with redactions; Brennan will be asked to detail how he’d handle it. “Will he assure us that he’s not going to stand in the way of the American people understanding what the U.S. government did when it engaged in torture, rendition, and secret prisons?” asks Laura Murphy, a senior official at the American Civil Liberties Union, in an interview with me.

“We still have the legacy of living in gray wars with gray rules,” Clemons says. He hopes Brennan’s nomination hearings will play a role in forcing a range of activities, from torture to drone strikes, out into the light.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Greg Sargent | January 7, 2013