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.
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.
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.