Drone Doublespeak: John Brennan Offers Few Details on 'Targeted Killings'

National Journal

If you're wondering why and how President Obama is waging drone warfare against suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens, CIA director nominee John Brennan cleared things up at his confirmation hearing Thursday. The White House will "optimize transparency," he said, and "optimize secrecy."

Still confused? Other than doublespeak and vague assurances to share more information with the Senate Intelligence Committee, Brennan shed little light on Obama's drone policies.

"People are reacting to a lot of falsehoods out there," the CIA veteran complained, though he offered few actual facts.

Democrats and Republicans on the committee accused the administration of stonewalling over its justification for "targeted killings" of terrorist suspects, including Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen and radical imam who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011.

A Justice Department "white paper" outlining the legal basis, leaked to NBC in advance of the hearing, suggests that U.S. citizens suspected of working with al-Qaida can be targeted with little or no due process, transparency, or oversight by Congress or the courts.

Under questioning, Brennan said he opposed President George W. Bush's torture policies while serving in that administration. Torturing suspected terrorists is "reprehensible," Brennan said. But apparently it's OK to kill them — even if, as the Justice Department memo allows, there is no evidence of an imminent attack against the United States.

"I have never believed it is better to kill a terrorist rather than detain him," Brennan told the panel. In fairness, Brennan is limited by what he can say in a public setting; secrecy is a vital part of national security.  He is paying a price for Obama's lack of transparency and borderline hypocrisy on drone warfare.

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon led the charge against the policy, calling it troubling to give "any president unfettered power to kill an American without checks and balances."

He accused the Justice Department of reneging on Obama's promise to share relevant memos with the panel, a pledge made under pressure the night before the hearing.

Wyden asked whether U.S. citizens suspected of consorting with al-Qaida could be killed within the nation's boundaries. There was no immediate reply — perhaps because, as promised, secrecy has been optimized.