Questions for John Brennan

As John Brennan’s confirmation hearing to be the next director of the CIA approaches on Thursday, it is an ideal time to examine his record. While he is the man perhaps best positioned to reform the agency and to handle the complex challenges facing the country, there are some questions he should answer during his hearing.

The most important of these questions is related to the authority the White House uses to classify individuals for summary execution using drones or other forms of targeted strikes. In public speeches, Obama administration officials, including Brennan, have been vague about the authorities they use to justify such actions- including when targeting American citizens.

NBC News got hold of a white paper (pdf) written by the Justice Department relating to these rules.  The memo explains that an “informed, high-level” official can make the determination of whether a person poses a threat so grave he or she warrants violent action. However, the terms of that determination are not defined, leaving broad leeway to describe even minor or potential threats as requiring immediate strike.

So Brennan’s hearing offers a key opportunity to ask him to clarify his understanding of the laws surrounding targeted killings, and to ask him how he’d carry out those laws if and when he runs the CIA.

The DOJ memo raises a key point about how the government decides to kill a person, rather than attempting to arrest or capture them. “Capture,” the memo states, “would not be feasible… if the relevant country were to decline to consent to a capture operation (page 8).“ The challenges around capturing terrorists are legion – both domestic, political pressure and the nuances of the U.S.-host country relationship create powerful incentives to favor killing, rather than capturing, terrorists. The Senate should ask Brennan how he would push for improved space to capture, rather than kill, terrorists abroad.

This week, the Open Society Justice Initiative released a new report compiling a detailed picture of how the CIA handled capturing terrorist suspects for several years after the September 11 attacks. It is a sobering report; 54 countries, around one fourth of all the countries in the world, participated in the extraordinary rendition program in some way.  Prisoners were sent, knowingly, to countries such as Libya and Syria to be tortured.

While the rendition program itself poses serious questions about how the government has conducted itself, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence wrote a nearly 6,000 page classified report documenting the many abuses that took place, the scope of the program poses far more questions. The sheer number of countries participating in a program that violated domestic laws is both bizarre and fascinating on its own- that the CIA was pushing for it, makes it even stranger.

Considering his long service at the Agency, Brennan should face questions about the scope and purpose of the extraordinary rendition program. He should be asked how it got so big, so out of bounds, and so abusive so quickly.

The revelations this week suggest an intelligence community that has become badly unbalanced, in favor of action above all else. The CIA, in particular, has a fraught record when trying to understand the regions and countries it tries to influence. Recently declassified memoranda from 1973 indicates that Agency analysts were predicting, right up until the moment it began, that the Yom Kippur War would not happen. They were stunningly wrong.

More recently, Agency analysts refused to contemplate that the USSR would collapse by 1991. Famously, Robert Gates even said in the mid-1980s that the Soviet Union would not break up in his or even his children’s lifetimes – he was stunningly wrong too.

Being wrong about big, game-changing events is no crime. They are notoriously hard to predict with any precision. But to be so sweeping about events so imminent – Egypt and Israel on the brink of war, the USSR rotting from within – should have sparked a reassessment of how the Agency consumes, analyzes, and distributes information. Unfortunately, it hasn’t.

The way the CIA veered sharply since 9/11 to favor operations, most recently kinetic operations, has left them unprepared to understand and therefore counter the growing, complex challenges in the world. The Senate should ask John O. Brennan to clarify just how he will pull the Agency back from the brink, and put it back to its original, balanced mission of both acting against but also understanding the world.

Joshua Foust is an analyst who writes about international security and intelligence issues. He is a contributor to The Atlantic, and has written for the New York Times, Salon, Reuters, the Christian Science Monitor, World Politics Review and the Columbia Journalism Review. He is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group, and used to work as a civilian cultural advisor for the US Army. His website is This article originally appeared in PBS Need to Know.

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