Does John Brennan Know Too Much for Obama to Fire Him?

It's difficult to cross man with details on every secret drone strike you've authorized—especially the legally dubious ones.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

When John Brennan assured the country that the CIA hadn't improperly monitored the Senate team that compiled a report on Bush-era torture, he fed us false information. That much is clear from Thursday's news that "the C.I.A. secretly monitored a congressional committee charged with supervising its activities." Either the CIA director was lying or he was unaware of grave missteps at the agency he leads. There are already calls for his resignation or firing from Senator Mark Udall, Trevor Timm, Dan Froomkin, and Andrew Sullivan, plus a New York Times editorial airing his ouster as a possibility.

President Obama could surprise the country by axing his former counterterrorism adviser, explaining that under Brennan's management, employees broke laws and undermined the separation of powers core to our democracy. Obama may well make a good-faith effort to act in the national interest. But it's impossible to believe that he won't be aware of the following: No U.S. official knows more than Brennan about Obama's many drone killings. Some of the killings were solidly grounded in international law. And others may have violated the Fifth Amendment, international law, or the laws of war.

In the past, Brennan has been willing to lie about those drone strikes to hide ugly realities. For example, he stated in the summer of 2011 that there had been zero collateral deaths from covert U.S. drone strikes in the previous year, an absurd claim that has been decisively debunked. What if he grew more forthright, either in public statements or by anonymously leaking information?

Recall how intimately Obama involved himself in many killings:

President Obama, overseeing the regular Tuesday counterterrorism meeting of two dozen security officials in the White House Situation Room, took a moment to study the faces .... Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. 

And the central a role Brennan played:

Beside the president at every step is his counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, who is variously compared by colleagues to a dogged police detective, tracking terrorists from his cavelike office in the White House basement, or a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama...

Finally, recall the chilling logic these two settled on:

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Even if Brennan told everything he knew, I'd still guess that the odds would be heavily against Obama ever finding himself on trial for civil-rights violations or war crimes (though if I were Obama, I'd take proactive steps to lessen the odds further.) 

But I can imagine details that could cause Obama's image to suffer, now and in the eyes of history. He might be subject to travel bans or indictments in absentia in certain countries, for example. We don't now know what sort of legal authority Obama had the first time he ordered Anwar al-Awlaki to be killed, or why his 16-year-old son, an innocent American teenager searching abroad for his absentee father, ended up dead. There's still much classified information about innocent people killed in drone strikes. 

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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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