Does It Matter if John Brennan Was Complicit in Illegal Torture?

President Obama's pick to head the CIA was in a senior position at the spy agency during the Bush years.

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Last month, the Senate Intelligence Committee approved a report on CIA interrogations during the Bush Administration, when prisoners were tortured in violation of domestic and international law. "The report uncovers startling details about the CIA detention and interrogation program and raises critical questions about intelligence operations and oversight," Senator Dianne Feinstein, an occasional apologist for executive power, said after the vote. "I strongly believe that the creation of long-term, clandestine 'black sites' and the use of so-called 'enhanced-interrogation techniques' were terrible mistakes. The majority of the Committee agrees."

Arizona Senator John McCain, another War on Terror hawk, is among the several elected officials who have publicly called for the report to be declassified, but Dixon Osborn of Human Rights First made the case best: "Telling the American people the truth about torture isn't a task that should be left up to speculative reporting, Hollywood filmmakers, or publishing houses. It should be based on the facts. Thankfully, that report already exists. Now it should be made public."

In nominating John Brennan to head the CIA, President Obama has made it more urgent that the report be declassified. It is one of several sources that could help us to answer an important question: Are the American people being asked to entrust our clandestine spy agency and its killing and interrogation apparatuses to a man who was complicit in illegal torture?

There is strong circumstantial evidence that the answer is yes. At minimum, Brennan favored rendition and what he called "enhanced interrogation tactics" other than waterboarding. As Andrew Sullivan put it in 2008, when Obama first considered Brennan as CIA chief, "if Obama picks him, it will be a vindication of the kind of ambivalence and institutional moral cowardice that made America a torturing nation. It would be an unforgivable betrayal of his supporters and his ideals."

These days, Sullivan is uninclined to oppose Brennan because "people change," though Sullivan neither possesses nor presents any evidence that Brennan has changed*. Sullivan adds that the Brennan confirmation hearings could be useful. "We have an unusual opportunity to grill a nominee over the vital issues of torture and accountability, drones and secrecy," he argues. "We need more sunlight -- including public access to the Senate Intelligence Committee's definitive report on the torture program under Bush-Cheney. But the Brennan hearings are a start."

So will Sullivan pledge to oppose Brennan's nomination until we fill the significant gaps in information about his role in torture and his prosecution of Obama's secretive, unaccountable drone war? Or will Sullivan support Obama's choice, even if the confirmation hearings don't result in what he agrees is important information being made public? I suspect he'll back Obama's choice regardless, as he's already begun to do. The fact that so many Obama supporters will behave that way is part of the reason transparency advocates are unlikely to get answers.

Whereas the American people might get the information that Sullivan himself says is vital if more Obama supporters showed some spine and took the position staked out by the folks at the ACLU:

The Senate should not move forward with his nomination until all senators can assess the role of the CIA -- and any role by Brennan himself -- in torture, abuse, secret prisons, and extraordinary rendition during his past tenure at the CIA, as well as can review the legal authorities for the targeted killing program that he has overseen in his current position. This nomination is too important to proceed without the Senate first knowing what happened during Brennan's tenures at the CIA and the White House, and whether all of his conduct was within the law.
The Senate should not move forward with the nomination of John Brennan until it is clear that he is committed to making sure that the CIA will end its targeted killing program, and agree to work with the Senate Intelligence Committee on the declassification review and disclosure of the committee's report on the CIA's past role in torture and abuse.

See the difference?

Sullivan thinks it would be just peachy if Brennan's nomination led to more transparency, but it isn't important enough to him to make it a litmus test. Whereas the ACLU thinks it's a dealbreaker -- as they see it, no individual should be put in charge of the CIA until the public has a clear understanding of the extent to which they participated in illegal and immoral torture.

Thanks to Obama, that's now regarded as an extremist civil-libertarian position.

Meep meep.

Glenn Greenwald explains how the president's actions have shaped partisan behavior and public opinion:

By blocking any form of criminal and civil accountability for these acts, President Obama has transformed what were once universally unspeakable and taboo beliefs into little more than respectable, garden-variety political disagreements. The president's nomination on Monday of John O. Brennan, a Bush-era C.I.A. official, to head the C.I.A. illustrates how complete this disturbing process now is. In late 2008, when Brennan was rumored to be Obama's leading choice as C.I.A. director, a major controversy erupted because of Brennan's overt support for Bush's programs of rendition and torture... Yet just a little over four years later, Obama obviously believes that Brennan's involvement in and/or support for these programs is no bar to his confirmation as C.I.A. director.

That's because, following Obama's lead, the country has decided to ignore the fact that it committed grievous crimes as part of the "War on Terror." Obama's Orwellian decree that we must "look forward, not backward" has convinced huge numbers of citizens to sweep this all under the rug and pretend it never happened. That is what explains how Brennan went from radioactive and unconfirmable in 2008 to uncontroversial in 2013.

If only torture were the only reason to be wary of Brennan. At The New Yorker, Amy Davidson focuses on Brennan's role in Obama's secretive program of extrajudicial assassinations and explains that the way the president praises his top counterterrorism adviser is deeply misleading:

To judge only from Obama's introduction, one would think that Brennan had been the bulwark against extrajudicial actions rather than at the center of them. "There's another reason I value John so much," Obama said. "And that is his integrity and his commitment to the values that define us as Americans. He has worked to embed our efforts in a strong legal framework. He understands we are a nation of laws. In moments of debate and decision, he asks the tough question and he insists on high and rigorous standards."

What Obama meant by this, it seems, from reporting in the Times and Washington Post, is that Brennan is deeply engrossed in designing an internal process for deciding who to kill. He wants to make sure that people in the White House think hard about it--which may feel like due process, but isn't. He also wants to make it so that anyone can do it--any President, any counterterrorism adviser--not just ones who are as thoughtful and clever as he and Obama. In an interview with the Post, Brennan described this "disposition matrix" as a "playbook." But codifying and keeping in tune with our laws and values are not the same thing, as much as one is mistaken for the other. One can go down a long checklist and still be breaking the law, just as one can order up a memo from the office of legal counsel and still be a torturer.

It's worth remembering that the Bush torture program was gradually codified for internal purposes, with a process describing how many times a prisoner's head could be rammed into a wall and the proper procedure for forcing water into their lungs until they were terrified of drowning. Personally, I'd rather have John Brennan codify that sort of thing than John Yoo, but even better would be national-security officials who appreciate the need for checks and balances outside the executive branch and their duty to conform all of their actions to existing law.

Obama and Brennan may both be more thoughtful men than most, as their supporters argue. The problem with both is their excessive trust in their own judgment. A prudent person does not trust himself with the unchecked power to kill in secret, nor does he trust the executive branch with so extreme an unchecked power in a system constructed around checks and balances.

In the end, it's Greenwald of all people who makes the strongest case for Brennan. "The very idea that someone should be disqualified from service in the Obama administration because of involvement in and support for extremist Bush terrorism polices seems quaint and obsolete, given the great continuity between Bush and Obama on these issues," he writes. "Whereas in 2008 it seemed uncertain in which direction Obama would go, making it important who wielded influence, that issue is now settled: Brennan is merely a symptom of Obama's own extremism, not a cause. This continuity will continue with or without Brennan because they are, rather obviously, Obama's preferred policies." It's quite a legacy Obama is building for himself. His latest dubious achievement: advocating interrogation techniques that Obama himself regards as torture is not something that disqualifies you from being put in charge of the CIA.

*I shouldn't have written that. In fact, Sullivan bases his assessment that Brennan has changed on Dan Klaidman's reporting. I apologize for the mischaracterization, though I continue to believe that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that Brennan has in fact changed.