He doesn’t have the profile of John Kerry, President Obama’s new secretary of state, nor the affability of the outgoing defence secretary, Leon Panetta, who was played by James Gandolfini in the film Zero Dark Thirty. But James O. Brennan, nominated by Obama to head the Central Intelligence Agency, has already been playing one of the most controversial, behind-the-scenes roles in the administration.
As Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, Brennan, 57, oversees the targeted killing of terrorism suspects and the escalating use of armed, unmanned drones, which by some estimates have killed thousands of people, primarily in Pakistan.
Brennan leads the process by which national security officials decide who gets marked for assassination, how the evidence against them is weighed, and how legal principles are applied. He’s the one who takes the recommendations to the President. And he has been reportedly writing an internal counterterrorism playbook—guidelines for lethal strikes, whose use he has described as “ethical and just.”
Those strikes have included the killing of a U.S. citizen, Anwar Al-Alwaki, a radical Muslim cleric killed in Yemen in 2011. (His 16-year-old son was also killed in a later drone strike, although he was said not to have been the specific target.) The killing of a U.S. citizen without trial, despite constitutional guarantees of “due process of law,” in a location removed from the “hot” battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, has spawned controversy and litigation, and will likely come up at Brennan’s Senate confirmation hearings.
But controversy is not new to Brennan, who was first nominated by Obama to head the CIA in 2009. Back then, Brennan removed himself from consideration because of an outcry by liberals over his role in the top ranks of the CIA while the Bush administration embarked on its policies of “enhanced interrogation” and “extraordinary rendition” of terrorism detainees to countries with poor human rights records. (Brennan has publicly defended some of those techniques as having “saved lives,” although he has criticized the suffocation tactic known as waterboarding.) After he withdrew, Obama instead named him to his current White House job.
Now, four years later, Brennan will have his hearing. Some Republicans have signalled that they may use his confirmation to renew criticism of the Obama administration for allegedly leaking classified information to make the President look tough ahead of his re-election. From the left, the American Civil Liberties Union wants the Senate to avoid confirming him “until it assesses the legality of his actions in past leadership positions” and in his “current role in the ongoing targeted killing program.”
Meanwhile, a group of high-profile former Obama administration lawyers has publicly championed Brennan as an internal guardian of the rule of law, and as a “steadfast champion of the President’s commitment to closing the detention facility at Guantánamo.” It’ll be a hearing worth watching.