The Questionable Past of the Man Who Decides Who U.S. Drones Will Kill

White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, who is taking on new authority over strikes, once backed "enhanced-interrogation techniques."john brennan reuters.jpg

Reuters

As I figure it, there are two death panels in the United States. One is within the C.I.A., where high-ranking intelligence professionals decide, via some opaque protocol, who they want to kill with armed drones. I used to assume that they put all the names on a list. But it was subsequently reported that sometimes the C.I.A. kills people whose identities it doesn't even know.

Then there's the other death panel. It determines whose death will be sought by drones that the Department of Defense controls. These human targets used to be determined in a meeting that involved the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, various unnamed national security officials, and Obama Administration counterterrorism adviser John Brennan. They'd talk things over and debate names.

Now the protocol is changing for both programs.

"White House counterterror chief John Brennan has seized the lead in choosing which terrorists will be targeted for drone attacks or raids, establishing a new procedure for both military and CIA targets," Kimberly Dozier of the Associated Press reports. "The effort concentrates power over the use of lethal U.S. force outside war zones within one small team at the White House ... Under the new plan, Brennan's staff compiles the potential target list and runs the names past agencies such as the State Department at a weekly White House meeting."

So who is the man with this extraordinarily powerful influence over who lives and dies in the due-process-free world of international assassinations? An experienced intelligence officer with 25 years experience, fluent Arabic skills ... and a more controversial recent history in government.

Glenn Greenwald summarizes:

In November, 2008, media reports strongly suggested that President Obama intended to name John Brennan as CIA Director. But controversy over Brennan's recent history -- he was a Bush-era CIA official who expressly advocated "enhanced interrogation techniques" and rendition -- forced him to "withdraw" from consideration, as he publicly issued a letter citing "strong criticism in some quarters" of his CIA advocacy.

So to sum up, Barack Obama insists while campaigning that "enhanced-interrogation techniques" are a euphemism for illegal, immoral torture that makes us less rather than more safe from terrorism, and insists that the Bush Administration was imprudent for using those tactics.

After being elected, Obama forbids those tactics from being used.

And he names as a top counterterrorism adviser someone who advocated the tactics he regards as imprudent and immoral -- ultimately entrusting him with more power than anyone else to decide whether various figures should be assassinated by our classified flying robot army.

What an unlikely series of actions.

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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