Why You Won't Hear About Drones at John Brennan's Confirmation Hearing

The nominee for CIA director has allies in high places.

RTR3C6QX-615.jpgJason Reed/Reuters

Several pundits have called for the confirmation hearing on John Brennan's nomination as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to be used as an opportunity to debate the vast expansion of targeted killings under President Obama. The reason is simple: given his current role as the senior White House adviser on all counter-terrorism and intelligence issues, Brennan would be able to clarify many of the moral, legal, and operational questions regarding U.S. drone strikes.

Alas, don't hold your breath. The hearings will be run by Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is slated to remain chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Despite leaking information regarding covert drone strikes in Pakistan, the senator strongly endorses targeted killings -- and, more generally, executive branch secrecy-- and will assuredly place strict limits on the discussion of drones in open session. Although drones and targeted killings were never raised in the confirmation hearings for previous CIA directors Michael Hayden or Leon Panetta, they were during successor David Petraeus' testimony in June 2011. See below for the brief exchange between Senator Roy Blunt and Petraeus (where you read "(CROSSTALK)" that is Feinstein trying to interrupt the discussion.) Do not expect much more from John Brennan's confirmation hearing.

BLUNT : I want to talk a little bit about drones for a minute and the use of -- use of drones. As I told you in my office a couple of days ago, I'm very supportive of the decisions the president made regarding Abbottabad. And one of the -- one of the results of that decision was the -- well, I -- I think we can talk about what I want to talk about here.

PETRAEUS : I think generically...

BLUNT : No, that's...


PETRAEUS : And I think we had the conversation...


BLUNT : Yeah, yeah, the only thing I was going to say about that was, we were able to leave with information in addition to the principal goal, which was justice for Osama bin Laden. And what I was going to ask you in a general context was, what kind of evaluation should go into that decision of how much information might be there, whether you use a drone or not, or whether you make the decision to try to capture the information, as well as eliminate the individual?

PETRAEUS : Well, thanks, Senator. As we discussed, in fact, our preference in many of our targeted operations -- again, speaking now for the military, but it has applications more broadly -- is to capture individuals so that you can, indeed, interrogate them, so that you can develop knowledge about the organizations they're a part of, so that you can build, if you will, the link diagrams, the architectural chart of these organizations, understand the hierarchy, and generally continue to pull the string in, as you develop an evermore granular and nuanced understanding of these organizations that we are seeking to combat.

There are, however, occasions where we cannot, for a variety of different reasons, carry out that kind of operation. And in such cases, then, obviously, kinetic activity is a course of action, whether by drones or other platforms, for that matter, or other kinetic elements. And so that does provide an option to us, other than, again, where you cannot carry out a capture operation.

I would note that the experience of the military with unmanned aerial vehicles is that the precision is quite impressive, that there is a very low incidence of civilian casualties in the course of such operations. The warheads, actually, tend -- in many cases, they're as small as a Hellfire, of course, so these are not large munitions.

And as a result, I think, again, the precision is really quite impressive. And it is constantly growing with the proliferation of various platforms that enable us to have the kind of observation and understanding of the targets before they're attacked.

This post appears courtesy of CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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