Coming to you directly from the Hart Senate Office Building chamber where the Select Committee on Intelligence is conducting a hearing with John Brennan considering his nomination for the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency:
Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) began his first round of questioning with a simple statement: “I believe the issues before us really have nothing do with political party and have everything to do with the checks and balances that make our system so special,” namely the lack of legislative oversight regarding the executive branch’s lethal drone strike program, which is directed by the CIA. “Every American has the right to know when their government believes it has the right to kill them.”
Although he said “it was encouraging last night when” the president ordered that the Office of Legal Counsel release the classified memo outlining the legal justification for the lethal drone strike program, including strikes in sovereign non-belligerent nations and the killing of American citizens, he added that since last night he has “become concerned” that the materials in question were not actually provided, and directly questioned whether the Justice Department has faithfully carried out the expressed wishes of the president in this matter. This would have immense implications for the oversight function Senator Wyden expressed concern about, as well as the question of whether the judicial branch is fulfilling its appropriate role.
Senator Wyden also noted a lack of staff, lawyers, etc. with the appropriate knowledge to navigate the documents that have been disclosed, and asserted continued stonewalling by the executive on many other points, including matters of “secret law.” When Brennan was asked to convey the Senator’s message of concern about the Justice Department to the president, he agreed.
The longtime CIA man had his own revelations to share, however, at least based on the reaction in the room. When asked ‘what should be done next to ensure a public conversation about drones so the American people are brought in to understand what is happening’ and how the drone program is executed, Brennan began by saying that many people expressing concern over the program fundamentally misunderstand it. ‘There is a mistaken impression that we use drone strikes to punish terrorists for their past transgressions.’ But in his own words, “We only take this action as a last resort to save lives when there is no alternative to [address a] threat.” He added that he and his colleagues “agonize” over the appropriateness of each drone strike, including considerations of potential collateral damage.
After garnering an opaque verbal commitment to simultaneous ‘optimization’ of concerns for ethicality and legality on the one hand and operational effectiveness and national security on the other, Senator Wyden changed focus: “If the executive brand makes a mistake and kills the wrong person or the wrong group of people … do you believe the administration should acknowledge it?”
Brennan answered in the affirmative without hesitation, drawing wide-eyed gasps from the press gallery. Referring to strikes which kill innocent people, Brennan said, “I believe we need to acknowledge it. I believe that we need to acknowledge it to our foreign partners. I believe that we need to acknowledge it publicly … in the interest of transparency.” Since the Obama Administration only acknowledged the program’s mere existence in the last year or so and has been extremely tight-lipped it beyond general statements that, for example, civilian casualties have been low (Senator Feinstein cited numbers supplied by the Executive and, she said, verified by Congress placing the annual toll “in the single digits”), comprehensive public disclosures of civilian casualties would mark a dramatic change in policy. And yet it was Brennan himself who earnestly stated to Chairwoman Feinstein, “Honesty is the best policy.”