Peek at the Ruling Elite's Letter of Recommendation for John Brennan

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Former colleagues have penned a glowing tribute from lofty perches in business, law, and academia. You'll be amazed at what they left out.

john brennan reuters.jpg
Reuters

On February 7, John Brennan, the senior White House counterterrorism adviser, is scheduled to appear before a Senate committee likely to recommend his confirmation as head of the CIA. As a 25-year agency veteran, onetime chief of staff to former Director George Tenet, and right-hand man to President Obama, he's been a powerful player in counterterrorism circles going back to the Bush years. For that reason, he'll presumably be questioned on all of the most controversial War on Terror policies, particularly detainee torture, warrantless wiretapping, and the kill list that he oversees.

His nomination fight will be hard for the layman to follow, because prominent critics argue that he is "largely responsible for America's current flawed counterterrorism strategy, which relies too heavily on drone strikes that frequently kill civilians and provide Al Qaeda with countless new recruits," while defenders say he is "at the forefront of checking the president's powers to kill by drone" and "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."

In a previous piece, I explained that Brennan really is trying to reform the drone program for which he bears so much responsibility, but that his efforts will be wildly inadequate even if he succeeds. And for the record, I oppose his nomination.

What I want to highlight today is a letter in support of it. It was sent this week to Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and signed by eight members of the ruling class. Do I exaggerate? Sarah Cleveland, formerly of the U.S. State Department, is a professor at Columbia University. Gregory Craig, former counsel to the president, is a partner at Skadden. David Kris, former assistant attorney general for national security, works at Intellectual Ventures. David Martin, formerly a deputy general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security, now teaches at the University of Virginia. Daniel Meltzer, former principal deputy counsel to the president, is a professor at Harvard. And Trevor W. Morrison, former associate counsel to the president, is a professor at Columbia University's law school.

A letter from a group like that serves as a test for the ruling class. When a group with those resumes and affiliations get together and sends a recommendation to the Senate concerning the man Americans are being asked to entrust as head of the CIA, are they careful or careless with facts? Intellectually honest or misleading? Hyperbolic or unembellished in their descriptions? Earnestly attempting to provide accurate information, or engaged in strategic spin? Are the academics in the group being true to the values of their chosen field? 

I'll show you the pro-Brennan letter, parse its statements, and let readers draw their own overall judgments.

Here's the letter in full:

Dear Chairman Feinstein:

As attorneys committed to the rule of law who worked on a range of national
security issues while serving in the Obama Administration, we write to express our
enthusiastic support for the President's nomination of John O. Brennan to serve as
Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Throughout his tenure as Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and
Counterterrorism in the Obama Administration, John Brennan has been a persistent and
determined leader in support of adherence to the rule of law, a principled commitment to
civil liberties and humanitarian protection, and transparency. On a broad range of issues,
he has endeavored to ensure that the national security practices of the United States
Government are based on sound long-term policy goals and are consistent with our
domestic and international legal obligations, as well as with broader principles of
democratic accountability. John Brennan has been a steadfast champion of the
President's commitment to closing the detention facility at Guantánamo, and has urged
that our Article III courts remain a vital tool in our counterterrorism toolbox. He has
stood firmly with the President's efforts to ensure that interrogations are conducted in
accord with the law and our values. And he has worked to ensure that the responsible and
effective pursuit of our counterterrorism objectives will not depend simply on the good
instincts of officials, but will instead be institutionalized in durable frameworks with a
sound legal basis and broad interagency oversight.

As a former CIA official and currently the President's chief counterterrorism
adviser, John Brennan well understands the significant security threats that the United
States faces, as well as the institutional needs of the CIA and its dedicated personnel. He
is also exceptionally qualified to provide leadership and direction to the Agency,
consistent with President Obama's national security objectives. John Brennan
understands that adherence to the Constitution and the rule of law serve, rather than
undermine, our national security interests. Time and again, he has demonstrated
seasoned wisdom and judgment in responding to our nation's greatest national security
threats, and he has consistently reaffirmed his core commitment to conducting our
national security and counterterrorism policy in a fashion that comports with our deepest
values. He is superbly qualified to serve as Director of the CIA, and we urge his swift
confirmation.

****

Okay, now the parsing.

Throughout his tenure ... in the Obama Administration, John Brennan has been a persistent and determined leader in support of adherence to the rule of law, a principled commitment to
civil liberties and humanitarian protection, and transparency.

  • When the NYPD engaged in a secret, intensive surveillance program that targeted U.S. Muslims with no evidence of criminal or terrorist ties for six years, John Brennan defended the police, arguing that they struck the right balance between civil liberties and security, despite the fact that in all their years of spying on innocent Americans, "the NYPD's secret demographics unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation, the department acknowledged."
  • When the CIA-run drone program that Brennan oversees is challenged in court, the government won't officially acknowledge its existence, despite the fact that everyone knows about it. 
  • Brennan himself has been asked to reveal the secret legal opinions that set forth the Obama Administration's understanding of why it has the legal authority to kill people with drones. He hasn't just refused to show those opinions to the public and the press, he won't even comply with Senator Ron Wyden's repeated requests to see them, despite the fact that Wyden sits on the Senate committee legally entitled and compelled to conduct CIA oversight.  
  • As yet, Brennan has also failed to respond to Wyden's request for "the complete list of countries in which the intelligence community has used its lethal counterterrorism authorities." In other words, he doesn't find it necessary to inform Senate overseers of all the countries where America is killing people. 
  • Brennan presides over a drone program that killed American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son without due process, despite the Fifth Amendment's guarantee that no person shall "be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." The Obama Administration refuses to release the legal theory ostensibly justifying those actions or the protocol that led to them.
  • In Brennan's drone strikes, dead bodies are counted as "militants" rather than innocent civilians if they're males of military age.
  • Brennan has given the press false information about the number of innocents killed in drone strikes.

On a broad range of issues, he has endeavored to ensure that the national security practices of the United States Government are based on sound long-term policy goals and are consistent with our domestic and international legal obligations, as well as with broader principles of democratic accountability.

  • As discussed above, Brennan has refused to make public numerous critical facts about the drone program, its legal justification, and civilian casualties numbers. Democratic accountability is impossible when the electorate and even their elected representatives are deprived of so many indispensable facts.
  • There are numerous credible arguments that America's program of drone strikes as currently constituted violates international law.

He has stood firmly with the President's efforts to ensure that interrogations are conducted in
accord with the law and our values. 

Perhaps. But Brennan has also publicly defended secret "enhanced interrogation" and "rendition" programs. And the Obama Administration approach has codified indefinite detention without charges or trial, the very thing that makes Guantanamo objectionable, into law.

He has worked to ensure that the responsible and effective pursuit of our counterterrorism objectives will not depend simply on the good instincts of officials, but will instead be institutionalized in durable frameworks with a sound legal basis and broad interagency oversight.

In fact, the Obama Administration spent its whole term operating without an institutionalized framework, instead relying largely on Brennan's judgment; the framework it is rumored to be developing won't even apply to the CIA (presumably operating under Brennan himself) once it is adopted; and the framework is anything but durable -- rather than ask Congress to codify restrictions on the executive branch into law, Obama and Brennan are doing it all within the executive branch, meaning that the so-called restrictions can be easily circumvented by any future president.

****

Having been exposed to more context and counterarguments, I ask the reader to render a judgment: Rereading the letter from the ruling-class octet, members of which occupy perches of great power and responsibility, do you think what they've written Feinstein is a careful, intellectually honest, unembellished assessment of John Brennan? Are they right that he's an unimpeachable champion of transparency, civil liberties, humanitarian protection, and the rule of law?

Or do you think that we need a better ruling class?

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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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