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Future of the CIA drone war may rest on Brennan

In accepting his nomination to head up the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan pledged, if approved, to “ensure that the C.I.A.
A U.S. Predator drone flies over the moon above Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan. (Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
A U.S. Predator drone flies over the moon above Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan.

In accepting his nomination to head up the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan pledged, if approved, to “ensure that the C.I.A. has the tools it needs to keep our nation safe.”

It’s a job Brennan has been doing for years—as the president’s counter-terrorism adviser, he designed, expanded, and secured drones as one of the C.I.A.’s chief tools. At the helm of the agency it will be Brennan who either secures drones as a part of the C.I.A. policy or eradicates them, entrenching or limiting the C.I.A.’s increasingly paramilitary operations, according to experts.

The C.I.A’s program is the most criticized and shrouded part of the U.S.'s counter-terrorism strategy. Unlike the military’s drones, C.I.A. drones operate far from battlefields and in countries where we aren’t at war. Reports show morphing criteria as to who and what merits a drone attack. Critics slam the program for killing civilians, setting shaky legal precedent, and creating anti-American sentiment all over the world. Brennan, the program’s architect and chief spokesman, has denied these things.

“So let me say it as simply as I can,” Brennan said in May in some of the first official remarks on drones, making the case for the legality and success of drone strikes. “Yes, in full accordance with the law—and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives—the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaeda terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.”

Brennan “helped to oversee the vast expansion of a secretive and illegal targeted killing program in which thousands of people have died with little transparency, including many hundreds of innocent bystanders,” the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Director Hina Shamsi said to

The drone program is a key part of an institutional shift, she explained: “the CIA has been morphing into a paramilitary killing operation instead of focusing on its core role of foreign intelligence.”

The program has even been criticized by retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who saw some of the first drones pioneered under the military’s program, in Afghanistan.

"What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world," he said in an interview with Reuters. "The resentment created by American use of unmanned much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who've never seen one or seen the effects of one." McChrystal said drones exacerbate a "perception of American arrogance that says, 'Well we can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.'"

Under the advisement of Brennan—whose critics have dubbed him the "assassination czar"— the CIA was authorized to operate its own armed aircraft off a new base in the Middle East.

However, Brennan also reportedly worked to limit the kill lists of targets the C.I.A. is authorized to strike against, and the number of drone attacks. A Washington Post series in December quoted many of Brennan's associates, who anonymously indicated that Brennan worked to be a check and balance to the program, so much so that the C.I.A. considers Brennan “a rein, a constrainer. He is using his intimate knowledge of intelligence and the process to pick apart their arguments that might be expansionary,” a senior official outside the White House told the Post.

“Brennan was instrumental in expanding the drones program, but he’s also been instrumental in scaling it back,” Joshua Foust, a former defense and intelligence consultant who has worked with the US Army and fellow at the American Security Project, told “Putting him in charge of the CIA, right after he’s been quoted saying the CIA needs to abandon its paramilitary efforts and go back to its roots is notable.”

“There’s always a big question of what someone’s going to do when they’re in charge,” Foust said. “The effort Brennan and his people have gone to to paint him as trying to scale back the drones program indicates that he might defy his critics.”

Brennan’s nomination is largely expected to receive an easy approval in the Senate, unlike former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be Secretary of Defense, which has already been criticized by Republicans.

Shamsi says she hopes the Senate will use the approval process—and Brennan’s appointment—to curb the C.I.A.’s paramilitary operations. “There are indications in media accounts that John Brennan thinks the CIA’s role in targeted killings should be limited or eliminated and the Senate should get a commitment from him on that.”

Many of the drone program’s critics say that it has exacerbated the instability of regions and hurt America’s fight against terrorists.

Greg Johnsen, author of the “The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia," and an expert on Yemen, sees a direct correlation from the drone program to the rise of Al Qaeda in the region.

“When the U.S. started bombing Yemen, there were about 200-300 [members of Al-Qaeda in Yemen]. The group has since tripled in size, the State Department even says there’s a few thousand,” he explained. “That’s an incredibly rapid growth in a short amount of time. To me, it suggests that the approach the Obama administration is using, the approach John Brennan authored, is not working, it’s making the problem worse.”

Johnsen authored an op-ed in November in The New York Times entitled, “The Wrong Man for the CIA,” where he argues that putting Brennan at the helm of the organization will continue the militarization of the organization through the drone program. “It’s not actually solving the problem, it’s making it worse. A contention of that will have quite dire repercussions for American national security,” he said. “There’s nothing I’ve seen in the past four years that leads to me to suggest that Brennan will do anything differently in the C.I.A.,” Johnsen added.

Johnsen’s work is concentrated on Yemen, where the Obama administration has launched many attacks. Brennan praised the program’s success in the region in an October interview with the Post: “there are aspects of the Yemen program that I think are a true model of what I think the U.S. counter-terrorism community should be doing” as it tracks the spread of al-Qaeda allies across Northern Africa.

Few deny the program has had some success in eliminating al-Qaeda targets. “Wherever we’ve seen drones employed, they’ve been very successful at identifying and killing a small number of people, but they’re also successful at creating vehement anti-Americanism,” Foust said. “I have never gotten the impression from people running these programs that they’re aware of and trying to mitigate these downsides.”

Indeed, last June, Brennan remarked that for almost a year “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”

All sources interviewed for this story disputed that claim. Shamsi noted that under the CIA’s standards, young men of military age in certain regions can be designated as militants. (“Just because someone is male, wears a beard and carries a gun does not mean in Yemen they’re part of al-Qaeda,” Johnsen added.)

American officials, speaking anonymously but more candidly, estimate that  drones have killed 2,000 militants and about 50 noncombatants since 2001, calling it “a stunningly low collateral death rate by the standards of traditional airstrikes.”

A recent investigative report from the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism, concluded the civilian costs to be higher, finding at least 392 deaths (including 175 children) since 2004, more than a thousand civilian injuries over that period of time, and that at least 45 Pakistani civilians were killed in 10 strikes spanning a year. The report also found that most combatants killed were low-ranking militants, also likely leading to resentment among non-combatant populations. In a November strike that killed a Yemeni militant, family and friends reported the target was a low-level ally of Al-Qaeda and questioned why he wasn’t taken alive. 

In the Senate hearing, Shamsi said there is opportunity to rein in the drone program in a away Congress has never had. "The Senate needs to look at [drones] before moving forward with this nomination," she said.

So far, the only indication of a potential hitch in Brennan's nomination has been unrelated to drones or any part of Brennan's record on counter-terrorism. On Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., suggested holding up the CIA nomination as leverage in his questions for more information on the attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

The White House declined to comment further on Brennan and the drones program other than to reference one of the aforementioned speeches by Brennan on drones.