The Targeted-Killing Czar's Powerful Case Against the Drone War

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John Brennan has more control over who appears on the kill lists than anyone save President Obama. And even he thinks the CIA can't be trusted.

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In Djibouti, a small East African country on the Gulf of Aden, the United States launches killer drones that strike in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. Last spring, as one of the drones sat on a runway, it suddenly came alive "without any human direction, even though the ignition had been turned off and the fuel lines closed," the Washington Post reports. "Technicians concluded that a software bug had infected the 'brains' of the drone, but never pinpointed the problem." It's an anecdote that underscores how easily things can go wrong as America rapidly expands drone fleets and missions. It isn't just that drones are frequently crashing, sometimes on urban neighborhoods in the part of the world where John Brennan, the top counterterrorism adviser to President Obama, says that he's been most successful controlling the unmanned program. It's that a drone there isn't or wasn't entirely under the control of its minders!

With that in mind, let's turn to Pakistan, where America has carried out more drone strikes than anywhere else. Remarkably, the man who has more power than anyone save Obama over America's kill list has unwittingly made an air-tight argument that the drone war, as presently waged, is deeply problematic. That's what I gleaned from a close reading of the three-part Washington Post series on kill lists, which quotes Brennan and others familiar with his thinking at length.

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Start with this passage (emphases added):

Brennan is leading efforts to curtail the CIA's primary responsibility for targeted killings. Over opposition from the agency, he has argued that it should focus on intelligence activities and leave lethal action to its more traditional home in the military, where the law requires greater transparency.

So Brennan believes CIA drone strikes lack sufficient transparency. In addition:

There are many associates who use the words "moral compass" to describe his role in the White House. It is Brennan, they say, who questions the justification for each drone attack, who often dials back what he considers excessive zeal by the CIA and the military, and who stands up for diplomatic and economic assistance components in the overall strategy. Brennan's bedrock belief in a "just war," they said, is tempered by his deep knowledge of the Middle East, Islam and the CIA, and the critical thinking forged during a classic Jesuit education.

So Brennan regularly deems the CIA too eager to kill.

But at least he's always there to rein them in, right?

Wrong.

Unlike in Yemen, where the Obama Administration built "its own counterterrorism infrastructure," the Pakistani drone program "was always considered an initiative of the previous administration," Karen DeYoung writes, providing context for this noteworthy passage:

Eventually, Obama and Brennan decided the program was getting out of hand. High-value targets were becoming elusive, accusations of civilian deaths were rising, and strikes were increasingly directed toward what the angry Pakistanis called mere "foot soldiers." But with Pakistan's adamant refusal to allow U.S. military operations on its soil, taking what was considered a highly successful program out of CIA hands was viewed as counterproductive and too complicated. Although CIA strikes in other countries and military strikes outside Afghanistan require Obama's approval, the agency has standing permission to attack targets on an approved list in Pakistan without asking the White House.

As is clear from other reporting, some or all of these are "signature strikes," in which the CIA doesn't itself know the identities of the people that it is killing with Hellfire missiles shot from the sky.

Let's review. According to Brennan, transparency concerns alone suggest that the military rather than the CIA should wage America's drone war. In addition, the CIA is so zealous about lethal drone strikes that Brennan regularly reins them in when he reviews their kill wish list. But the CIA is nevertheless permitted to operate without White House oversight in Pakistan.

The program is imprudent by the logic of the most senior counterterrorism adviser in America! He agrees with several of the most significant critiques that Obama Administration critics set forth! As if the passages above leave any doubt about it, the Washington Post series also includes this:

Some intelligence officials said Brennan has made little substantive effort to shift more responsibility to the military. But Brennan and others described a future in which the CIA is eased out of the clandestine-killing business, and said the process will become more transparent under Defense Department oversight and disclosure rules. Said Brennan: "I think the president always needs the ability to do things under his chief executive powers and authorities, to include covert action." But, he added, "I think the rule should be that if we're going to take actions overseas that result in the deaths of people, the United States should take responsibility for that."

This is a guy who is universally considered to be Obama's most trusted adviser on counterterrorism, and particularly drone strikes. He is privy to all of the intelligence. He is said to share the president's thinking on these subjects more than anyone else. Ponder what it means that this man has reached the same judgment as every drone-war critic that shouts about how America's targeted killing program is overzealous, excessively secretive, and unaccountable. Even the man with more power over it than any other fears the parts beyond his control.

Others apparently agree:

"Do I want this system to last forever?" a senior official said. "No. Do I think it's the best system for now? Yes."

"What is scary," he concluded, "is the apparatus set up without John to run it."

In other news, "Republican Mitt Romney has edged ahead of President Obama in the new Washington Post-ABC News national tracking poll, with the challenger winning 50 percent of likely voters for the first time in the campaign." And "even if Obama is reelected, Brennan may not stay for another term."

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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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